My 1965 Watts Riot, by Cuauhtémoc Marín (nom de plume)

30 May

Cuauhtémoc Marín majored in British and American Literature, receiving his bachelor’s degree in English from California State University, Northridge, and was accepted into the Northridge English Master’s Program, where he continued his literary studies with an emphasis in linguistics, creative writing, and poetry. Marín continues to write and publish and has lived in North Los Angeles continually since his move from South Central L.A.

On August 11, 1965, I drove my regular route home, coming from my garment district, sweatshop job at 11th and San Pedro on the edge of downtown L.A.

As I steered my way south down San Pedro Street toward 54th, I could see bus after bus of LAPD officers when I looked west at the end of each block. Our routes were paralleling each other, but I could only see their southward-moving vehicles at the end of each block. It was an ominous peek-a-boo vision of the disaster to come. The LAPD were coming from police headquarters at Parker Center and traveling down Los Angeles Street. I got to the next corner and the dark blue buses had changed to black and whites. Car after black and white police car all caravaned from north to south like me. At the next corner, I looked west again and a parade of LAPD motorcycle officers was also streaming south. My car radio was broken so I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it was something big and ugly.

103rd Street. 1965. Watts Riot.

I got to 54th street, hung a right and headed west for home. The stream of various police vehicles continued in a north to south direction, and sometimes I had to stop and wait for them to pass. When I got to 54th and Hoover, I hit a red light. I was in what we called the Ghetto, a large area of Los Angeles that filled out the L.A. Basin and was populated by mostly working-class Blacks, poor Blacks, and a small population of middle-class Blacks with a spattering of various other ethnic groups. I lived there with my wife and three-month-old baby.

I noticed a white driver alone in the car ahead of me. Whites working in downtown L.A. couldn’t get home without traveling through a minority neighborhood. If they traveled west it was a Black neighborhood–east, Mexican.

The white driver couldn’t go anywhere because he was pinned between the car in front of him and my car in the rear. We were waiting for the red light to turn green at a location that was 99% black. I knew the area quite well, had friends in that area, and as far as I knew, no whites lived there.

Suddenly a group of young black men came running from out of nowhere like a pack on a hunt. They ran straight for the white guy’s car and pulled him out, dragging him to the ground, kicking and beating him. I didn’t know what was going on, but I thought whatever it was, it was big and violent and it was spreading. I swung my car out and crossed into oncoming traffic, hit the gas as I passed the young men beating this poor guy, then swerved back to my side of the street as I pushed the door-lock button.

I continued up 54th till I got to Crenshaw Boulevard, made a left, then headed south again until I got to my apartment near 11th Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. Once inside, I turned on the TV and there was no need searching for the news; every channel was covering the riots in Watts about five miles southeast of me.

The riots seemed a safe distance away; police were headed there en masse. I didn’t feel threatened; it was too far away to worry. The police would snuff this out—-so many were arriving at the small, declared riot zone of Watts. You could see it on TV, see the cops arriving, swarms of people in the streets, buildings burning.

My wife and I decided to hang out with some friends that evening, and we got in our car with our three-month-old daughter and headed over to Venice Boulevard near Western. That put us about eight to ten miles away from Watts. We felt safer there.

We met up with our friends in an apartment above a storefront on Venice Boulevard. There were five couples. We all had babies less than six months old. I was 19, my wife 17. No one was older than that. Everyone was Black except two of us. We were all children of the Ghetto. That was our commonality, our bond, that and being poor with low paying shit-jobs and being teen parents. We had all spent our lives in the ghetto, held in by an invisible wall of racism that kept us in our place. The Ghetto enculturated us, and although one of the young men that night was Japanese and I Mexican, we were all black culturally, forged by the Ghetto that bound us and united by that unbreakable chain of childhood friendship that exists beyond color and language.

The Ghetto was not a quaint concept or expression. Minorities could only live in certain parts of the L.A. Basin. My wife and I tried to rent outside of the Ghetto many times and were always told, “We don’t rent to colored people,” or sometimes they might say Negro. Sometimes they said worse. I had discovered the curious white phenomenon: that I was Mexican when alone and Black when I was with my wife.

Our ghetto was surrounded by white sundowner cities, Inglewood, Glendale, Burbank, Huntington Park and all the others. We understood what sundowner city meant: make sure your black ass is not in our city after nightfall. That included my ass, too. The ghetto itself was like a huge police state where white police harassed us at will, beat us, kicked down our doors. Fuck warrants, although they used them when they had them-—the police in the Ghetto acted pretty much above the law. As a young man, I was stopped and searched about three times a week for driving while not white. The Ghetto was a police state, brutal, but it was all we knew and somehow we had learned to navigate that jungle as best we could and also love it for its richness of community, family, and friendships.

That night the sun had gone down, and we sat around the apartment on the floor, the young women holding their babies, some breastfeeding, some bottle-feeding. My wife was holding our daughter. We were watching the riots live on TV. Normally at this hour we would watch the Vietnam War. The networks televised it live nightly. It was the first live-televised U.S. war. We watched U.S. soldiers shoot and be shot on TV every night—live. We’d watch the dead and wounded being carried away. What we saw and what the government told us were in conflict. We saw the truth of this war through television, and that prompted the great anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s. The television didn’t lie; the government, it was clear, did.

Armed National Guardsmen march toward smoke on the horizon during the street fires of the Watts riots, Los Angeles, California, August 1965. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Tonight, however, the riots were being broadcast live, not the Vietnam War. We were all glued to the TV. It was hard to believe the riots had spread so far and so fast. It was no longer just in Watts; the whole L.A. Basin was in riot. People were burning buildings. Police were shooting bullets and tear gas at the crowds. In some places, as the TV news cameras captured the riot from above by helicopter, we had aerial views of police and rioters in hand-to-hand combat. By now it wasn’t just LAPD; the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the surrounding incorporated cities had all sent their police battalions to join the LAPD in fighting the rioters. It was complete chaos. Rioters were throwing Molotov cocktails; some carried rifles and handguns. Entire streets were burning.

Then it started. The looting. The helicopter cameras showed people breaking store windows, carrying furniture and TV sets down the street, as rioters fought police on adjacent streets. We could see this as the helicopters panned from above and smoke plumed over the city. We watched as the helicopter cameras caught two men carrying a new couch out of a furniture store around the corner and into what must have been their house, then run around the corner back to the store for more. They were looting stores we all knew, but the largest store that went down to looters and arsonists was ironically named White Front. It may be hard to imagine this today, but whites owned almost all of the major businesses in the Ghetto, and White Front was no exception. For the Ghetto, it was the Home Depot of its time and everyone—-everyone in the ghetto shopped there at some time in their lives. I had and so had everyone in that apartment on Venice Boulevard that night.

We were watching the looters go through the windows of White Front and come out with guns, tools, clothes; then the fire started and White Front was burning.

Eddie, the Japanese boy sitting next to me, said, “Man, I gotta get me some of that shit.”

Despite all of us being American citizens, in those days, minorities were not referred to as Americans, and we understood the purpose of that exclusion. So this young American was considered Japanese and I Mexican, and the others colored, Negro, or black—never American. It didn’t matter how many centuries we had been in this nation.

One of the other young men hollered at Eddie. Man, they shoot people. It’s dangerous. What are you thinking, my brother?”

The riot had spread so fast. By now we were getting TV feed of the street below the apartment we were in. We were watching the people on the sidewalk in front of the apartment on TV. They broke the storefront glass. Looking out the window from our elevated second-floor apartment, we could see people running across the sidewalks and streets, and we could see the orange glow of fires burning against the night sky in every direction.

The young Japanese father, Eddie, stood up and said, “I’m gonna get me some of this free stuff before it’s too late, man.”

His wife—-all of us—-we said don’t go, but he was up on his feet, headed toward the door despite his wife, holding their baby girl, pleading for him to stay. The door closed behind him and then he was gone.

The rest of us stayed and watched the riots, waiting for them to stop, but they never did. About 4:00 a.m. the riots seemed to take a lull, and my wife and I went to our car and drove cautiously home through the mostly deserted smoke-scented streets. Eddie hadn’t returned yet, but the police were making massive arrests of just about everyone on the streets, so we knew he must have gotten arrested.

The next morning my wife got the call. Eddie never came home. They found his body not too far from his apartment. A security officer shot him dead as he tried to loot a local store. They shoot looters—-and sometimes they kill them.

The riot had continued nonstop for three days when the National Guard arrived on a late Friday evening. The National Guard had responded by order of the governor and martial law was declared. They set up checkpoints and barricades and kept anyone from leaving the Ghetto for the next ten days or so. No one could be on the streets before 5:00 a.m. or after 8:00 p.m. or they would be arrested or shot. However, even during those allotted hours, you had to have a reason to be out.

The National Guard came in tanks, armored vehicles, military trucks carrying combat troops, and jeeps with machine guns. They set up armed barricades in the streets at the Ghetto boundaries. Young National Guardsmen with automatic weapons patrolled the Ghetto in military vehicles. Machine guns on tripods ornamented the checkpoints at the established boundaries to keep us in what the media and police referred to as the “riot zone.” The whole Ghetto came to a standstill; the whole Ghetto was the riot zone. The National Guard eventually had 22,000 ground troops in and around the 50-square-mile Ghetto. With the addition of the various police departments, the total of troops amounted to about 30,000. People said soldiers standing ten feet apart surrounded the Ghetto along the perimeter.

I had passed through a National Guard checkpoint after they arrived and knew that a post had been set up near the Thrifty’s Store on Crenshaw and 54th Street, not too far away from my apartment. Because of that post, Thrifty’s was now open for business. The food supply at my house had dwindled to almost nothing. Grocery stores had been some of the first stores to be looted, and Thrifty’s was my only chance to get my infant daughter her prescribed Mull Soy baby formula. I decided I would try to drive there. I walked outside to my car, trying to ignore or pretend not to notice the few Black residents walking around with guns in their hands. Once in my car, I drove through the mostly deserted neighborhood and parked across the street from Thrifty’s. As I got to the corner, I stood and stared across that very wide street called 54th. Directly in front of the store, I saw a blond, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked boy sitting on his butt in a green National Guard uniform behind a machine gun mounted on a tripod. From across that great divide of space, I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine. His finger was on the trigger. Time stopped for a moment while I made my mental calculations. Although different circumstances governed my reason for being outside during the riot, I remembered Eddie, who only four days ago had been alive. With thoughts of Eddie in my head and my opened hands at my side, I turned calmly and deliberately till my back faced this young National Guardsman, then slowly walked away praying silently to myself.

When the Watts Riots were over, Eddie and 33 other people were dead, and one baby girl, half-Japanese and half-black, didn’t have a father.

          Cuauhtémoc Marín continued to live in the Ghetto for seven more years after the riot. The rise of Black gangs in the early 1970s and the increasing violence and crime forced Marín and his wife out of the ghetto after their lives were threatened.They moved to East Hollywood. Marín came to view education as a way of improving his life and subsequently enrolled in college. During his college years, he continued to work full time to support his family.
          The major literary influences of his writing have been William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kurt Vonnegut,Jack Kerouac, Patricia Highsmith, Walker Percy, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Thomas Pynchon.
Marín remains indebted to his poetry professor Dr. Benjamin Saltman for his three years of patience and guidance in teaching Marín the craft of poetry while in graduate school.
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