Pieces of Watts: The 50th anniversary
August 11 was the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots, and my Facebook was silent. Same for the death of Julian Bond the other day, who was a civil rights activist alongside Dr. King, a calm and quiet man who fought against inequality until his very last breath.
I didn’t see articles or anything about these things. Just the silence that creeps under my skin and makes me wonder about my world, and why we can’t get recognize our evils and try to find the goodness to repair the problems. And my mind goes back to my afternoon in Watts. Back to the towers.
Simon Rodia, a construction worker and tile mason, spent over 33 years building the Watts towers with steel rebar, concrete and wire mesh. He embedded it with pieces of porcelain, tile and glass, making a mosaic of spectacular artistry with everyday pieces such as Canada Dry bottles.
He left his masterpiece behind in 1955, ten years before his towers became the epicenter of a battleground. The home of the infamous Watts Riots of August 11, 1965, that forever marked this neighborhood in the Los Angeles lexicon as dangerous.
In late August 1965, a 23-year-old college student with black hair got into a Volkswagen bus with a bunch of his fellow theater buddies. His friend Peggy was in the back in a green suit to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of which they were going to perform a selection of scenes from the play. The rest of the actors, including James Whitmore, had already donned their Shakespearean costumes in the back. There were jugglers and entertainers, various innocents of 1960s mischief and merriment, who were driving straight into a war zone.
The student didn’t tell his parents where they were going. After all, there were still policemen on the street corners in riot gear and broken glass from looted storefronts. All they knew was that they were heading to a recreation center in Watts, where children were being kept safe from the horrors outside.
Now that student is 73-year-old man with graying hair and two daughters. I am one of them.
“We sat around for weeks, wanting to do something,” my father said to me when I asked him about that time his life. “This is all we could think of. A distraction, something worthwhile. Art.”
It was the story I thought of as I got out of my friend Audra’s car on a muggy Sunday in Los Angeles, as I saw them up close for the first time. The Watts Towers, reaching as high as 99 feet in the air. Images that I had seen in quiet, wood floored galleries and art books were now alive, right in front of me.
As an Angelino, Watts is mentioned in hushed whispers of fear. You don’t go there at night, you don’t walk around alone, you don’t, you don’t, you don’t. Gangs are often referred to as vengeful spirits and ghosts, anger brushed over with horror reserved for a slasher film. Yet every time I would see the towers when I took the Blue Line metro rail down to Long Beach, my curiosity had always been piqued. I wanted to see the towers up close, just once. I wanted to know the art that can last through the fires with my own eyes.
We had missed the tours of the towers for the day we arrived, but my breath was stolen from my body even from afar. There was magic and an unearthly set of wonder in the presence of these structures, with its brightly colored mosaics and cement drawings. The muggy air seemed to be sprinkled with bits of heaven. That’s one of the many feelings that only good art can create.
We were in an oasis in the middle of one of the harshest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Steel bars lay in front of every tiny little house nearby, the storefronts bright colors of orange and teal against the gritty gray sidewalks. People didn’t walk around that much on the streets. It was an unearthly quiet. The riots were more than 50 years ago, and the war that was waged on these streets still seem to haunt the people who live there.
As Audra and I wandered the grounds, we were greeted by friendly staff members who showed us around with bright smiles despite the harrowing neighborhood. They were consumed by love of this place, and it was intoxicatingly contagious. It swept over me like an ocean, consuming every part of my being that not only loved art, but loved Los Angeles.
One of the ladies led me into a small gallery with breathtaking art. Cartoons, surrealist paintings, sculptures and photographic collages of African-American art greeted my eyes. They were stunning, better than even some of the pieces I had seen in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and probably even more haunting than anything I had ever viewed on Wilshire Boulevard.
I stood over a tabletop structure, made of blackboard, of a man struggling as if on a cross. Next to him in chalk were names. Most were young men, although some women and older men were peppered in there. Some I recognized, such as Oscar Grant, 2009. But many I had never known. Wish I knew. They were all victims of police brutality. As a Jew, it made me think of the names of Holocaust victims, of the families that have to carry on without them and hope to preserve their legacy. To not fall into the abyss of forgetfulness.
It made my mind drift back to a friend of my dad’s, Richard, from college. He was 6’4 with a shaved bald head and the most beautiful cocoa brown skin I had ever seen. My dad had been very active with him in black theater in the 1960s, which was odd for a very pale Jewish boy. So I asked Richard how it came to pass.
“I remember some of my Black Panther buddies asked him that too,” he laughed. “Got rather pissed at him, confrontational. But then your father stood there and explained the history of the Jewish people, about the Holocaust and pogroms. Made us understand that our struggle is the same against hatred. And every person in that room immediately respected him.”
Can it be too much to ask for someone like me to take up the fight against racism and hatred, even in the tiniest ways? To remember what had happened and try to figure out what we need to do now to solve it, whether through combating income inequality or general stereotypes? I am not a great politician and can only do so much. But I have words, fingers and a mind. Can’t I dedicate them to creating hope for my people, all the ones that make up this great human race?
Fifty years after Watts, we haven’t finished this racism struggle in America when it should have been dead and buried forever ago. We were standing in Los Angeles, a city of haves and have nots, where it is more often those of minority upbringings who suffer the plagues of poverty and other societal-soul-sucking forces. It is them who are forced into corners of the city where other Angelinos whisper they shouldn’t go there. Who are trying to find a better life when they are finding a harder struggle for the American dream, which is currently comatose.
No matter how much I love my home city, where I was born, this is the darkest truth about it: That we live in a city of both insane, bright shiny wealth of BMWs and $10,000 watches, and the people who wish they could afford simple pleasures, like a bike for their children to ride around on and the safety of a place without steel bars. There is no in between, no where else to go, and there is no excuse for it.
As I stood over that sculpture, I thought about that night my dad drove a bus down to Watts to comfort, fight and build again in the only way he knew how: Through art. As I came home, I began to research that night, trying to find information, but it was limited at best, and it upset me more. There was more focus on the events and looting, not the people who were trying to heal the world, even with menial band-aids. It focused more on what had happened and analyzing it, and less on what we are going to do to solve it.
Although I had steered away from it in the course of my career, my inner journalist was hungry again. I had to tell the world that that night existed, that in Los Angeles somewhere in 1965 a bunch of theater kids drove in a bus to try to do the slightest bit of right in a crazy, messed up world in the shadow of the Watts towers. To help infuse art, fun and life in a dangerous area, no matter how futile it was. To fulfill what Simon Rodia did, which is give a dark place a beacon of hope.
Maybe this is the start.