Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On This Day in History

About this time in 1965, I was three months out of high school and enrolled in my first karate class, working days as a swimming teacher and lifeguard at a country club pool. I was enrolled to attend LSU in the fall.

In SoCal, the Watts Riots were cranking up to full blast.

The reasons for the riots have been debated pro and con, hither and yon for a long time, but poverty and dissatisfaction with their treatment by police was at the root of black anger. The spark was that a CHP motorcycle cop pulled over a drunk driver, Marquette Fry. The man failed his field sobriety test, and the officer intended to impound his car, refusing to allow his brother, a passenger in the vehicle -- to drive it home.

A crowd gathered. More police came. Things got ugly. People were arrested. Bottles got thrown.

By the time the next six days were over, thirty-four people had been killed, more than a thousand injured, more than thirty-four hundred arrested, and goodly section of the town had been torched. A thousand buildings, more or less. Forty million in damage, and in 1965 dollars.

Burn, baby, burn. It was the end of a long, hot summer.

This was when William Parker was the Chief of LAPD, a man who said that he thought the rioters were "monkeys in the zoo," which revealed a great deal about his less-than-enlightened racial attitudes. Had it been up to him, according to the stories, he would have packed all the Negroes up and shipped them back to Africa.

Not the guy you want to be your Chief of Police if you are black. Or liberal, or a decent human being, or all three.

Three years later, I was living in L.A., working as a private eye, when I had occasion to be sent into Watts on a case. Only white face I saw for two days was my own reflected in storefront windows. A lot of the ruins hadn't been rebuilt. I remember making a phone call to my office, and seeing "Kill Whitey!" scratched into the phone booth's glass.

I was there for two days, disguised as a wino. I wore an old jacket I used to sop up the leaking oil from my motorcycle, didn't shave or comb my hair, and carried a brown paper bag with a bottle of 7Up in it, pretending to be drunk. I had a movie camera hidden under my jacket, which which I filmed a man who had been injured in an accident at work, but who was not nearly as hurt as he pretended to be. Turned over a cement truck, as I recall. And could have been playing for the Rams, going by what he did in public view. I got film of him running, weeding his garden, trying to talk to two women at the same time and swiveling his neck like he was watching a tennis match. Playing touch football. All this by a guy who showed up at the hearing in a wheelchair, wearing a neck brace, and saying he was completely disabled.

Nobody bothered me in the two days I was there. Nobody offered anything but pity when they saw me leaning against a wall. Nobody called the police to have me arrested. But I was more than a little nervous to be in that town during those times. And the angel who watches out for fools and children -- I was pretty much both -- must have been riding on my shoulder ...

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