The Education of an American Revolutionary
What follows is a chapter on the 1965 Watts uprising from the book, "Black Radical: The Education of an American Revolutionary," written by World War II veteran Nelson Peery and published by The New Press, New York, in 2007. The book begins with Nelson Peery's integration back into civilian life following the war, and describes the development of his revolutionary consciousness as he attempts to move from first-class soldier to first-class civilian. The book offers a rare perspective on the crucial historical period from 1946 through 1968, including the postwar, grassroots struggle for equality and democracy led by Black veterans, the battles of the Black Left and revolutionaries during the McCarthy inquisition and their role in the Freedom Movement, and the 1965 Watts rebellion in Los Angeles.
You can order the book from Speakers for a New America. Email email@example.com, or call 800-691-6888.
Los Angeles, 1964
Nineteen-sixty-three was a year of confusion on the political Left. Class conflict in the industrial countries gave way to national and racial struggles in the colonial and semi colonial world. The white Left, afraid of being excluded, deserted the white poor and flocked to the banners of Black liberation. The Black Left, afraid that the more broadly connected, better financed white radicals would outdo them on their own turf, became more nationalistic. The Provisional Organizing Committee (POC) was drawn into this ideological struggle and it, too, began to swing toward Black and Puerto Rican nationalism. I held fast to my belief in the fundamental decency of the majority of the American people - regardless of color- and the necessity of fighting for their unity. I began to clash with Armando. Again I was faced with the choice, fight for what you believe to be the truth, become isolated and finally expelled from the organization, or compromise that truth with the hope of winning the fight when conditions become more favorable. I knew there was no way to compromise truth without attacking it. I resigned myself to the fight.
In the fall of 1964, a small group of radicals in Los Angeles contacted and joined the POC. We were thrilled with the possibility of building a movement on the West Coast. It would mean someone would have to go there to help stabilize the organization. I volunteered, jumping at the opportunity to get out of New York. Eva, a twenty-three-year-old intelligent, dedicated Puerto Rican comrade, also volunteered and left at once for Los Angeles.
Through November and December I saved our money and prepared to make the move. I purchased a used Corvair van and on the second of January packed up my family and headed out to Los Angeles.
Lurching and swaying with the wind blasting from each passing truck, the Chevy Corvair van chugged north on the Harbor Freeway. Keeping one eye on the upcoming Century Blvd. exit and trying to avoid the maniacs darting in and out, before and behind me, cutting me off, I screwed up the courage to bully my way into the exit lane. The little six-cylinder aluminum motor putted up the ramp to the sanity of the surface streets. For the first time in eight days, I felt the tension evaporate. If I believed in God, I'd have said He was on our side. I'll never have any other explanation for how that Corvair van made it across country through the record cold and blizzards of the winter of 1964-65.
Following the easy directions to 97th and Juniper, I tried to visualize what this new chapter of my life and revolutionary work held for me. The idea of working in Los Angeles was exciting. More than that, given the degenerating situation in New York, if we could succeed here, it would give new life to the entire organization.
I pulled over at a one-story stucco building that held a row of apartments. One of them was to be my new home. Comrade Eva, from New York, was waiting for us. After the welcoming hugs and kisses, she helped us carry the baby and the one trunk that held the total of my life's material accumulation.
I glanced around the tiny apartment - a small entrance area that served as a living room, a combined kitchen and dining area, two bedrooms and a small area that held the toilet and a stall shower. I assumed that people in Los Angeles didn't spend much time inside. The sun was shining brightly and the warmth was pleasant after our cold journey. Glancing out the window at the two tall palm trees standing on the boulevard between the sidewalk and the curb, I noticed the well-kept lawns, the level and potholed streets and the spacious look of the Jordan Downs housing project across the street. After Harlem and the slums of Cleveland, the Watts area of Los Angeles looked like paradise to me. I didn't say it, but thought, "What in the Hell are these people complaining about?"
After our few belongings were put away I left with Eva to meet with the rest of the comrades at the office.
The little Los Angeles POC collective rented a storefront where Firestone and Manchester converged. There, they held their meetings and put together a little paper. After checking the address and noting the police car staked out across the street, I pulled over in front of the building. Two young white comrades came out to greet us. As I went forward to shake hands, I tried to size them up. In the six or seven months that they belonged to POC, they became well known communists in Los Angeles, receiving wide publicity in the press as dangerous revolutionaries. This didn't set well with me. The capitalist press has always followed a policy of smothering serious communists in official silence. I shrugged off my apprehensions as a bit of Black nationalism or jealousy conjured up by two middle class white comrades accomplishing more in a few months than I had in the past few years.
We shook hands warmly and I introduced myself to Michael Laski, the chair of the area and Arnold Hoffman who seemed to be his lieutenant. At thirty-one, Laski was already slightly balding. His sharp face and intense eyes covered by a pair of round glasses gave the impression of a sharp criminal lawyer rather than a revolutionary. Two African American comrades were waiting inside. Vernon, a tall, slender, dark complected, 30 year old man with slightly protruding large expressive eyes and an intelligent, smiling face stepped forward to shake hands and welcome us. Hal, 27 years old with light brown skin and hazel eyes, had the erect bearing of the recently discharged soldier. He grasped my hand with both of his in a warm welcome that seemed to say, "Glad you're here, man. We need some colored folks to guide this organization." I sensed there was friction between him and Laski. Eva stood by, beaming with the revolutionary zeal and confidence that characterized our young Puerto Rican comrades.
During the orientation meeting I tried to understand where the individual comrades were politically. Laski was clever, not really a leader, but a wheeler-dealer who couldn't belong to anything without being in control. With machine gun bursts of facts about Los Angeles history, the political structure and its police force, he completely dominated the meeting. The two African American comrades did not speak. Vernon seemed to be the dedicated revolutionary who would put up with anything so long as it contributed in some way to the liberation of his people. Hal fidgeted, trying to get a word in edgewise and finally, giving up, sat staring at the floor. Eva took notes when something new or interesting was said. She seemed to have established a sort of quid quo pro with Laski. She would tolerate his Messiah-like ranting and strutting so long as she was in control of the organizational aspects of the work. Hoffman sat quietly, nodding approval whenever Laski summed up or made a point. I sensed rather than understood that he was Laski's gay companion and I that I would not be able to grapple with one without struggling with the other. One thing I did know - there was no way for us to create a revolutionary organization without equality of participation. For me, the color of a leading comrade within the Marxist organization was of no consequence, but having working class Black comrades blocked by articulate, educated, white comrades could not be tolerated.
Our little collective was paying for the way the revolutionary movement evolved over the past 20 years. America's expanding imperialism meant the expanding material well being of especially the white workers. They found such bribery more attractive than the lofty ideals of socialism or working class solidarity. Consequently, there was a growing tendency for educated middle class whites to join the movement out of moral considerations and for working class, poorly educated Blacks to join out of desperation. Creating a unified organization with these contradictory elements was next to impossible.
The following weeks I went every day to the union to see about work. LA is not a brick city. Work was slack and the city was full of snowbirds (workers who fled the freezing North for the winter). The union wasn't about to pass over a local brickie and give a drifter a job - and being Black didn't help.
After reporting to the Union hall and being told that no jobs were available, I went out to learn about Watts. It was a small black community. The main street, 103rd, was the shopping area. Actually, the people were held captive to the blood-sucking merchants. The public transportation system was so bad and expensive it was almost impossible to shop anywhere else unless a car was available. There was no hospital or movie theater in the area. The poolrooms, storefront churches and beer halls were side by side down 103rd. It looked not so much like a 125th St. in Harlem as the Black slum, Soweto, in South Africa.
Police occupied the area--State, County, and LAPD. In addition it seemed that every state or county office such as the attorney general's office had a few people in the area. The police let their presence be felt by constantly cruising up and down the street, or sitting in their cars at intersections, glaring at people as they crossed in front of them. Police Chief William H. Parker created his police force with a core of white college graduates from Alabama, Texas and Mississippi. Their education did not change them. They feared and hated the people. The people feared and hated them. Minor incidents between the cops and the people were daily occurrences. On the street the tension between the people and the cops was almost visible.
The distinctly Southern atmosphere gave Watts a certain charm. As I walked down 103rd, almost everyone I passed gave the sort of a greeting if it was no more than the slurred, "What say man." More of a statement than a question, it was a hangover from the southern Black fireside training that "you don't have to speak to dogs, you do speak to people." Passing a person without speaking implied that you considered him or her a dog.
Sue Ying easily integrated herself into our talkative, friendly, southern-like neighborhood. Steve was in school; Patrice was a happy, healthy baby. I knew I was going to enjoy my stay in Los Angeles.
By the middle of March, I began to know my way around without the grudging assistance of the union. I finally got a job in the jurisdiction of the Long Beach local and joined them. When I went to the union hall to transfer my membership, the young, intelligent business agent assured me that, "You're going to be treated same as any other member." The union in Long Beach had more work and was much more democratic on the race question. A mountain of worries fell from my shoulders.
The collective decided to concentrate its propaganda activities in the Jordan Downs housing projects. The apartments were bright and cheerful. The spacious lawns between the buildings were neatly trimmed. The tenants either were on public assistance or held low paying jobs. The project was highly organized and governed by a well-led tenant council. From the outside it seemed to be a nice place. Yet, from the inside, the projects, like the rest of Watts, was depressing. Isolated from centers of culture, it turned inward, struggling to elevate itself with the material that was dragging it down.
Poor African Americans, especially those in the Watts area, were hardly affected by the anti-communist hysteria and the witch-hunts. They understood that the communists were for equality and were against the Man. During distributions there, we and our sectarian press were welcome.
The POC's paper, Vanguard, was primarily concerned with the fierce debate going on within the world communist movement. Most of the articles dealt with the latest polemics coming from China or the Soviet Union. It hardly seemed suited for Jordan Downs. Yet, there was always an article or two dealing with the struggle of the African American or Puerto Rican people in the United States. That was enough to allow us to distribute in the area. The fact that we sold a large number of papers in the project was an indication of what could have been done with a revolutionary press that dealt with the local issues. Even if they did not understand the inter-party struggle, the people respected us for trying to do something to better their conditions. One by one we contacted potential revolutionaries in the projects. From the distribution of the paper we formed a small study circle. From the study circle we recruited a few of the local people. In this way, the POC became an integral, if semi-underground, part of Watts.
A few of our contacts were outstanding. Jan and Lev were natural born communists. Both were well known through their activities in the local PTA and the project tenants council. A big, husky person, Lev liked to dress in the popular dashiki and put on the threatening air of the Black militant. Under that front, he was a loving, if stern, father to his four children and a serious, intelligent fighter for his people. People gravitated to his and Jan's apartment and they were an important connecting link to the project as a whole.
Jan was the quintessence of the African American mother. Her life revolved around the children. Deeply aware that the system prevented her children from living a full and wholesome life, she was a militant revolutionary. Her dark complexion highlighted big, clear eyes and a pretty face. Jan was the perfect compliment to Lev's sweeping charges against the enemy. She was the meticulous organizer who knew where things were and made things happen.
The entire group walking down 103rd street Saturday morning selling the paper was an important part of our propaganda effort. On one such an occasion I started to go into one of the barbershops when I heard a familiar, stuttering voice calling my name. I turned to see Nat Green, an old friend from Minneapolis. A wheeler and dealer as a teen-ager, now at 45, Nat was known as the unofficial mayor of Watts. He had been around the revolutionary youth movement years ago, and it took one short discussion to bring him into our group. During the six months we slowly but surely built a base in a section of Los Angeles society where we were almost invulnerable to the red baiting or police disruption.
Watts, isolated from the more affluent part of Black Los Angeles, could not let off steam by taking part in the demonstrations for civil rights. Instead Watts smoldered. The police stoked the sullen anger with daily reminders of the community's political impotence. My turn came Tuesday morning in 1965 as I drove to work. Part of the harassment of Watts was in the form of surprise but frequent "inspection road blocks." The cops had set up such a roadblock on Central. I knew if I turned off to the side streets to avoid it, they would consider that reason enough to not only stop me, but tear the car up and very probably plant something in the car. The van was in reasonably good shape, I just couldn't afford the time to wait in line for the inspection. Not one car was getting through without a ticket. The old van passed the inspection and I prepared to drive away when one of the cops looked up at me and told me to turn on the turn signals. Smiling to one another the cop began writing out a ticket. As politely as possible I asked what the violation was.
"Well, your blinker is too slow."
He knew and I knew there was no regulation concerning the speed of blinker lights. I took the ticket for a "defective blinker" and drove to work. That ticket meant twelve bucks to have a registered mechanic certify that the blinkers passed inspection and missed a day's work to appear in court. Small wonder that any Watts child would tell you that the police slogans, "Serve and Protect," meant serve themselves and protect the white folk."
When I returned home from work that evening, Sue Ying was lying down, holding her side and sweating with pain. After feeding the kids, I took her to a doctor on Manchester. He assured us that it was an inflamed ovary and told us to keep hot packs on her stomach. Although I felt a bit apprehensive about his superficial examination, I followed his advice.
THE FIRST DAY, WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 11
August 11 was a hot, hard workday. The official temperature of 95 degrees was nothing compared to the double whammy of working in the direct rays of the sun and facing the shimmering heat bouncing off the block wall. When the last lump closed the last block course, we struck up the work, brushed the wall and bidding one another good night left the job heading out in our respective directions. The few Black guys headed north to Watts and South Central while the white guys headed west and south to the security of their white neighborhoods.
Approaching Avalon and Imperial, I noticed the unusually large number of people out of doors, sitting on their porches, watering their lawns or simply standing talking to a neighbor. The heat had brought a larger than usual crowd out of the sweltering houses and into the street to talk and laugh or share a cold beer with a friend. I swung down Imperial to Central and on to 103rd St. Waving to a few men I knew, I swung over to 97th and up to Juniper. Steve, hearing the tinny sound of the Corvair, stepped out to the little porch - his face a mask of worry and fear. I hurried up the steps and looked in at Sue Ying. Her body, hot and bloated, and her face distorted in pain, left no room for indecision.
"We have to get her to the hospital right away."
Steve nodded. I ran to the van and backed it over the curb up to the concrete steps and opened the rear doors. I had earlier prepared a military style cot in the little dining area for her so she could get a breath of air and not be confined to the dark bedroom. With Steve taking one end and I on the other we slid the cot into the van. Leaving Steve to care for the baby I headed for St. Elizabeth Hospital, across the "Berlin Wall" of the Alameda railroad tracks, into the white enclave of Lynwood. A non-black cannot know the apprehension a black person feels of such a situation. There was the probability that the hospital would not accept her since she was from Watts. I was sure she would die before an ambulance could take her to County General or any other hospital. Nevertheless, I swung the van to the emergency dock, opened the rear doors and called loudly for help. Two men, one Black and one white, ran over and helped lift the cot to the dock. A nurse came out with a hospital gurney and we lifted Sue Ying onto it. A young, serious looking doctor glanced at me and then at Sue Ying. After taking her pulse and temperature, he handed me a printed form and a pen.
"You're her husband?"
"You will have to trust us. She is very sick and there is not time for explanations. Just sign here; we have to open her up right away."
Two orderlies were pushing the gurney into the elevator. I signed and handed him the paper. The doors closed. Shaken, I turned to a nurse standing near.
"What is wrong with her?"
"I don't know. They will have to examine her."
She sounded friendly enough, so I continued, "I know you can only guess, but what do you think it is and how serious do you think it is?"
"I shouldn't say this, but it looks like a ruptured appendicitis - probably peritonitis and probably bacteremia. It's serious."
I wanted to stay until Sue Ying came out of the operating room. But it was almost 7:00 P.M. and I was afraid to leave the kids alone too long. I turned toward the van - its doors ajar and the lights still on.
The African American orderly had been standing quietly by. He came over and put his hand on my shoulder.
"You're lucky. They don't dare try to transfer her to Big County in that condition. That's the only way colored people get into this hospital. That doctor is one of the best surgeons in the state. He came here for a conference and stayed to donate some time. You take care leaving. There's some ratty white folk 'round here."
Those words meant so much to me. I wanted to take time and thank him from the bottom of my heart, but I had to get back to the kids.
"Thanks, man. That helps."
As I approached Alameda, the Lynwood cops momentarily flashed their spotlight on me. Satisfied that I was Black and heading for the ghetto, they waved me on.
Crossing the tracks at Alameda, I had the clear feeling that something was amiss down Imperial Highway. Toward Imperial Courts, four squad cars were parked, partly partially blocking the street. Curiosity got the best of me -- I drove slowly down Imperial.
The cops made no effort to stop me, but took down my license plate number as I passed them. Suddenly, I thought I was back in the war as the shriek of sirens blasted from every direction. The squad cars, lights flashing and sirens screaming, burned rubber getting into the street and roared away down Central. I pulled to the curb and let a solid phalanx of motorcycle cops, six abreast, zoom past me. The people from Imperial Courts, already outside because of the unusually hot night, ran to the street to see what was happening.
After exchanging questions, a few of the young men got into their cars to find out what was going on. As soon as they left, cars started arriving from the west, from Central and Avalon.
"Hey Man! What the hell's going on up there?"
"I don't rightly know, but hell's fixing to bust loose. Looks like two cops raped some woman. People tried to deal with 'em and they called for back up. Fuckin' laws is beatin' women, children - anybody."
(A few weeks before in a highly publicized case, Mrs. Beverly Tate was raped by Officer William D. Mcleod, while his partner, Officer Thomas B. Roberts stood by. Mcleod was fired, but no criminal charges were pressed.)
"I'm about sick of them stinkin' motherfuckers. Who the hell they think we are, some kind a' dog?"
"You must be less than a man lettin' them white bastards beat your women and children and you don't do nothin' about it. I ain't takin' no more beatin's. I'm gettin' my shit and goin' back there."
Street fighting was in the hot, dry air and hung like a curtain, enveloping the people penned in Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts. It enwrapped the dark side streets as Black people felt their way along the rough dirt paths that served as sidewalks. They smelled street fighting and for the first time wondered why Lynwood had lights and cement sidewalks built with their taxes. Street fighting crackled in each rumor that tumbled from each car that sped up and down Imperial Highway and through the projects. It grew with the growth of mass consciousness of inequality. No one organized it. Like a strike wave, it rose when its time was ripe. It spread on the lightening bolts of rumor. Enobled and emboldened by the frustrations and humiliations, and hurts - the pent up hatreds crammed unseen, unseen and unheard for three hundred years, burst forth, resplendent in its terror.
I smelled it and shuddered, remembering the trepidations embedded by an organized police force bearing down, relentless - invincible - indomitable - beating and shooting - scattering our bravest like elk before a pack of wolves. And as in Harlem it stoked the adrenaline and drowned the fear and raised the battle cry, "Fuck them motherfuckers! We stick together and they can't whip us!"
For a moment I started to join the group heading for Avalon where the fighting seemed to have intensified. Then I thought of the kids alone and probably frightened by their mother's illness. I told the few guys I knew that I had to see about the kids and reluctantly headed the old van towards home.
THE SECOND DAY, Thursday, August 12
The next morning, Thursday, October 12, Watts was quiet. The police and newscasters reported, with a bit of bravado, that the situation was under control. I knew better. I had seen the progression of street fighting in New York. The lid was off, never to be replaced. Last night had been a battle mainly of teen-agers and young adults against the police. As the young people were shot, beaten or arrested, the older folk begin to be pulled into the fray trying to protect them. Not they, too, had a score to settle with the police. Yes, the morning was quiet. Those with jobs had to go to work. The rest were sleeping or making caches of rocks in the alleys and biding their time until darkness gave them some protection.
I was just leaving for work when the phone rang. It was Armando calling from New York. After the usual greetings, he switched to a very formal tone,
"What is happening is there a riot. There is nothing you can do. Stay out of it."
I gasped for breath and sat down. I had expected him to give me some direction, or at least tell me to do the best I could to make connections and give some leadership to whom ever I could influence. "Stay out of it!" It sounded like my days in the Communist Party with people sitting in New York and telling us in the field what to do. The anger was rising within me. I answered him with the same cold formality he had used with me,
"Comrade Armando, what's happening out here is a police riot. They're shooting and beating women and children. I live in the middle of it. There is no way for me or anyone else to stay out of it."
There was a moments silence followed by, "Nothing can be gained in this sort of situation. We cannot get into the line of fire. The organization is too weak."
I breathed deeply wanting to say people are out there fighting with no organization. We can build one if we are not afraid to. After a few more cold exchanges I promised not to allow any provocation on the part of the comrades and we said good-bye.
Hanging up I realized that every so-called revolutionary organization in the country had condemned the uprising as a "riot." Only after the Mexican and African press defended it did they do a 180 degree turn.
After crossing Avalon and Imperial on my way to work, the streets were quiet and my thoughts turned to the conversation with Armando. I knew the conversation did not help my precarious position within the organization. It was unmistakable that Armando was afraid of what might happen to him should we get involved. The FBI tactic was clearly stated by Hoover, "If you want to kill a snake, stomp on its head." Armando was that head, and he wasn't about to go to jail over an uprising that was bound to be crushed. I felt a little sorry for him. It must be a terrible internal ideological contradiction to call yourself a revolutionary, and yet be afraid of prison.
Those who had transportation shopped in the well-stocked stores a few blocks away in Lynwood. Watts was the known dumping ground for merchandise and foodstuffs that were ending their shelf life in other areas. To add further insult to the injury, a few cents was always added to the price list. The relations between storeowners in Watts and the people were a hated dependency on the one hand and a contemptuous exploitation on the other. Nevertheless, the supermarket on Imperial was on the way home and I needed to pick up a few things for the evening meal.
Swinging into the big parking lot, I noticed that there seemed to be an unusually large number of people leaving the store or on the sidewalk, their shopping carts piled high with foodstuffs.
Stepping inside the store I saw what could only be described as a feeding frenzy. People, mostly women, were racing up and down the aisles filling their carts with food of all descriptions. The clerks at the meat counter leaned back calmly watching the sometimes quite polite people empty the displays. The checkout girls were leaning against the cash registers. One woman walked calmly through the check out aisle and with a charming smile said, "Thank you. Thank you so much!" The clerk smiled back just as sweetly, "Oh, you're welcome."
I asked one of the women leaving the store what was going on.
"You can take whatever you want. They ain't chargin' today."
I started to enter the store, then thought better of it. It would be just my luck to be arrested or shot over two bucks worth of bread and milk. I could picture the comrades, shocked and disgusted that a veteran revolutionary would stoop to looting.
A few more inquires and I understood that about an hour ago a woman had been a few dollars short of her bill. The clerk waved her through. Apparently the police had advised the merchants that given the shortage of forces, they were going to protect lives, but not property. The storeowner, believing his choice was giving up the groceries or endangering the lives of the employees, told the clerks not to argue or interfere with anyone. The word soon spread throughout the projects. The people, envisioning a diet beyond the ham hocks and collard greens allowed by the miserable welfare check, flocked to the market. The Watts festival began.
After the kids were fed and settled for the evening, I crossed the street into Jordan Downs to get some assessment of the uprising. The usual group was sitting or standing around the front of Lev's apartment. Two young men, still teen-agers, were the center of attraction. Arrested the night before along with several hundred other youth, and just released by the cops, they were telling their story. Welts and bruises testified to the savage brutality of the police. There was a cavalier, but heroic defiance about them. One of them said, "We goin' back. They ain't seen the last of us. We gonna Viet-cong their ass tonight."
Kicks and beatings may break an individual who stands alone. It is quite another thing when that individual feels and actually is part of a mass in motion - then, the greater the brutality, the greater the resistance. These young people were taking a stand and nothing more was involved than whether they would allow the police to continue beating and humiliating them simply because they were Black and young. I gave them a salute of the clinched fist across the chest, spoke briefly to Jan and Lev and hurried back to the apartment since it was almost visiting hours at the hospital.
At the hospital, not one patient had spoken to Sue Ying. Her husband was from Watts. Ignoring the hateful glares of the white patients, I had my first real visit with Sue. She was getting better and was deeply worried about the kids and frightened that I might get caught up in the fighting. I assured her that without organization, I wasn't going to get into a fight with the cops. I left the hospital feeling relieved that she was going to be O.K.
Crossing Alameda - the Berlin Wall - I could hear gunshots. I drove down as far as Grape Street and for the first time saw the crowds on 103rd. Fires were being set and the looting engulfed 103rd Street. Police cars were speeding through the area with shotguns blasting. I drove home, picked up the baby from Eva, and after the kids were asleep, poured a shot of whiskey and settled in front of the TV where the fighting was represented to the world.
Our little collective was irreparably split. Laski's constant praise of Armando had gained his support, allowing him to move in such a way as to eventually confront the police. The comrades and those close to us were aware of the danger of allowing provocateurs to provoke the police. When the fighting began, I insisted that a meeting be held of all the comrades to agree on what the collective would do. After a bitter discussion, it was basically agreed that the most we could do at this time was to put out a few leaflets that would give some direction to the more politically advanced. We agreed to do what we could to consolidate the poorest section of the working class who had, for the moment, seized the leadership in the struggle. We also agreed that it was important that the people of Watts understand that they were not fighting alone, that they were part of a worldwide movement of the oppressed. The weak link was that there was little vocal support in any quarter in the United States. After a sharp debate it was agreed that the white comrades would stay out of the areas where the fighting was going on. There were very few attacks against whites that were walking through the area, for at that moment, few in Watts looked upon the struggle as one between Black and white. It was between the cops and the people. Rocks were thrown at some cars because they represented the merchants who drove in to Watts, conducted their business and left with the people's money. We didn't want to give any indication that white revolutionary propagandists were attempting to co-opt the leadership of the struggle.
THE THIRD DAY, FRIDAY, AUGUST 13
On Friday, August 13, a few of the Black mason tenders did not show up to work. They might have been arrested or just exhausted from the fighting last night. I didn't ask about them. I wanted to avoid any discussion with the white brickies about the uprising. The welding crew, from Mississippi, had other ideas. One of them, a big, ruddy guy laid aside his face shield and helmet and walked over to me.
"Why you here, fella?"
He didn't sound unfriendly, but just his being from Mississippi was enough to put me on guard.
"Got to earn a living, man. I got a family to feed."
"Shit, man! You outa be out there gettin' yours like everybody else."
"I'd rather earn it. It's safer."
"Shit, man! He said again. They took from you for 300 years, you ought'a be able to take back for a few days."
I smiled at him and said something about having been in the infantry, I was afraid of getting shot. He turned and walked away. From this and other comments, it seemed clear that a good percentage of whites, while not supportive of Watts, seemed to give the grudging admiration one gives to a dog, that, daily beaten finally bites back.
We left work early because the men delivering the cement blocks would not drive anywhere near the riot area. As I neared the intersection of Wilmington and 103rd I saw Laski and Hoffman passing out leaflets. Two cops stood by apparently guaranteeing that the rioting Blacks would not interfere with the pair's right of free speech. I sat and watched for a few moments and then walked over to them. Laski was startled when he saw me, but merely nodded and handed me a leaflet. It was a garbled set of out of context statements by Mao and ended by calling for revolution. Worst, the statement on the bottom said "Issued by the Watts Area Provisional Organizing Committee." The whole set up reeked of the work of the agent provocateur. I folded the leaflet, put it in my pocket and gave him a glare that said, "We're going to talk about this tonight." As I got back into the car one of the cops carefully copied my license number.
I immediately called Armando, informed him of the situation and demanded that Laski and Hoffman be expelled. There was a moment's hesitation. I knew he was calculating which of us would be more useful to him. In a subdued voice, he agreed. I said good-bye and hung up the phone. The next day, as Laski and Hoffman passed out leaflets around 103rd and Grape, the press took pictures and interviewed them. Later, studies on the Watts uprising always included a scene of Laski distributing "Maoist" literature as a caricature of the communist movement. In fact, he had been expelled as an agent. Apparently he thought that whatever agency he was working for would continue to protect him. Shortly after the uprising, he was arrested and imprisoned for using the mails to defraud.
Food was becoming scarce for some families in Watts. The stores within walking distance had been emptied. Few of the families in the projects had cars and many were at the end of their supplies. Diapers and milk were in greatest demand. At first there was a sharing of goods. But when these supplies ran out the men piled into their cars and headed west and north where there were still stores. By nightfall they all returned dividing the goods and took them to the most needy families in the project. The daily press made no mention of this necessary "looting."
The morning paper sensationalized the looting of the jewelry stores and pawnshops. Nat Green, a natural born hustler, knew that everybody is after a bargain and the easiest person to cheat is the one who thinks he is going to cheat you. With eight children of his own and always two or three relatives to feed, Nat long ago learned to find the silver lining in any cloud. He hustled a ride to the City Hall where he took out a venders permit, then walked over to the arts and crafts store and purchased $10 worth of fake diamonds and assorted glass "jewelry." After buying a plastic pistol at the toy store, he was ready for business.
Nat stationed himself on the south side of Imperial near Alameda. When the light turned red and the traffic stopped, he furtively glanced from side to side; making sure the butt of his "pistol" was showing from his jacket. With a few "diamonds" half concealed in his hand, he would approach the most expensive looking car. His severe stuttering worked for him. By the time three words were out, the white man behind the wheel understood that here was a real rioter, gun, diamonds and all. Nat never completed the deal until the traffic light was changing and nervous whites, anxious to cross the "Berlin Wall" honked to move. The deal was quickly made. The white man drove away chuckling that he had taken one of those savages for a ride. Nat, pocketing the fifty bucks, got ready for the next sucker.
Two carloads of cops, alerted to a rioter selling jewelry, converged on Nat, pistols drawn. Stuttering, Nat explained that he was carrying on a legitimate business of selling craft beads and showed them his license. When challenged about the gun, his lawyer had assured him that it was dangerous, but not illegal to carry a toy and he had threatened no one. The cops, shaking their heads, jumped back into their cars and sped off to the more profitable business of beating kids on 103rd.
THE FOURTH DAY, SATURDAY, AUGUST 14
The military, Nazi-like occupation of Watts, the increasing brutality of the police, the shoot to kill orders to both soldiers and cops, the rounding up and detention of thousands, the round the clock struggle of the combatants was having its effect. Although fighting continued sporadically along 103rd on Sunday, August 15, the people were worn out and it was beginning to show. The police kept it going, pulling new forces into the fight by their random shooting into crowds or into homes they might suspect contained snipers.
After my evening visit to the hospital to see Sue Ying, I finally finished the daily routine of feeding and caring for the kids. Setting them in front of the television and asking Eva to keep an eye out, I crossed 97th street into Jordan Downs. We generally gathered at Lev's place. I would have liked for them to come to my little apartment, but it was too exposed. Any grouping of people in or around a private house was excuse enough for the cops or guard to take down everyone on some kind of suspicion. By contrast, not even the soldiers dared invade the project except in force and with a clear mission. It was safe to meet there. Five or six men and a few women were in the front room or resting at the front of the building. I was happy to see that they were all alive and uninjured. After the greetings, the conversation turned to the fighting.
"Maybe if we can hold on for a few more days, Chicago or Detroit or New York might blow."
"If three or four cities went at the same time, they'd need the whole damned army to deal with it."
"If we can hold on a little longer, maybe we'll start a revolution."
"Man, wouldn't that be somethin'! Old chicken shit Watts starting a revolution!"
They were expressing sentiments heard throughout the area. Watts was becoming politicized. We were all aware that an Army division, on its way to Viet Nam, turned around in mid-ocean in case they were needed for the more important fight here. The Vietnamese National Liberation Front sent a message of thanks to the people of Watts. With 28% percent of American war causalities being African American, there were few in Watts who supported the war.
"Well, when this shit is all over, everybody'll know one thing - that them high yella, white mouths downtown don't speak for Watts. We spoke for ourselves."
Lev went inside for drinks and one of the men, silent until now, mulling over the discussion, looked over the group and said,
"For the first time, the field niggers got a word in. From now on, what their house niggers say ain't gonna make no difference."
Lev parceled out the glasses and the conversation halted while each poured a drink and thought over what had been said. I knew they understood, even if they could never articulate it, that what was happening in Watts, would change not only the African American people, but change America for all times.
Politics in Watts, as in any Black slum was complex. The relations between the Black community and the white power structure were based on color. Although little known in the white community, the relations inside the Black community were also based on color.
My experience has been that leadership of the Black community developed from a number of factors. On the one hand, through a complicated process begun during slavery, the white man picks the Black leader. During slavery, this process was direct. By mid-century it was a smooth running complicated machine. First, nobody could get anywhere by being a "Black militant." The power structure simply refused to deal with them. Since the Black militant couldn't deliver the goods, he could not consolidate a following. Instead, the Man chose the leader of the Black community and chose his opposition. This was done by publicly acknowledging the abilities of the chosen. This was done by praising the selected leader as a sensible moderate, and labeling the selected opposition as dangerous militants. The reality was that both sides were chosen by and worked for the Man and the people were actually unable to choose their leadership. The Black press, which had immense influence in the community, was almost always dependent on this power structure. The independent and militant California Eagle was the largest, best known and most influential Black press in the state. When Charlotta Bass, the editor, ran as the vice president nominee with Henry Wallace in 1948, the California Eagle was crushed and Charlotta Bass politically marginalized.
Between the dealings of the power structure and the propaganda in the Black press, the average African American was resigned to accept the "leader." This leadership was invariably light skinned, proud of it, and well educated in accommodation. I remember how irritated I would become reading of Walter White's (Executive Secretary of the NAACP) constant referral to the fact that he could pass for white. He might as well have. I was never sure whether he was a Black man who could pass for white, or a white man who passed for Black. The effect was the same. There was an objective factor here too. The dawn to dark forced labor of the field hands made it almost impossible for any of them to really communicate, let alone emerge as leaders. On the other hand, the slave children of the master were often given preferential treatment that allowed them the time and freedom of movement to take the position of leaders. Thus, almost all the slave rebellions have been led by the light skinned children of the master, be it Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey or Toussaint L'Overture. After emancipation, this group, known as the "red men," consolidated in the Caribbean and in the United States. Dr. DuBois and his talented tenth were almost all quite light skinned. I could not help but note that though DuBois was respected and admired as the outstanding intellectual and principled revolutionary that he was, Paul Robeson was loved. A good part of that was because Robeson was one of the few dark skinned sons of the working class to rise to the level of moral leadership.
The people of Watts, alienated from this "Black-white" power structure, felt the color division very deeply. They knew they were the uneducated, unheard, despised field niggers who were now getting the attention of the entire world and were proud of it.
It was ten minutes after curfew when I pulled up to the green apartments, ran across the yard and knocked on Eva's door. I could hear the sharp "Bam!" of rifle fire coming from 103rd. The guard was running amuck with permission to shoot to kill. In one day they had killed more unarmed people than the police had in three days. I felt the apprehension of a soldier awaiting an inevitable attack. Eva finally opened the door and handed me the baby, asleep and wrapped in his blue blanket.
"You better hurry. The Guard is shooting at anyone that's on the street."
"I know. I'll go right home."
She carefully closed the door and I stepped off the stoop and walked swiftly across the yard. Steve had opened the door. He, too, had heard the reports of the National Guard recklessly firing at anyone outside their house. I was nearly across the lot when the jeep pulled up that held three white soldiers - one was a captain, another, appearing to be about 19 years old was manning a mounted .50 caliber machine gun. The captain pulled his .45 and aimed it at me.
"Drop whatever you're carrying and put your hands in the air."
"I'm carrying my baby."
"I said drop it and raise your hands or I'll shoot."
It seemed that time stood still as I watched his hand tighten around the butt of the pistol. I hadn't come this close to certain death during the war. It seemed that I left my physical body and was watching and listening from outside it. I was calm. I saw Steve standing on the concrete stoop, terrified for my safety. I would set an example for him. My spiritual self knew that my real corporeal self wasn't going to drop the baby; neither was I going to beg this white, Nazi son of a bitch for mercy. I had seen other men die, but I did not know that such serenity preceded death.
"I'll tell you what, Captain. I was a damned sight better soldier than you are. I'm not going to drop my baby. You shoot."
There comes a time when principles are more important than life. The Guard had killed so many that day. To bow down would be like betraying the spirit of a dead buddy. I looked calmly at the Captain. He glared at me, part of him wanting to pull the trigger. Part of him realizing he would have to justify the murder of a three-year-old and his father. Perhaps it was my Minnesota accent; perhaps it was that I was calm. I did not know that four of my neighbors were witnessing the drama. I watched his hand relax, his eyes livid with hatred as he slid the pistol into its holster.
I stepped onto our stoop. Suddenly my knees were rubber; my legs seemed unable to hold me up. I took a deep breath and tried to steady myself. All the bravado was gone, and it its place flowed the naked fear of death. Not simply my death, but more importantly, that of Patrice. Steve held his arms out to me. I handed him his little brother. Steve's face was tense, and he was gulping breath through his mouth, he was even more frightened than I. We stood together for a moment waiting for the adrenaline to subside. Then he turned to me and said, "They hate us, don't they?" It wasn't a question but a sudden deeper understanding of a fact. It was one of those moments when whatever I said would influence his thinking for the rest of his life.
"Some of them do, Steve. Mostly they're afraid of us because what they've done to us. They're afraid we'll get even."
We stepped into the security of the kitchen. Patrice was still asleep. I placed him on his bed, loosened the blanket and turned back to Steve,
"I don't want you to hate them. I don't want you to be like them. Hate the conditions that make them what they are. Then you'll be a good communist."
Steve looked straight into my eyes and I could feel a bonding between us that would last the rest of our lives. Never one to talk when it wasn't necessary, he turned to his chair and opened his book. I turned on the TV to get the white folks view of the uprising.
Wired up, I did not sleep that night. Half awake, daydreaming what one platoon from my old regiment could do here. We could drive them out of Watts. I visualized us -- 48 strong, battle hardened, proud Black men skirmishing down 103rd -- 60 mm mortars, Browning automatic rifles, air cooled machine guns, M1 rifles - if we only had organization we could do it. Then I thought about dying and leaving a sick wife and two children to fend for themselves. Despite the aching need to get out there and get even, I knew the time wasn't ripe. An uprising without organization and vision could not succeed. We had neither.
THE FIFTH DAY, SUNDAY, AUGUST 15
I awoke early Saturday, full of apprehension, knowing this would be the day that determined how the Watts rebellion would be settled. The National Guard had moved in. What had started as an uprising of the youth was slowing transforming between the youth and the occupying police force.
This would be the first day the majority of the adults would be off work. I was sure a sizable number of them would be pulled into the fight. Too many children had been beaten and arrested. Too many women had been beaten and humiliated by the cops. It had become too much of a Black freedom struggle for the men to stay out it. My apprehensions grew from my knowledge of the ruthless efficiency of the military as opposed to the simple brutality of the cops. It arose from knowing the effective difference between M1 rifles and machine guns as opposed to the indiscriminate use of pistols and shotguns. I knew Saturday would be a bloody day of decision. It was worse than I feared.
Friday night through Sunday morning had been a slaughter. After listening to the TV and reading the paper I went back to Lev's to get some assessment of the fighting. Each story was worse than the others. Children seven and eight years old picked up, beaten and jailed, people killed inside their homes or on their porches. Eighteen people killed last night, hundreds wounded, thousands arrested and many more thousands beaten. The spoken attitude of the police was that all Blacks were "commies" and to waste them.
Some seventy thousand people had been out in the streets the night before. They began to be clearly divided into distinct groups. The biggest group was on-lookers. The rest divided into groups who were there to fight the cops and the Guard, and those there to loot.
A few things were becoming clear to me. First, the murderous brutality of the cops and guards was instilling and deepening a hatred for all whites not only in Watts but also across the country. The Black Muslims easily moved into entrenched positions of ideological leadership. Without some activity on the part of the white progressives, it was not possible to resist the wave of Black nationalism. If only a few whites had spoken out or taken some action on a class basis, history could have changed. Los Angeles is a southern city and in the main, populated by whites from the South. (The confederacy claimed southern California and sent a few slaves into the area during the Civil War. The depression era mass migrations from Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas strengthened its southern character.) The media was having a field day presenting the cops as law enforcing heroes and the African Americans as the criminals. Most of the police beatings were unlawful assault and battery. Most of the killings were plain hateful murder. The second thing was that the revolutionary movement had their tactics all wrong. The idea of a vanguard organization leading the charge to change America was not going to work. During the Russian Revolution, the military concept of a vanguard was applied to the reovlutionary party. Militarily, a vanguard consisting of combat-tested reliable soldiers move ahead of and protects the main force. The vanguard makes contact with the enemy and brings them to battle where they can be overwhelmed by the main force. Within the vast anti-feudal Russian revolution, the communist party, composing nearly one-seventh of the country's industrial workers, grounded in the army and in the cities, could and did act successfully of the vanguard of the revolutionary party. The communist parties in the urban and industrial west immediately took up this idea, disregarding their actual economic and demographic situations.
The sad decline of the American Communist Party shows how easily and thoroughly such "vanguard" organizations are penetrated by and essentially controlled by political police. They not only have the technology, but have unlimited funds to carry this out. American history, especially between Black and white, will not allow the success of such an organization. We revolutionaries knew that the wages of the white workers were increased by the super exploitation of the Blacks. We could not admit that the necessary unity of the working class could not be achieved so long as white workers were fighting for wage increases and Black workers were fighting for equality.
I began to understand the possibility of mass uprising being the form for transition to socialism in America. Watts is a small area; yet it took the city, county and state police, plus a division of infantry - about 24,000 armed men - to contain it. Could there be a wide spread, a national, disciplined, politicized "Watts rebellion?" The answer was before my eyes. Watts was proving one thing I always believed - that oppression and exploitation alone were not enough to impel a people into action. That action takes place when an idea takes root, when a vision becomes clear. In Watts the Vietnam War came home. All the talk about freedom and self-determination finally hit a target.
The McCarthy repression and rapidly rising living standards of the organized sector of the white workers isolated the revolutionaries. At the same time, the African American freedom struggles were rising. En masse, these revolutionaries shifted from the struggle based on class to that based on color. This retreat of the revolutionaries into the Black community had to halt. There had to be a way to talk to at least the poorest section of white America. It might take another fifty years for the economic conditions to kick the mass of white workers awake. If so, we should prepare to take those fifty years to educate, little by little, whoever and wherever we could. That would require a different kind of revolutionary organization. It would require an organization that tactically would be part of the current struggles, but strategically strive to find the ways to educate this decisive sector of the population with a vision of a peaceful, cooperative, world.
As the fighting died out, I brought Sue Ying home from the hospital. Happiness was again setting out four plates on the kitchen table. I was thankful that my little family had weathered the storm.
THE MURDER OF LEONARD DEADWYLER
Squelched with blood, the fires of August smoldered beneath the ashes of defeat. Throughout the winter and early spring of 1966 confrontations periodically broke out between the cops and small groups of youth hanging out on the streets. On March 15, a minor fight between highschool students brought in a phalanx of police who fired indiscriminately, killing one person. Throughout the night, the cops beat and arrested anyone in the area. Any resistance to police authority was quickly and brutally crushed with rifle butts, black jacks, and billy clubs.
In the early part of May, four police roughed up and arrested a suspect. A crowd of 200 quickly formed and freed the handcuffed suspect. However the emotional exhaustion of the people and their lack of organization gave the cops an insuperable advantage.
With the last brick laid, the wall joined and brushed down, I bagged my tools, tossed them in the trunk of the old Mercury, waved good-bye to the gang and set out for home. I only half noticed that more than the usual number of squad cars were parked across from the gas station on Central and noticed more of them slowly patrolling "charcoal alley." Small groups of sullen young men stood on the corners talking and returning the hateful glares of the police. Lev, dressed in a new orange and blue dashiki, was sitting at the table in our little kitchen. I knew something was amiss; he seldom came to visit during the day. As I opened the screen door, I greeted him with,
"Hey Lev, what's goin' on?"
"You ain't heard the news?"
"Naw, I saw some people on the streets - what happened?"
Lev's face hardened, his lips pressed inward against his teeth. "Fuckin' cops killed a man taking his wife to the hospital. Pulled up along side him and blew him away with a shotgun."
"Jesus Christ!" I pulled the only other chair up to the table. "When did it happen, Lev?"
"About two hours ago. Woman having a baby. We can't let 'em get away with this one. God knows what they'll do next."
I didn't have an answer. We could put out a leaflet telling the people what they already knew. It would be nothing less than a provocation to issue a call to resume the fighting. It was one of those moments when everything depends on organization. It was painful to realize after all the effort and bloodshed, no such organization existed.
We agreed to call a meeting of the collective that evening to decide a course of action. Lev left to try to get an assessment of the mood of the people in the Project. I switched on the TV to hear how city hall would explain this one. The killing of Deadwyler was the first item on the news. There were no hospitals in Watts, so when Deadwyler's pregnant wife went into labor, they got into their old Buick and sped for the County hospital downtown. Cops, noticing the speeding car, turned on their flashing lights and signaled him to pull over. Deadwyler waved a white rag as a signal of emergency and kept going. After a few blocks of the chase, the cops pulled alongside of Deadwyler and killed him with one blast of their .12 gauge shotgun to the head. The car careened down the street finally jumped the curb and stopped. Deadwyler's wife covered with blood and bits of flesh, staggered from the car and fainted. Ironically, she had gone into false labor.
Before the newscast was over, the phone rang.
"Hello - "
"We are holding a meeting of interested individuals tonight. It is important that you attend."
"With whom am I speaking?" I thought I recognized the voice of a leader in the field of public health.
"I'll give you the address."
I started to warn her that my phone was tapped. But she had already given me and the FBI the numbers.
After supper's dishes were washed and put away, I walked over to the address on Wilmington and 103rd. To my surprise it was the series of temporary buildings that housed the public welfare and county health offices. I was met at the door and ushered into one of the larger offices. Ten or twelve well-dressed people were seated. There were no introductions, but I recognized a few. They were a part of the elite Black professionals who worked in Watts - a lawyer, two administrators from the Health Department, a high school teacher. I wasn't sure what they had in mind, but I knew it was serious, since they were jeopardizing their jobs just coming to a meeting where I was invited. Apparently they were waiting for me. As soon as I sat down, a tall, angular, light skinned woman stood up and opened the meeting.
"Since everyone here has already individually said something must be done about the murder of Leonard Deadwyler, we have invited you to join with us is planning that something. We invited you here because you live in Watts and are known as a serious revolutionary. Before going any further, do any of you wish to speak?"
As if it was necessary to everyone there to go on record denouncing the murder and endorsing some sort of action, they spoke, one after another. The common theme was that this murder was a ploy to see if the people of Watts were capable of taking to the streets again, or was it safe for the cops to tighten the noose around their necks. A few of them spoke of class and exploitation as if they had learned a smattering of Marxism - perhaps in college. More importantly, for the first time, I heard educated, militant people use the term "Whitey" and basically follow the general concepts put forward by the Black Muslims.
When my turn came, I tried to stay within their general ideas and yet, not compromise my ideology or theory.
"I agree with just about everything that has been said. I can only add two things. First, nothing is possible without organization and secondly, serious organization is not possible without first clearly identifying who and what is friend and enemy."
The tall light skinned woman took the floor again.
"I guess it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty." She turned toward me, her features hardened with a determination reminiscent of the pictures of Harriet Tubman. "We've come up with a plan. If we are going to do anything, we first have to draw the police out of Watts for a few hours. Then it will be possible for the people to take to the streets again. We have to make that possible and at the same time give them the enthusiasm to carry on the fight. They all know that if the police get away with this no Black person is safe in Los Angeles." She turned and pulled down a map of Los Angeles County. "We know that protecting Mr. Charlie's property is the number one job for the police. That's their weak spot. We believe that if we could get a few teams into the Santa Monica mountains and set a few fires in strategic places, the police will pull out of Watts to protect those white folks. That will give us our opportunity."
My heart quickened for a moment realizing why I had been invited. It was already clear that I was expected to provide the "teams." There was a moment's silence and then looking directly at me she continued,
"Can we do this?"
All the things Lenin had written about petty bourgeois radicalism - their tendency to launch into wild attacks that were inevitably followed by wild retreats - came to mind. I couldn't insult these people. I wanted to win them over. I couldn't help but admire this woman. One of the city's leading Black professionals, she was risking it all in an angry upsurge over the murder of a poor Black man from Mississippi. A part of me wanted to agree with her - to strike back no matter the consequences - in order to show the cops and the world that we are not defeated. The other part clearly understood it was not possible and the blood of the people who would be killed would be our responsibility. I looked up to her and said,
"I think it's a good idea. It will take a lot of time to prepare for this. We'll have to determine where it would be best to set fires. We have to scout out ways and means of getting twenty or so Black men through that white area without being seen. We have to guarantee that we get them out of there safely. Most importantly we have to prepare the people to respond at the right moment. That will mean dealing with some of the gangs in the area. All this will have to be done without the cops finding out about it - and their stool pigeons are everywhere. The other side of it is the people are exhausted. It's going to take a lot of education and organization to get them out in the street again. They've suffered around fifty killed, hundreds are wounded and hundreds are still in jail." I thought I had said enough. I didn't want to kill their fighting spirit.
A long moment of silence followed. Finally one of the men said,
"We really hadn't considered that side of it. I agree that we can't go off into this thing half cocked."
The woman chairing the meeting said, "We just can't let them get away with this. If this plan is impossible then we have to try something else."
Another long silence followed. Someone asked, "Does anybody have an idea of what to do?"
The meeting was unraveling. Finally, it was agreed that the people who called the meeting would get together and come up with some realistic plan and then we would meet again. I knew nothing could be done until we had organization, and organizations take years to build.
After the handshakes and militant declarations, we left the meeting. We never met again. The murder of Deadwyler was, of course, ruled justified and the killer cops again stalked the streets of Watts, shotguns at the ready.
In search of closure I walked the few blocks to Mrs. Deadwyler's house to pay my respects. I knocked at the screen door and entered the front room. A few sad faced women sat quietly near a little table. I placed my ten dollars in the bowl that held other donations. No one had spoken. It would be sacrilege to shatter that pale of grief. Nodding my condolence to the women and turning to leave, I glanced at Mrs. Deadwyler.
She sat numbed, rocking her torso in the straight-backed kitchen chair, hands clasp, lips pursed, crying the lament of our dreary past. Oh, sweet Jesus, hear my cry. Rocking, rocking, sorrow too sad for tears. As when she stood frozen in humiliating terror on the auction block. Sweet Jesus, hear my cry. As when awaiting the lash and wrists tied tight to the whipping post dripped blood. Sweet Jesus, hear my cry. Rocking, rocking, lips pursed, sorrow too sad for tears. As when her children, tied to the wagon, looked back to mother, never to be seen again. Sweet Jesus, hear my cry. Rocking, rocking, lips pursed, sorrow too sad for tears. As when the baying Red Bone hounds picked up the scent of her man gone for glory. Sweet Jesus, hear my cry. As when she wrapped the greasy sheet around the lashed and bloody body. Oh, sweet Jesus, hear my cry. Rocking, rocking, lips pursed, sorrow too sad for tears. As when the drunken howl of the lynch mob celebrated the blood soaked sacrifice swinging gently beneath the southern sun, Sweet Jesus, hear my cry. And when the white helmeted, hate crazed cops blasted out the life of her man she sat numbed, lips pursed, sorrow too sad for tears, rocking, rocking, crying the dirge of the helpless, the lament of our dreary past, Oh, sweet Jesus! Hear my cry!
Blinking back tears I turned toward our little apartment. There was work to be done.
Watts, isolated and attacked on all sides, turned inward for protection. A wave of Black nationalism swept South-Central Los Angeles, crushing any ideology or organization that stood in its path. In 1968, betrayed and abandoned by the leadership in New York, our organization became one of the causalities. We regrouped as the California Communist League and as it became a national organization, was reconstituted as the Communist Labor Party (CLP). It played an important role in the revolutionary movement within the United States and internationally.
The Watts uprising was a turning point in American history. Trapped on the horns of world opinion and Cold War demands, the government attempted to resolve the problem by winning over and co-opting the Black upper class as it moved to crush the aspirations of the Black poor. Mirroring the Black CEOs, Generals and government officials like the Portrait of Dorian Gray, every eighth prisoner in the world today is an African American.
Watts was more than a rebellion against intolerable segregation, exploitation, and discrimination. Overwhelmed by the color question, few saw it as the convulsion signaling the beginning of the end of an economy. Today, across the industrial rust belts of America, for the same fundamental reason, a hundred new Watts are forming. This time they are white.
On a more personal level my son Steve moved to Northern Minnesota to become a farmer and worker. Patrice works as a Longshoreman in Los Angeles. Sue Ying passed away on Christmas eve, 2002, after a prolonged illness. Old revolutionaries, like old soldiers, never die - they fade away. I am still staunchly resisting that process - teaching, lecturing, writing - confident that within the frightful menace of tomorrow lies the wherewithal to build the peaceful, cooperative world we American revolutionaries have given so much to achieve.