The Watts Riots took place fifty years ago, but I remember them vividly. I was thirteen years old, and on the morning of August 12, 1965, I woke up at Pepperdine University where I stayed the night for church camp. At the time, Pepperdine was still located at the old campus on 79th and Vermont in the heart of South Los Angeles. We turned on the morning news, and I heard the anchor say that riots had broken out in Watts, a predominantly black neighborhood, and that County Supervisor Kenny Hahn, my father, had been attacked in his vehicle. That was the beginning of the Watts Riots for me.
My father was fine. He had asked a staffer to drive with him through the Watts neighborhood after he heard reports of rioting and was hit by a brick someone was throwing at passing vehicles. Luckily, when he sought help at a nearby house, he had knocked on the door of woman named Lillie Brantley, a Watts resident who welcomed him into her home until he could leave safely. But it was a scary time in South Los Angeles. I remember the red glow the sky had and the daily reports of injuries and death. When it was all over, 34 people had lost their lives, more than 1000 were injured, and 200 buildings were destroyed.
Unyielding poverty, racial discrimination by law enforcement and growing inequality built up for years in the Watts community until anger and frustration boiled over that hot summer night.
Watts was seriously damaged, and it would take years, even decades, to recover. The impact was felt far beyond South LA as Watts came to symbolize the problems that many urban areas have experienced. The McCone Commission report published after the riots pointed to brutality by a largely white police force, extensive poverty, and a pitiful school system that only fed into a “dull devastating spiral of failure.”
After the riots, the community of Watts came together — neighborhood residents, activists and leaders — to rebuild and work towards a better future. My father worked with the community he represented to put forward the goals they expressed and gain the resources they demanded: a hospital for their families, good schools for their kids, and law enforcement they could trust.
Although these activists didn’t have a slogan at the time, it is clear to me now that it would have been “Black Lives Matter.”
It is disheartening to think that the issues of Watts in 1965 are not behind us today. In Los Angeles and across the country, communities continue to battle with institutional racism, poverty, poor education, crime, violence, and a growing list of unarmed men and women of color who are harassed, abused or even killed by the police.
But there are bright spots and lessons this generation of activists can learn from the Watts Riots. Today there is progress that the people of Watts can be proud of, from the Watts Gang Task Force to the newly opened Martin Luther King Community Hospital.
This week, on the 50th anniversary of that tumultuous time in Watts, I am thinking about Lillie Brantley — the woman whom my father credits with saving his life after he was injured in the riots. That short meeting began a long friendship between my father and her. I was honored to attend her 90th birthday party last year and thank her for what she did for my dad. She is part of the reason I have faith in not only the future of Watts but also the future of Ferguson and communities just like it across the country that are fighting for a better future and a better America. Amid chaos and violence, and when things cannot seem to get any worse, people have a remarkable ability to look out for their neighbors and strive for justice.
I am honored to represent the people of Watts today. I stand firmly with them and anyone else who is committed to staying in the fight, as together we move toward the Watts imagined by heroes past (Ted Watkins, Tommy Jacquette, Edna Aliewine), present (Sweet Alice Harris, Arturo Ybarra, Arvella Grigsby), and 50 years into the future.