In light of the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Mo., “Fire This Time” by Gerald Horne felt like a timely read in my African-American Studies class with Visiting Professor David Swiderski. The class—AFAM329: Race, Rage, Riots, and Backlash: 20th Century Protest Movements—gives historical context to many of the current racial issues in the United States, but “Fire This Time” felt especially appropriate in this historical moment. The book, which is about the Watts riots in Los Angeles of 1965, raised this question for me: Why don’t we see riots like this anymore?
The answer, logistically speaking, is that our police force has become more of a military. It racially profiles and perpetuates racial violence while aided by the finest, most aggressive military-grade weapons our nation’s military industrial complex can provide.
Los Angeles in the 1960s was a deeply segregated city. Racially biased housing policies kept black residents in specific areas, often ghettos like Watts, where residents were at the mercy of often white, non-resident shopkeepers who used their captive market to exploit an already economically depressed community.
Indeed, when the riots unfolded, it was these stores that were targeted for looting and burning. Black store owners, or other minority shopkeepers who could use their non-white status as protection during the six days of violent chaos, put up signs identifying themselves as “Blood Brothers” to avoid the destruction faced by their white counterparts.
The riots, a culmination of years of police violence by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and repressive government practices that kept the black community isolated in poverty in the city’s ghettos, were triggered by an altercation between the police and two brothers who lived in Watts. After the brothers were stopped in their car by the police, a crowd gathered to watch as the pair, soon joined by their mother, argued with the LAPD. Things became violent when one officer brought a shotgun out of his car.
After this, things escalated quickly. The community of Watts became a war zone, complete with snipers and tanks. Black residents roamed the streets in mobs, looting stores and burning buildings. Police, and eventually the California National Guard, opened fire on anyone and everyone, bringing the death count to 34 with thousands more injured or arrested.
I’ll be frank: although the statistics and details of the riots are staggering, Horne manages to make this a very dry read. Although the historical and cultural context of the racial divides in Los Angeles was enlightening, his accounts of the events themselves are dull. How do you make riots with $40 million in damages boring? Perhaps Horne should be applauded for finding a way.
Yet the importance of this book at this moment transcends the specific details of the 1965 riots and a dry writing style. Rather, this book is significant given racial relations in present-day America. In class, we discussed the impact of the riots. While in the long term the Watts riots hurt the community, which was never fully rebuilt after the massive destruction and suffered even more economically as a result, a good deal of attention was paid to the plight of the black community there in the immediate aftermath.
The book offers an interesting point of comparison with the events currently unfolding in Ferguson, where the community is peacefully uniting not in destruction but in the name of rebuilding something that was broken by violence at the hands of the police. Though Horne’s book may be dry, it is salient in this day and age.