18 August 2015

The Watts Riots, Rodney King and Me

By Paul D. Marks

The fiftieth anniversary of the Watts Riots was last week. It was an earthshattering event in this country. Around the same time, the Sixties exploded on the scene, not just the various riots and protests, but the music, the counterculture, the war in Viet Nam, civil rights. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Things changed. They’ve never been the same.

I was young when the riots happened, but not too long after them I had the experience recounted below. It’s been printed/published elsewhere but I think it’s worth another look. And since this a crime writers and crime writing blog, I think I can tie it in since my Shamus-Award winning novel, White Heat, takes place during the explosive Rodney King riots of 1992.

~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

When people think of Watts they think of the Watts Towers—and the Watts Riots of August, 1965. That year, while the Beatles sang about Yesterday, another chant went up in South Central Los Angeles.
~.~.~.~

1965: "Burn, baby, burn!" is the anthem that many remember the Watts Riots by. It is theWattsriots-burningbuildings-loc -- Public Domain chant shouted by people as the city burns. The spark that sets off the riots is a black man being stopped for a traffic ticket. Long-simmering frustration boils over and the city ignites. Thirty-four people are killed, a thousand-plus are wounded and almost four thousand arrested. Tensions in Los Angeles are as high as the smoke rising from the smoldering city streets.

     Los Angeles is burning.

~.~.~.~


1991: Another motorist is stopped for speeding and evading the police. His beatdown isrodney_king_riot__1992 -- Free to share and use per Bing Licensing caught on video:

1992: The cops accused of beating Rodney King are acquitted. People pour into the streets. Looting. Assault. Arson. Murder. Fifty-three dead. Twenty-three hundred injured and sixteen-hundred buildings damaged or destroyed.

     Los Angeles is burning.

 ~.~.~.~


I was in Los Angeles in both '65 and '92. I remember the smoke, the fear permeating every quarter of the city.

But I have a different memory of Watts. It isn't of the riots, but occurred during another hot summer, not long after.

I met a boy named Walter in my summer school class. Unlike everyone else in the class and just about everyone in the school, he was black. And he wasn't a local, but was on some kind of student exchange program from Jordan High in Watts.

I'm sure we were as much a curiosity to him as he was to us. After all, we were the privileged white kids and he was the angry young black man. Only he didn't seem angry. He seemed like just another nice guy with glasses. He invited a group of us to come down and see where he lived: Watts. A word that sent shivers down a lot of Angelinos' spines in those days.

We were a little apprehensive about going down there, especially as Walter had told us to come in the crappiest cars we had. No shiny new cars. There were six or eight teenaged boys and girls in our little caravan of two crappy cars. But crappy in our neighborhood meant something different than it did in Walter's.

We met Walter in Will Rogers Park (now I believe Ted Watkins Park) in Watts and sat under a shady tree, a bunch of white kids and one black guy. We sat, just rapping—in the vernacular of the time—talking about music and houses and politics. We stood out like the proverbial sore thumb and people started coming over. Big dudes, little dudes. Cool dudes. Girls. No one seemed to resent our being there. In fact, they seemed glad to have us. Glad to be able to share with us and have us share with them. There was no sense of rancor or resentment. Just curiosity—a curiosity that went both ways. This was a time when people wanted to come together, not be separated. None of them knew Walter and they certainly didn't know us. But they joined our group and we rapped on.

Then Walter said, "You want to see where I live?"

Jordan-Downs_4-Edited-1024x576 -- Free to share and use commercially per Bing License
Of course we did. So he took us to the projects—Jordan Downs. We drove past burned out buildings and vacant lots that had not so long ago had buildings on them. And we saw how the other half lived.

"It's not the best place in the world to live," Walter said. "But it could be a whole lot worse."

Our last stop was a trip to the Watts Towers, those soaring spires of glass, steel and concrete built by Simon Rodia. They are a monument to what anyone can do if they put their mind to it.

Watts Towers 11400919376_747ed8aa89_z
We returned to our cars and, to our relief, they hadn't been stolen. And, corny as it might sound, I think we all learned that we're more alike than different, with the same aspirations, hopes and fears.

That day was one of the most memorable experiences of my life—one that I wouldn't trade for anything. It was a wonderful day and we all went home full of hope for the future. We just wanted to get to know each other. Ultimately I think Rodney King had it right when he said, "Can we all get along?"

Why the hell can't we?

~.~.~.~.~.~.~



And now for some delightful BSP—remember, there’s a P at the end of the BS!

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00019]
Vortex: My new Mystery-Thriller novella coming September 1st. Available for pre-order now.

“...a nonstop staccato action noir... Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery... but be forewarned: once picked up, it's nearly impossible to put down before the end.”
      —D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review




Akashic Fade Out Annoucement D1d--C w full date
http://www.akashicbooks.com/fade-out-by-paul-d-marks/


Fade Out: flash fiction story—set at the infamous corner of Hollywood and Vine—came out Monday August 17th on Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder, Monday (big surprise, huh?), and still available, of course.









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14 comments:

janice law said...

A good piece- and congratulations on your new novel and story. Best of luck with both

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Janice!

Eve Fisher said...

Congratulations on your story and your novel.
As I've said before, I remember a couple of LA riots myself. And I heard all about the Watts Riots when I was a kid - it seemed unbelievable at the time. Later, it made its own kind of sense. I agree, why the hell can't we all get along?

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Eve.

B.K. Stevens said...

I'll add my congratulations on your novel and story.

Your essay brings back many memories. But good grief--has it really been fifty years? And twenty-three years since Rodney King? It hardly seems possible.

Anonymous said...

Oh, gosh, 50 years!?

Congratulations on your new novella, wising you lots of sales!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, B.K. Yes, 50 years. And it is truly hard to believe it's been that long.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Catherine. And I hope you're right about the sales :)

Barb Goffman said...

Did you keep in touch with Walter? Do you know how he's fared all these years?

Paul D. Marks said...

Hi Barbara, For a while, but then we all lost touch. I wish I'd stayed in touch with him. And, unfortunately, I can't remember his last name. I do think about him from time to time, though. -- Ah, it was so long ago...

Leigh Lundin said...

Very cool experience, Paul. I wish some of present politicians could make the same journey.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Leigh. And I agree with you about our great leaders.

lisaljohnljc said...

great inspiring story Paul. I like the photo of the tower, all steel and glass. Very cool stuff here!
Can't wait to read your new book.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Lisa. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. And the book will be out very soon.