Los Angeles

Burning Down The House: Cultural Activism Bases in South L.A.

The Mafundi Institute Building at 1827 103rd Street, with restored mural by Elliot Pinkney

Community self-organizing blossomed at the intersection of art and radical politics in South Los Angeles after the 1965 uprising, and so did a bouquet of the physical "bases" that foster cultural activism. Among them were the Studio Watts Workshop, Watt's Writers' Workshop, the Mafundi Institute, Inner City Cultural Center, the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles, and Compton Communicative Arts Academy.

With fewer such bases existing today, Chuco's Justice Center -- "a radical art space and gathering place where the movement to end California's prison-industrial complex is taking shape" -- stands out as a rare flower. Unlike its predecessors though, Chuco's does not name itself a center of "art" or "culture." In an old factory space on the border of South L.A. and Inglewood the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) proclaims to "use direct action organizing, advocacy, political education and activist arts to mobilize youth, and their allies...to bring about change."

Since it opened in 2009, Chuco's has grown to house nine justice-oriented organizations, including YJC, the FREE L.A. High School ("Fight for the Revolution that Will Educate and Empower Los Angeles"), and Critical Resistance (CR) ("opposing the expansion of the prison industrial complex"). In addition to core group activities, Chuco's calendar offers Theater of the Oppressed, capoeira, and dance workshops, alongside legal clinics and such direct action training as "Intro to Flash Mobs," and "Light Projection of Messages on Public Space."

"No More Cages," Jesus Barraza. Silkscreen, 2013 | Image courtesy of Critical Resistance<br />

Early on Saturday March 15, several dozen activists met at Chuco's for the final rehearsal of a CR-planned action opposing a new women's jail in Lancaster. The multi-generational, multi-ethnic group divided into four sections. Each section carried one of four images - heirs to the visual clarity of Emory Douglas - and chanted a related demand. ("We want schools" accompanied Deborah Krall's image of a child in prison stripes for instance.)

Later that day, the four groups chanted their way from the four corners of the Antelope Valley Mall, and converged at the central food court. Here they performed a skit, answered questions, and invited shoppers to an information session at the local park.

Coordinating sound, movement, performance, and visuals, the Lancaster action utilized many of the attention-grabbing, message delivering tools that art affords. As activist and artist Gloria Galvez explained: "Visual aesthetics and sounds trigger emotions in people. When these elements are applied to our community organizing our audience is left with a deeply memorable experience."

For Galvez, who grew up in Inglewood: Chuco's became "my oasis in the midst of a desolation," and "continues to create for many others an access to art, culture and community" that is otherwise "constantly denied." "It is through art and culture," she added, "that individuals like myself become empowered to imagine new possibilities." While for CR, Heather O'Brien observed that "the role of art and visionary expression has become essential to help us find creative ways of unifying ourselves and others in our fight against the violence of prisons and jails."

Chuco's Justice Center, March 15. | Photograph by Janet Owen Driggs

Spectacle and propaganda, individual empowerment, community unification, self and collective expression, the visioning of alternatives - like their predecessors, Chuco's and YJC wield art as an intentional power tool in pursuit of radical change. Why not then, call it an art center?

"It is very possible that if [they] were founded in contemporary times they too would of felt the urgency to choose an overtly political name," Gloria responded. "The sixties had an atmosphere where politics were constantly a part of popular culture and the conversations people were having...but now things have drastically changed...People are no longer mobilizing on a mass level against injustice, but there are still some of us doing so and we want to make sure people know it!"

Addressing that lack of mass mobilization, Chuco's website states: "Change begins when people find their voice. Unfortunately in the u.s., where consumer culture collides with the rights of individualism...Having a voice...doesn't often lead to a conversation about oppressive conditions...For most people, having a voice is as far as it goes."

Speaking to changing times then, Chuco's name is not so much a rejection of art, as it is the refusal of a certain understanding of art. By which I mean the understanding that art making is, most properly, an individual exodus with self-expression as its ejaculatory accomplishment.

Rehearsing at Chucos, March 15. | Photograph by Janet Owen Driggs

Chuco's continues a long lineage of "bases" of arts and culture mobilization in South L.A.

When six-days of conflict killed thirty-four Angelenos in August 1965, and vividly exposed the fissures of race and class that cleft the city, many perceived art to be a powerful tool. Revolutionaries like Black Panther Culture Minister Emory Douglas wielded art as "a tool for liberation." The more reform minded, including Studio Watts Director James M. Woods, embraced art as "a tool for social change." While civic leaders, anxious to counter images of the National Guard patrolling L.A.'s streets, "turned to cultural institutions to generate media-friendly representations of civic stability," and started funding public and community art practices.

In this diverse triangle, a compost of inequality and oppression fed action at the grassroots. "Black people," explained poet and Studio Watts cofounder Jayne Cortez in 2002, "were tired of...the amount of sacrifices made as a consequence of white domination." "Many artists," she continued, "drew energy from the rebellion."

Studio Watts opened at 10311 Grandee Avenue in 1964, after accountant and USC Business School graduate James Woods "called a meeting of friends to discuss creating a multiracial artists' collective." Initially funded by Woods and his probation officer wife, the Studio offered 150 "apprentices" free classes taught by "masters," including Jayne Cortez, dancer Carmencita Romero, designer Bob Rogers, sculptor Guy Miller, and visual artist John Whitmore.

The Mafundi Institute at the Watts Happening Coffee House, 1802 E. 103rd Street, c. 1965-1970. | Image courtesy of Watts Coffee House.<br />

When Watts erupted the Studio gathered energy, and -- though not immediately -- philanthropic funds. "We did character studies, worked on plays, scenes, wrote poetry and performance pieces," Cortez wrote of the Studio's early days. "We also used Jean Genet's "The Blacks" as an excuse to break limitations and traditional play formulas."

"I tried out for a part and landed the lead role of the character Village," recalls poet Eric Priestley, an original member of the Watts Writers Workshop. "My high school chum [writer and jazz critic] Stanley Crouch, was also in the play." In addition to performing at Studio Watts, the company took 'The Blacks' to Hollywood's Ash Grove, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and the first Watts Summer Festival.

When Cortez and The Watts Repertory Theatre Company left Studio Watts in 1967, they continued to perform "at political and cultural events throughout Los Angeles." Meanwhile the Studio shifted its focus to low-income housing, and became the Watts Community Housing Corporation in 1969. "Today," wrote Eric Priestley in 2002, "there is no evidence that Studio Watts ever existed on Grandee Street."

Screenshot of the Watts Writers Workshop in action at the Watts Happening Coffee House, 1965, from "Budd Schulberg; Rise and Fall of the Watts Writers Workshop," 1999

When Oscar-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg toured post-uprising Watts, he pinned a notice to the Westminster Neighborhood Association (WNA) bulletin board inviting people to a creative writing workshop. After a slow start, the Watts Writers Workshop (WWW) outgrew its home in the WNA pantry and moved to the Watts Happening Coffee House, 1802 103rd Street.

In the 1967 WWW anthology "From the Ashes: Voices of Watts," Schulberg described the church-funded Coffee House as an ex-furniture store "that the young people of the area have transformed...into an art center." It hosts "happenings and political discussions that lean toward extreme Black Nationalism...a record player that swings," and sofas for "our homeless young poets." They "get picked up for loitering, for being on the streets after midnight, for having no definite address."

"A creative writing class in Watts was fine, as far as it went, but it didn't go very far for writers who were homeless," commented Schulberg. So, when poet Leumas Sirrah was arrested on false charges of armed robbery, the group found "a nine-room house, literally in ruins," at 9807 Beach Street, and Schulberg's "Hollywood pals" and grants from the newly created National Endowment for the Arts funded the "Frederick Douglass Writer's House." Time magazine, NBC, and the BBC took note.

"Educate Don't Incarcerate," Deborah Krall. Silkscreen, 2000<br />
Image courtesy of Critical Resistance

"Because of the barrage of media attention," writes David E. James in "The Sons and Daughters of Los," "these writers became a central component in the nation's consciousness of racial conflict." Their words "changed the perception of post-1965 Watts from the National Guard-studded streets to an active arena of spiritual and cultural struggle."

The changed perception was not, however, of the status quo-restoring kind for which civic leaders had hoped. Instead, says William Cleveland, director of the Center for the Study of Art & Community: "For some in the government, the persistent and growing volume of strong black voices of dissent from the previously-muted ghetto was not only troubling, it was proof that something sinister was afoot." Which is at least one reason why the FBI paid Darthard Perry to infiltrate the Workshop, undermine operations, and burn it down.

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As Perry professed on film: "To understand the people you have to understand the culture...you can take their culture and use it against them." And, on the specific WWW arson: "At the time funding had been cut," "but it looked like there was a possibility of a grant...and if there was no theater there would be no grant."

"End the Attack on Our Communities!" Melanie Cervantes, Just Seeds. Silkscreen, 2008 | Image courtesy of Critical Resistance

Perry also infiltrated the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles (PASLA) located at 8801 S. Vermont Ave, radio station KPFK, and the Mafundi Institute at 1827 103rd Street. Incubated at Watts Happening until 1970, Mafundi (Swahili for 'artisan') had stages, darkrooms, audio and visual studios; it "offered social services and educational programs," including classes in history and political theory; and, says Anthony (Amde) Hamilton of the Watts Prophets -- a product of the Watts Writers Workshop -- "we were working on a radio station."

Although "the artists were finally put out of this beautiful space and it was turned into a city office building," something of Mafundi's creative communality has been re-sprouted in recent years. Offering (great) food, training opportunities, and occasional live music, Watts Coffee House shares the building with the YO Watts High School; while the Watts Village Theater Company -- the area's only regular live theater producer -- regularly performs its socially conscious works in the old Mafundi auditorium.

Rehearsing at Chuco's, March 15. | Photograph by Janet Owen Driggs

In some ways much has changed since the mid-1970s. South LA now has a majority Latino population for example, and -- in line with a six-fold increase in the US prison population -- today's residents are three times more likely than yesterday's to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. In other ways however, much remains the same. Over 30% of South L.A.'s residents still live in poverty, and only two weeks ago City Councilmember Joe Buscaino announced that his office will move into the YO Watts Recreation Room, thereby displacing a youth and community center and the INSPIRE high school.

If the sprouts are being trimmed in Watts however, they are blossoming, for now, at Chuco's Justice Center.

For Chuco's, as for the Watts Writers Workshop, Studio Watts, Mafundi, ICCC, Emory Douglas et al, art is a tool that operates in the world; to help find individual voices, yes, but then to move "from isolation to action" together.

Edxie from LA Queer Resistance at Chuco's, March 15. | Photograph by Janet Owen Driggs

The story of South L.A.'s "bases" suggests that when art is not a solipsistic practice, it can be a powerful tool for action towards radical change. Which rather begs another question: is the decline of these vibrant institutions related to the simultaneous six-fold increase in the US prison population? Were "strong black voices of dissent" so stimulated and amplified by community-based cultural activism after 1965, that "some in the government" felt the need to not only uproot the flowers, but to inaugurate additional mechanisms of long-term control?

"Los Angeles in the '60s was not really worried about the Panthers," said Amde Hamilton in a recent interview, "because they knew...they were going to destroy them. The only people they could not control were the artists, and there were more artists than there was Panthers...and the artists had come together."

"That's why my book," he continued, "is called Me Today You Tomorrow. I'm watching what happened to us in Watts happen to America. Because it's an old saying, 'what happens in Los Angeles goes across America,' and I'm watching that happen."


Rehearsing at Chuco's, March 15. | Photograph by Janet Owen Driggs


See Also:

Rappin' Black in Los Angeles
Mike the Poet highlights the writers who have celebrated the diverse black arts community in Los Angeles.

Beats & Rhymes: Watts to Leimert Park
Mike the Poet recites his homage to the bright literary stars of Watts and Leimert Park.

Riots and Rebellions: Los Angeles Police Reform Time Line 1965-2012
Civil rights attorney Robert Garcia offers a timeline of key events leading up to and in the aftermath of the L.A. Riots.

L.A.'s Long Tradition of Conflict Over Art in Public Spaces
Look past the public art movement created by Los Angeles murals in the last 30 years and you will find a structure of civic policy that combatively drove the city's visual identity.


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Top Image: The Mafundi Institute Building at 1827 103rd Street, with restored mural by Elliot Pinkney.

About the Author

Janet Owen Driggs is a writer, artist and curator who, along with Matthew Owen Driggs, frequently participates in the collective identity “Owen Driggs.”
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