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City's on Fire: Remembering the Watts Riots

Saturday marks the 47th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion. It will pass relatively unnoticed, partly because 47 is not the multiple of ten that makes historic events newsworthy to the media, partly because we just went through the 20-year look back at the unrest of 1992. But '92 was the direct descendant of '65, almost a continuation of it; though it wrought more damage in terms of dollars and unfolded before the eyes of the world in the budding digital age -- riots as the ultimate reality show -- the racial and economic discontent and geographic isolation that fueled the rage were the same things that fueled Watts. It's a connection we keep minimizing or ignoring altogether, at our peril.

I was three at the time and remember nothing about the event. Brian O'Neal was nine and remembers it very clearly. O'Neal is a musician and front man for the Bus Boys, the blues-funk-boogie-woogie-rock band that burst onto the scene in the early 1980s (I wrote about them earlier this year here). The band made its mark in Hollywood and beyond, but O'Neal has remained intensely interested in the humbler, well-south-of-the-10-Freeway L.A. neighborhoods from which he came. On August 11 he and the BusBoys are releasing a single, "City's on Fire," a moody but rocking tribute -- or lament -- to those tense summer days in Watts forty-seven years ago. (The song is featured in the film "Freeway City," a documentary about the Watts-adjacent city of Gardena due out this year for which O'Neal wrote the soundtrack. A trailer of the single can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/46658949 and a trailer of the documentary at http://vimeo.com/46658560). O'Neal calls that time absolutely transformative for the city, a moment that changed us forever.

Much of the change was in our configuration. "Before '65, the shape of L.A. was one thing," says O'Neal, who graduated from Gardena High School and now lives in the Valley. "After '65, it became something else. Before '65 there was still that old L.A. that existed in the '40s that was segregated around Central Avenue, with blacks clustered in that area and the west side pretty much west of Vermont. After '65, it became something else." Born near El Segundo Boulevard and Central Avenue, by '65 O'Neal's family had moved to the border of Gardena and Carson. But his parents were very much part of the Watts community: his father taught at Grape Street Elementary, his mother at 93rd Street School (one of the schools I attended in the late '60s).

That old L.A. included a vibrant and still-genteel downtown that O'Neal visited regularly as a kid with his mother on the weekends before the conflagrations of '65. His reward for suffering through his mother's shopping jags at the department stores was lunch at Ontra's cafeteria. At the same time, he recalls joining his parents in protest marches against the elegant Biltmore hotel, which, like many other places, discriminated against blacks. The tension between the idyllic promise of L.A. and the social realities common to the rest of the country was palpable, edging toward confrontation.

Confrontation came, of course, aided by the cresting civil rights movement and the whole '60s zeitgeist of challenge and transformation. By the time O'Neal graduated high school in 1974, he and his band were headlining the Biltmore. But the bulk of big change was troubling, and permanent: the white flight that happened almost instantaneously after Watts took with it the economic stability of "old" L.A. The black aspirational class, like O'Neal's family, also exited, leaving behind a less educated working-class black population that became isolated racially, economically, and culturally -- a triple hit. Though the racial context of South Central has changed dramatically, specifically with the huge Latino immigrant influx, blacks live with the effects of that same isolation today.

The danger is that in the last 47 years, all of us have grown too comfortable with that isolation; it may not be right, but it is tolerated. O'Neal says that being right -- that is, being on the side of the status quo -- is highly overrated. "A democratic society, if it wants to stay whole, has to heed not only the vote of the majority, it has to respond to the needs of the minority," he says. "Being the historical majority is just not the end of the story." Or it shouldn't be. Stay tuned.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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