Editorials

Op Images: Fifty years after the Watts riots, we do learn, history does matter

Protesters stage a “die-in” on a Los Angeles street in November. Whether it’s police slain because of their uniform or young men targeted because of their skin color, protesters nationwide have been calling for understanding of the humanness we all have in common.
Protesters stage a “die-in” on a Los Angeles street in November. Whether it’s police slain because of their uniform or young men targeted because of their skin color, protesters nationwide have been calling for understanding of the humanness we all have in common. Los Angeles Times

Fifty years ago this coming August, a white California Highway Patrol officer at a Los Angeles crossroads pulled over a black man named Marquette Frye.

The confrontation that ensued would echo for generations: The Watts riots lasted for nearly a week, killing 34 people. Two of the casualties were law enforcement officers. Hundreds of bystanders were injured.

Yet in its aftermath, the bitter dynamic between police and people of color held on as stubbornly as ever, and not just in Los Angeles.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: That’s what some might see in what I think are this year’s most representative pictures. Five decades since Marquette Frye and what do we have to show for it? Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice.

White-on-black killings by police in Missouri, New York, Ohio. Mass uprisings and protests in cities across the nation. Two New York police officers executed in Brooklyn by a suicidal black man apparently whipped up by all the anti-police fervor. Police closing ranks. Fifty years of this.

But five decades isn’t nothing, either. Beneath the emotional reactions of grieving police and civilians this time, there seems to be an understanding among the rest of us that things actually have changed, ever so slightly, since 1965.

Whether we mourn police targeted because of their uniforms or young men targeted because of their skin color, the most fervent calls have been for an appreciation of the humanity we all have in common.

Look at the crowds: whole city blocks, marching together. Look at the faces: all races and colors.

Look at the words: “I can’t breathe.” “Hands up, don’t shoot.” “Black lives matter.” “Blue lives matter.” “All lives matter.”

My husband grew up in L.A. He remembers the Watts riots. Few in those years, black or white, could see past their anger toward those kinds of connections.

I covered the L.A. riots in 1992. I remember how hard people tried to get along afterward, and how tribal they actually were, circling their wagons as they talked past each other.

This time, our daughter was in New York during that city’s massive protests. Crowds filled the street in equal-opportunity rage against abusive police tactics. Everyone seemed to want in on the conversation, she said. Everyone seemed to want to send the right message.

Most even wanted to make it clear that it was bad law enforcement they were against, not all law enforcement. Few felt anything but shock and heartsickness at the subsequent murders of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

This year, whether they were of mass die-ins or police with their backs turned, the images of protest mostly conveyed a yearning for understanding. Look at this photo taken last month in a Los Angeles crossroads. The demonstrators are peaceful. The police hold back, just watching.

Fifty years is a long time, but look closely at this year’s most resonant pictures. There is evolution echoing in there. Generation by generation, bit by bit, we change.

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