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Friday, August 12, 2005

Lessons Of Watts Riots Unlearned

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Watts Riots. The Kerner Commission Report put the blame on poverty and discrimination, thus giving an air of legitimacy to Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" welfare programs. One of a number of reports emanating from the Eisenhower Commission, Jerome Skolnick’s The Politics of Protest, also blamed "black rage" - that the riots were a natural and expected reaction to many years of blacks' pent-up anger toward white oppression.

At FrontPage Magazine, Abraham H. Millertears down the myths. He begins with this observation: if discrimination was a factor, then why didn't black rioting occur when and where discrimination was worst?/p>

What the social scientists and revolutionary romantics failed to comprehend was that the riots were taking place in those American cities most receptive to blacks. Los Angeles, one of the best places in America for blacks to live, belched forth the smoke of civil violence. Conversely, areas with a darker racial past did not fall into the grip of riots. In Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, the only smoke climbing upward was from the steel plants. Mississippi burned not from black unrest, but from Klan violence. Beyond that, deprivation, poverty and discrimination within the black community had been far greater in other decades.

One Ivy League professor has an alternate explanation for the riots:

Harvard sociologist Edward Banfield observed that the rioters were primarily young males whose politics led them to target liquor stores, and noted that the riots occurred on hot, sultry summer nights. This led him to conclude that the riots erupted merely “for fun and profit.” To Banfield and other observers, the riots had all the political content of a late spring panty raid on a college campus.

So why is rioting confined largely to young males? Because this behavior is confined largely to young males:

Damian Williams, the man who beat and actually danced around the unconscious body of white truck driver Reginald Denny, during the 1992 Rodney King riots, claimed he had no idea what the Rodney King verdict was. He justified his actions by claiming he got caught up in the violence itself. Most of us, of course, choose to walk away from violence and not get “caught up” in it. Similarly, British soccer rioters do not themselves complain of grievances, oppression or deprivation (albeit some social scientists have been happy to reconstruct their behavior in those terms). Rather, soccer rioters talk about “getting off” on the sheer pleasure of the riots or having an “aggro,” as they refer to the ecstasy derived from engaging in violence.

So how do we deal with riots?

One who took up that suggestion was the journalist Eugene Methvin. Methvin was, perhaps, the first to undertake such a systematic analysis, and he documented how to prevent riots. But it was hardly what the liberal establishment wanted to hear. Methvin found that the greatest deterrent to a riot was not an understanding of root causes or implementation of social programs but a fast and decisive police response. In a comparative study of the Watts riots and the Rodney King riots, I later found that Methvin was uncannily correct.

The Watts riots were quenched when then Inspector Daryl Gates decided that the tactics of riot control where not applicable to the mobile hit-and-run rioting the Los Angeles police encountered in Watts. Gates teamed police cars filled with heavily armed officers to intercept the rioters, and then proceeded to process and detain rioters at the scene. This way, officers would not be going back and forth from the riot scene to book the rioters. Once these alternations in police response were implemented, the Watts riot began to subside

Did Los Angeles learn its lesson? Heck no.

Unfortunately, the police failed to heed that lesson. During the 1992 King riots, the Los Angeles police, for reasons that one can only speculate about, did none of the things they had learned from Watts. Gates, then chief of police, lingered at a dinner and then took a helicopter ride over the city as it burned, while the police response remained without a central command structure or decision making authority.

To be sure, some observers have opined that in the racially tense atmosphere of Los Angeles in 1992, the police did not want cameras instantly televising live coverage of scores of young black males in handcuffs, surrounded by heavily armed police. But it remains the case that by adopting a less assertive approach, the LAPD allowed the riots to escalate to ever greater heights of destruction. When the police backed off, as had police in other cities in the 1960’s, riots grew in intensity, numbers and duration. The flames burned out of control.

Memo to the LAPD: appeasement never works.

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