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Will Thorne: My Life’s Battles

20150715_201917 Will Thorne (1857-1946) was an amazing trade union activist back at the dawn of trade unions. Born in Hockley, Birmingham he lived in London’s East End from 1882.

Originally published in 1925, this is perhaps not the most eloquent of books, but plain-spoken and deeply felt. Written by a self-educated man who shaped our lives, and yet is all but forgotten.

He started work at age 6, ‘turning a wheel for a rope and twine spinner at Rob’s Rope Walk’ from 6 am to 6 pm, a half hour breakfast and one hour for dinner, on Saturday’s he worked a half day and then went to his uncle’s who was a barber to lather faces for him until 11 pm.

His first strike? The rope maker reduced his wages from 2s. 6d. a week to 2s., and he refused and walked off.

He worked for another uncle at a brick and tile works, describes how each brickmaker was essentially an independent contractor, paid piece work and paying piece work in turn for the various other labourers needed. Dismissed for being caught asleep while tending the fire, he got work somewhere in another factory further away.

Aged nine, he awoke at 4:30 am, walked 4 miles to work, worked a 12 hour day, and then walked back home to a scanty meal. He writes of his mother telling him he had to quite, that:

‘I remember her telling me that the 8s. a week would be missed; some one would have to go short. But it was no use my being slowly killed by such work as I was doing, and it was making me humpbacked. It was not until I was away from the work for several weeks that I was able to straighten myself out again. (19)

Later he began in the gas works:

The retort houses are exceedingly hot, for both behind and in front of the stoker are the burning eyes of the furnaces; amidst the roaring of the heat-hungry retorts a breeze as of hell fans me. This is my job; these are my conditions. (37)

Men there worked 12 hour shifts, one week on days and one week nights — on the transition day/night between the two they worked 24 hours shifts. There are a number of scattered descriptions of the grimness of this work, and the constant efforts of employers to force the men to work longer and harder for the same or less pay — through both improved technology and shifting employment policies.

All of it echoes the description of the gas works which made such an impression on Flora Tristan in her visit to London.

the system we lived under at that time, the poverty and hardships the workers had to endure…made us rebels…. I was only fifteen, working at the metal-rolling mills, when I swore that I would do everything in my power to help prevent other children going through the same hardships, misery, and suffering that I had to go through. (46)

He started educating himself, talking to his fellow workers, trying to organise resistance. There are incipient organisations and blacklists.

There is also, of course, not least the allure of London:

I had always wanted to go to London, and my desire to go to the biggest city in the world was stimulated by letters from an old workmate at the Saltley works, who was no working at the Old Kent Road Gas Works… I finally decided to go to London in November, 1881. With two friends I started out to walk the journey, filled with the hope that we would be able to obtain employment…(49-50)

There are some comments on Jews swindling people in Petticoat Lane, and the rest is laced with thoughtlessly unkind references to peoples of colour, along with embarrassed footnotes that such language was accepted then as it shouldn’t be now. Yet this is the power of whiteness, even amongst those with nothing.

Once established in work, he brought his family down from Birmingham, but his son died at 6 mos while another daughter was born. The work dried up and back they went to his wife’s parents home just outside Birmingham. Then back to London the following year with two Irish brothers by the name of Keegan. Got a job in Beckton with help of foreman, who had also been on strike with him at the Saltley works. He brought wife and children down again, and this time it was to stay.

He joined the Social Democratic Federation, and would become secretary of Canning Town branch — he met everyone who was anyone. On a speech by George Bernard Shaw, he writes:

His lecture , while very interesting, was couched in such language as to make it difficult for him meaning to be grasped by most of the audience. He spoke to us just as if he was talking to an audience of thousands of people in the Albert Hall. I remember his sharp, caustic criticisms and the keen flashes of wit, which, however, where mostly lost on the hearers.

The East End of London has never taken kindly to the “highbrows,” although the growth of education is gradually permitting the submerged workers of this crowded, over-worked and over-populated district to appreciate the finer things in life. (56)

His education came from speeches, from conversations, and from the circulation of books and pamphlets. His definition of Socialism is part of a story he tells of a confrontation with a foreman, and is copied from a pamphlet giving the contents of a speech by John  Burns on the dock at the Old Bailey on 18th January, 1888, charged on charges of seditious conspiracy:

Socialism is a theory of society which advocates a more just, orderly, and harmonious arrangement of the social relations of mankind than that which prevails now

Substituting the principle of association for that of competition in every branch of production and distribution, Socialism proposes to abolish the system of wage slavery, and establish instead governmental, municipal cooperation, securing to every honest worker the full value of his labour, partly in personal remuneration, and partly in social and public benefits, such as education and recreation, sustenance and care in old age.

Socialism proposes that labour shall be a noble elevating duty, not an unhealthy slavish drudgery. (63)

He notes another book that helped him form his critique of society — J. Sketchley, A review of European Society, and an Exposition and Vindication of the Principles of Social Democracy. I’ve never heard of it.

will-thorneAnd all the while he is trying to organise for improved conditions.

Out of evil comes good. The despair of the workers at the conditions they were compelled to put up with was causing a stirring in their souls–souls deadened by long hours of hard labour, rewarded with the smallest possible amount of money to provide sufficient food, clothing and shelter to enable then to continue their drudging toil. (61)

He describes the 1st attempt to form a union of gas workers and general laborours in 1884 by Jack Monk, but fear of victimisation was so great it had to remain secret and lasted only a few weeks. 1885 saw the 2nd attempt to form a society, headquartered at the “Sir John Lawrence” in Canning Town.

His own union formed at a public meeting on 31st March, 1889 at the Canning Town Public Hall, on the subject of new rules whereby  men could be required to stay on after their shift on a Sunday. Thus was born the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland.

They asked for, and won, the eight hour day without going on strike.

By July 1889 they had over 60 branches, 44 in London. But it’s on to the big Dockers’ Strike of 1889 with barely a halt…

1889 was a big year, and at the end of it, it was accounts due and Thorne’s first report as head of the union. From it, I extract this gem:

In conclusion, I hope that every member, male and female, will do their utmost to make our union one of the strongest in England, and I am glad that we have the females with us, it being our duty to help our fellow-women, and raise them from the starving position in which they are at present placed. (102)

Clumsy in wording, but rather nice all the same. I can’t help but think this mention of women is all down to Eleanor Marx (Aveling), later on Thorne writes

Near to the Chancery Land lived Eleanor Marx-Aveling and Dr. Aveling. I knew them well. It was Eleanor that helped me more than any one else to improve my very bad handwriting, my reading and general knowledge. (117)

How wonderful of her.

Just in case you were thinking that all those victories were too easy and the bosses just handed over the eight hour day across the board, by December 1889 they had plotted their come back on a number of fronts, and gas workers had to go on strike again. They received donations of tea from a merchant and sold it on again, profits going to the strike fund — this expanded to become a store in Barking Rd, Canning Town near the union head office.

They started up a bakery — the first attempt failed, but the 2nd succeeded.

The profits from the bakery, although the bread is sold cheaper than at the ordinary bakeries, is used to subsidise our political efforts. Our nominees who are elected to the Town Council are paid the wages they lose while attending to their municipal duties. (111)

One of the biggest clashes was the strike at Wortley Gas Works in Leeds, a good reminder of the old strike days when the fight for our rights was a life and death one — and all of it illegal.

One of the local leaders, Tom Paylor, had heard that a number of blacklegs was to arrive at the New Wortley station at three o’clock in the morning. He chalked this information on the pavements in different parts of the city, and when the time arrived hundreds of strikers were in the vicinity.

The police were also in evidence in large numbers, but we had decided that no blackleg would go into the works without a fight, despite the great odds we were facing in challenging both the police and the blacklegs. (129)

Men and women massed along streets and a railway bridge blacklegs would have to pass under, armed with stones and wooden railway sleepers to throw down on police and scabs below — and they did. In a melee at the gates to the factory the crowd rushed the scabs, Thorne himself was knocked out cold.


Engles sent him a signed copy of Capital 1 and 2 after this. Bless. Thorne was at his 70th birthday party as a guest of the Avelings, and over the course of his days he met Jean Longuet, Marx’s grandson, William Morris, H.M. Hyndman and many others. He was elected to a majority Labour Council in West Ham, and then to Parliament.

He seems to have been a grand old man. While the book certainly gives you the sense that he was on the more conservative side of the Trade Union Movement of his time, and not forgetting the apparent racial limits to his views on the rights of man and his four wives, you could be pretty damn sure I think, that he’d always be on the right side of the barricades.

For more on labour and struggle…



Hamid Dabashi on the Arab Spring

Hamid Dabashi - Arab SpringI found Hamid Dabashi’s The Arab Spring inspiring, even though being written in the moment it might be a little repetitive and a little early in some of its pronouncements perhaps. Yet it captures a feeling — both of the exuberance and hopefulness of the protests that spread around the world at the time (and continue to some degree), and a frustration with old ways of thinking about things. We differ in some of the details of this, but it’s the delicious and productive kind of difference in opinion, not the same old frustrations with small groups stuck in their ways.

But first, to deal with that provocative tagline, the end of postcolonialism. As Dabashi writes:

[T]he major argument of this book is that events in the Arab and Muslim world generically referred to as the ‘Arab Spring [p 75]’ represent the end of postcolonial ideological formations as we have known them for the past two hundred years. By the end of postcoloniality, I mean the cessation of ideological production in colonial contexts and terms — the terms determined by the European colonial domination of the region, and the tyrannical ‘postcolonial’ states left behind when the Europeans collected their flags and left. Anticolonial nationalism, socialism, and Islamism are the ideological formations that historically have confronted European colonialism and shaped the modern nation-states … [p. 139]

The end of postcolonial ideological formations does not mean that colonialism itself has ended or that imperialism does not generate resistance but that the world is no longer trapped in old ways of thinking, trapped in opposition, but free to struggle with itself, move forward into new pathways. [p 140]

Said spoke for an earlier period, but to build on his work we must transcend it:

We need to overcome the anxiety of Orientalism and shift our theorizing lens to our evolving history and stop trying to explain things to that fictive white man who sat in Edward Said’s mind for a lifetime.

Ha. He also answers the ‘outlandish’ question of whether the subaltern can speak with a resounding of course. He questions Hardt and Negri for their Eurocentrism (and the Christianity of their ideals!), draws on Badiou and Hannah Arendt and Agamben and Bishara and poets and writers of Arabic that I do know — in something of a mishmash perhaps, but I think taking what is useful from different places to understand the now is no bad thing. That is not to say he asks that we forget the past, just that we do not allow those old patterns of thought and action to control us moving into the future. There is so much here, so just to focus on what I loved most.

I appreciate his efforts to see the academic/writer as making a conscious choice to join the uprisings, and then what their role can be. He writes:

The task of becoming attentive students of the uprisings and seeing to it that they generate their own knowledge are tasks no less urgent than the revolutions themselves. To be sure, we are fortunately no longer in the age of grand-narrative-based universalist philosophies and sweeping theorizations. Whereas the Left Kantians’ longing for ‘total revolution’ following the French Revolution ended up producing ‘prophets of extremity’ in Nietszche, Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida, I have opted for the idea of open-ended revolutions, work-in-progress, an opera aperta, as a working idea to keep the tenacity of these revolutions alive theoretically.

In terms of the search for a new mode of compatible knowledge, the left is part of the problem, not the solution. The Arab and non-Arab left must shape up and join the revolutions, and cease being an obstacle to them. [241]

I don’t know about the ‘prophets of extremity’ bit, (though I very much look forward to rolling my eyes at the next mention of Foucault over cocktails and muttering ‘prophet of extremity’), but I do agree that the establishment left needs to get its act together and act not as a brake, but as a springboard, isn’t that what we’ve been working and organising and theorising for? Still, the major lack in this book is a thoughtful look at the coproduction of knowledge, participatory research, praxis…just what kind of intellectual work needs to happen in the movement that is building, and how? That is a huge question that people have been working on in other places, people like Freire or Myles Horton, but which I don’t see being picked up or theorised elsewhere which saddens me.

But that said, above all this book made me happy. It does not takes us beyond, but calls for us to go there together with the people in revolt:

In order to reach for the current world, the world we live in, the world in which people revolt, the world in which Meydan Azadi and Tahrir Square have become emblematic of something else, something beyond ‘Western liberal democracy,’ something yet to be named, needs to be imagined. In this world, I suggest, demography, labour migration, gender apartheid, and environmental catastrophe are the key operative factors. In this world, Islam will not disappear, it will be sublimated into a new cosmopolitan worldliness. [p. 118]

I read that list of key operative factors and wanted to do a fist pump, yes I said, yes! That’s it, and that isn’t really what most people are talking about. He continues

…the commencement of the Arab Spring is the inaugural moment of not just a new historical but, more importantly, a new emancipatory geographical imagination… [55]

Again this is a thought that is started, but not really developed – how much exciting work is to be done? But I am fascinated with this idea

A geography of liberation begins with people’s struggles for bread and dignity and builds from there the moral map of their worldly whereabouts to wrap around a fragile planet. On this map there is no East or West, South or North, invested with ideological racialization, one against the other.[57]

I love his acknowledgement of the radical aspects of the civil rights movement, and his effort to recapture that understanding as we watch the renewed struggle. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been poor or oppressed can really understand just how important the struggle for bread and dignity are, the meaning and necessity of a basic level of security and respect in society. I know that I will never understand it fully having been born poor and treated so and still angry, yet white and with all the privileges of an American and European passport. Fundamental changes are needed to win these fundamental demands if we demand them for all.

Like the geographies of liberation, he raises what are for me equally exciting about the connection between democracy – a new, revitalised vision of democracy – and public space.

What the naked military apparatus of these illegitimate states faced was the expanded public space that was now fully conscious of itself…That amounts to the people, hitherto the subjects of a (‘postcolonial’) tyranny, becoming, ipso facto, the citizens of the republic they wish to populate and thus expand into the public space they must thus define and designate. [204]


The regime du savoir associated with that politics is being altered, by way of altering the worlds we inhabit, and not merely by way of resistance to power. The transversalism of these revolutionary uprisings, as a result, generates its own synergy by systematically and consistently expanding the public space they implicate for the exercise of civil liberties.

These are all revolts that are fundamentally about the (re)taking of public space, both physical and virtual, the (re)taking of a new kind of citizenship, and I’m following this idea along here, but it is a citizenship not of blood or passports, but of geography and struggle. I love thinking through this, and I love that he did not focus on this as a virtual revolution as it so clearly was not, that was simply one aspect of the millions of people actually physically coming together and demanding regime change, demanding social justice, demanding a new world. A view of this as simply being about twitter and youtube and blogging takes away much of its power and potential as a force for revolutionary change

Thus the middle class and blogging are offered as the explanations for a transnational uprising that was catalysed by a fruit peddler who set himself on fire out of economic desperation. [222-223]

We cannot forget that.

Gerald Horne, Watts and the Fire This Time

Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time is an intriguing study of the Watts uprising, situating it in both a national context of red-baiting and the impact on civil rights struggles of the destruction of any kind of radical class-based organizing, and an international context with its connections to liberation struggles and cold war politics. He argues the uprising marks a full change:

The uprising in Watts was a milestone marking the previous era from what (16) was to come. For blacks it marked the rise of black nationalism, as blacks revolted against police brutality. But what began as a black revolt against the police quickly became a police revolt against blacks. This latter revolt was a milestone too, one marking the onset of a “white backlash” that would propel Ronald Reagan into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento and then the White House. White backlash proved to be more potent than what had given it impetus, black nationalism. This too was the meaning of the 1960s (17).

This is part of a larger argument, and I’d guess it is one he is making across several books – I haven’t read the others, but they are all on my list

I have argued that just as the conflict between capitalism and slavery led to the abolition of bonded labor, the conflict between capitalism and the possibilities of socialism led to the abolition of formal Jim Crow. I am certain that at some point in the twenty-first century, historians will be obligated to tackle this important question–the dismantling of legalized segregation by reference to the Cold War (17).

He also has a clear understanding (though he doesn’t use the same language) as those who describe California’s racial hierarchies – he refers to it as compounded racism drawing on Griswold de Castillo:

The impact of the Mexican heritage of California must be considered also. Blacks could receive civil rights concessions for national security reasons; in California there’ was the added incentive of a competing, compounded racism. By the time Los Angeles experienced another burst of civil unrest in
1992, the city’s Latino, or Spanish-speaking, population was growing more rapidly than monolingual blacks. This created an opportunity for blacks in the city and state to assume the position of “middle man minority” and consequently to gain top posts in City Hall and Sacramento much more rapidly than their Latino counterparts. (18)

This is echoed in the wonderful quotes he draws together about the complexities and contradictions of L.A.’s residential and labour landscapes—this book’s strength is in the framework for analysis and the incredible amount of original source material that he draws from. My only critique is that it seems like a (very large) chapter in a larger work, drawing on an understanding of a radical and left-leaning L.A. that is not widely known, making the framework seem sometimes like an outline, filled in with amazing detail:

Langston Hughes captured the complexity of LA and race at this time. The city, he said, “seemed more a miracle than a city, a place where oranges sold for one cent a dozen, ordinary black folks lived in huge houses with ‘miles of yards,’ and prosperity seemed to reign in spite of the Depression.” Yet he felt that Hollywood “might just as well be controlled by Hitler.” 26 The social scientist Charles Johnson also noticed this racial complexity. “In certain plants where Mexicans were regarded as white, Negroes were not allowed to mix with them; where Mexicans were classed as colored, Negroes not only worked with them but were given positions over them. In certain plants Mexicans and whites worked together; in some others, white workers accepted Negroes and objected to Mexicans; still in others white workers accepted Mexicans and objected to Japanese.”27 When employers hired African Americans, they preferred the light-skinned variety. According to James Gregory nothing bothered Okies more “than California’s system of racial and ethnic relations.” They were shocked by signs reading “no white laborers need apply.” The conflict between their past and present realities helps to explain why a raw racism became a “source of group identity” for many of these migrants from a state known as “Little Dixie.” 28 (29)

Despite, or because of this, many felt it widely understood that L.A. didn’t have the same kind of race problem as did Detroit or Chicago.

Staff member William Colby reminded the McCone Commission about the widespread opinion that “Los Angeles was number 1 as the place where Negroes are better off.” Perhaps because of the affluent stratum of black sports figures and entertainers, cinema and television representations, the appealing climate, or all of the above, the city was favored by many black migrants, not only from the traditional southern areas but also increasingly deteriorating midwestern cities like St. Louis.20 Despite the claims of Colby, a number of blacks viewed the City of Angels as “spiritually below the Mason-Dixon line, without the nastiness of park benches labeled ‘for colored,'” and “40 years behind the rest of the country.” 21 (50) (20. Report by William Colby, 11 Nov. 19 Box 18, 16 McCone Papers)

I love also the drawing out of class divisions, the particularities of Watts that made it the epicentre of rebellion:

On top of the regional insult suffered by all blacks, those of Watts had the added burden to bear that gave added intensity to their anger; they not only faced interracial pain but the intraracial variety as well. Stanley Sanders, the other son of Watts and its first Rhodes scholar, has added his own interpretation. He blamed the building of Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Court, and other housing projects that came to hold a significant percentage of the black poor as being partly responsible for Watts’s image. Out of this vortex emerged gangs like the Black Swans and the Farmers. Each project spawned different gangs, and conflict was not unknown. Speaking in 1990, Sanders recalled that “most middle class blacks” were “afraid to come to Watts.” With a remaining scintilla of bitterness, he recalled rejection at a dance because he came from Watts. He and his friends were deemed “outcasts.” They were “looked down on” by other blacks. They were the “bottom of [the] barrel,” he continued. He remembered not only a “color line” but an “economic” line. There was economic conflict that had both interracial and intraracial consequences. The same could be said of color conflict. There was not only the usual white chauvinism; there were “very few fair skinned blacks in Watts,” and these were perceived as discriminating against their darker brothers and sisters, referring to folks in Watts as “those black niggers in Watts” as if they were “a whole different race.” This combination of resentments–a compounded racism in sum-helps to explain why LA exploded first and with a fervor dwarfing contemporaneous outbursts. 25 (51)

There’s some really interesting stuff about the reaction, and how the uprising was viewed by establishment figures:

Later, after the fires had cooled, journalist Theodore White agreed with Parker: “Modern Negro violence is not simply rioting but an urban form of guerilla warfare” that needed to be confronted with new “weapons and tactics.” Strikingly, White conceded the black nationalists’ argument, even using androcentric terms: “It is, at this time, perhaps necessary to find out how to create some form of Negro self-government coupled with Negro responsibility in the big cities which will give Negroes that sense of control over their own destinies that all men so dearly require.”(64)

This idea I find both fascinating and a bit tragic – the way that Marcus Garvey was also able to find some common cause with white supremacists because both groups wanted black folks to secede, to separate, to segregate. It helps put in perspective the change in the movement post-Watts, and why it was such a crisis for King and others:

The Watts Uprising helped to set in motion a nationalism that filled an ideological void in Black LA. The Black Scare was unpredictable; it could and did present a threat to the person of some elite whites. The stories and pictures of whites being pulled from their cars and attacked were frightening to some of those with melanin deficiency. But, akin to the old Jack Benny joke, where the comedian is torn when the robber demands, “Your money or your life,” LA elites recognized that the nationalists could be accommodated in a way that their militant predecessors of the left could not. As long as separatism was decoupled from reparations, the NOI-influenced nationalism not only did (132) not present a threat to private property, it could even be helpful-along with racism–in keeping apart those who might want to unite jointly against the LAPD and the elites it was sworn to protect. The problem for blacks was that the blows from LAPD batons raining steadily down on their heads — overwhelmingly by white officers commanded by white elites–made any notion of “black and white unite and fight” seem like a delirious dream not even worthy of Hollywood. (133)

And so we are left to look at what remains, what happened to the vibrant movements. He doesn’t go into the destruction of the Panthers, only that their tenure was brief and allusions to the role of the FBI in their demise. But it’s clear why he believes they were targeted as they were:

So, after the excessive fire launched by the LAPD, there was widespread praise for Chief Parker, some flawed affirmative action, and a few other minor reforms. The black community was moving increasingly in a nationalist direction, angry at whites generally and their perceived designated representatives, a mostly.white LAPD. But this sentiment was contained in crystallized form in the theological vessel of the NOI [Nation of Islam]. There was the NAACP, which was perceived as being the spokesman for the middle class. There were gangs, some evolving toward the Black Panther party. And there were the so-called cultural nationalists, who pioneered in the “Black Is Beautiful” movement but allowed themselves to be manipulated against the Panthers. The Panthers had concluded that only armed struggle could repel the LAPD.
Except for the Panthers, all of these forces had rudimentary middle-class ideas about becoming entrepreneurs or middle-level government bureaucrats, or managing illicit empires, or simply finding a way to survive U.S. imperialism mentally and culturally without challenging it. In the 1990s all—except the Panthers—continue to exist. (167)

The Watts Uprising: Sears & McConahay’s Politics of Violence

In The Politics of Violence, Sears & McConahay offer a detailed and academic study of the Watts uprising, sometimes known as the riots. Their goal in their own words:

This is a book about the political and social psychology of the Los Angeles Watts Riot of August 1965, an event that changed the course of American race relations. We shall attempt here to formulate, and to subject to rigorous empirical test, a comprehensive social psychological theory of urban mass violence. Two basic questions will be addressed: (1) Can riot participation rightfully be interpreted as a political act? (2) What were the major political effects of the riot? (vii)

The framing of this isn’t quite the way I’d go about it, but what it comes up with is very interesting. They follow these two main goals up with additional questions they believe are important, and that in themselves are insightful into the ways that the Watts uprising has been understand and the questions that it has raised for the wider society:

(1) Why did the riot happen in 1965, of all times, in the midst of what was apparently an unprecedented national civil rights effort, with the most sympathetic white public, President, Congress, and judiciary in history, and in the midst of great prosperity? (2) Why did it happen in Los Angeles, of all places, generally thought to be among the most pleasant, open, and egalitarian of American cities? (3) Was the riot politically meaningful in origin; that is, did it grow out of no longer tolerable social conditions that had to be reformed if further riots and miseries were to be avoided? Or was it a politically meaningless explosion, generated mainly by criminals, malcontents, or a few agitators, who managed to dupe hapless innocents? (4) What were the political consequences of the rioting? Did it lead whites to further sympathy for black people, and at long last spur them out of lethargy into remedial social action, or did it create a massive backlash that abruptly terminated the sympathetic consensus and thrust for civil rights progress? Did it horrify and terrify decent black citizens into a renunciation of all forms of confrontation, or provide for a general uplift in black pride and black solidarity, or fuel the advocacy of militant action and racial violence? Did race relations move into a more mature and realistic era, or regress into greater suspiciousness, hostility, and distance? (viii)

I liked this especially:

For simplicity’s sake, though, we have decided to use the term “riot” because it was used overwhelmingly in the media and by most of our respondents. Our data indicate, as will be seen, that it was more of a “rebellion” than a “riot,” but we will let our data speak for themselves and not try to prejudge the case by selecting a less commonly used word (ix).

Also this:

Blacks in Los Angeles had been angry for a long time, perhaps since first Negro arrived and the Los Angeles Times began printing a column (c. 1880)entitled “News From Nigger Alley. Nevertheless, most whites were unaware of the extent and depth of black grievances until after the rioting of 1965 (55).

But their findings on whites are more interesting really. They write:

One consequence of these mild peculiarities of the early settlers, and of the life style they created for themselves, was a profound degree of black invisibility–both before and after the mass immigration of blacks to Los Angeles. By “invisibility” we mean an absence of blacks in the perceptual world of white Southern Californians. Whites were (and are) physically isolated from blacks (134).

In analysing the reasons for this, Sears & McConahay come up with a list of explanatory factors: ‘The Naive In-Migrant’, often from the Mid-West and unused to Black folks and believing the West was free of such problems; ‘Racial Isolation’, a disperse urban pattern and segregation kept them apart and interestingly this: ‘the uniquely retreatist or privatistic life style of today’s new American suburbs has flourished in Los Angeles for many years, further diminishing the opportunities for interracial contact (135); ‘De Facto Segregation’ both in residence, but also shopping patterns and lack of public transportation causes greater isolation; ‘Invisibility in the Media’ (there is an amazing graph on this).

I’m not sure I buy their analysis that L.A.’s version of racism was primarily symbolic–having researched and read enough horribly vile leaflets and letters against integration, and given the Klan’s popularity. This sort of nastiness most associated with the deep South (from whence many whites moved to L.A.) was alive and well alongside more puritanical judgements, fear of the unknown and etc. I don’t believe much tension arose from whites attempting to impose traditional puritanical mores onto different cultures, alternative values and lifestyles — Douglas Flamming’s work, for example, on African Americans in L.A. seems to show at least a large portion of the community were just as believing in hard work and striving for middle-classness as anyone else. Where it does make sense is this world view demanding belief that each individual is what they make of themselves with no allowance for racism’s structural features.

So it’s a interesting line they take, mostly using ‘Black invisibility’ to argue that whites just didn’t know what was happening. I’d say more that they didn’t want to know, but this is really interesting:

Finally, it is this combination of invisibility, indifference, and ignorance, on the one hand, and the moralism of symbolic racism, on the other, that evoked, we believe, one of the oddest and least expected aspects of the riot; namely, the widespread feeling among blacks that the riot was a demand for attention more than an effort to redress specific and concrete deficiencies in their lives (144).

And again, they refer to this spatial aspect in which L.A. is a prototype rather than exception for sprawling development:

In the near future, at least, it appears that the dominant suburban pattern will be traditional values and privatize life styles in an ethnically homogeneous retreat from blacks who are isolated in the central city (even when the retreat is homogeneously populated with Roman Catholics espousing Protestant virtues). In this sense, then, Los Angeles differs from the rest of America only in that it is the most American of all (146).

So responses:

The racial polarization of local black and white leaders was duplicated almost immediately in the responses of the black and white publics, These descriptions of and feelings about the riot were as different as night and day and they formed the basis for a broad initial polarization over the issue of the riot, with blacks joined by a few liberal whites on one side, against most whites on the other….Most blacks perceived the riot as (1) a purposeful symbolic protest (2) against legitimate grievances, (3) designed to call attention to Blacks’ problems…When asked directly, a majority felt the riot did have a purpose or a goal, felt that the targets deserved attack, and agreed that the riot constituted a black protest. Also, when given a free choice of descriptive terms, a surprisingly large minority [38%] chose to talk about it in revolutionary or insurrectional terms… (159).

It continues: ‘Most though Whites had become more “aware of Negroes’ problems” and more sympathetic to them as a consequence of the riot’ (161). Also that ‘The blacks’ sympathies generally were with the rioters, not with the authorities. Disapproval of the rioters was not as common as it was of the riot itself’ (163).

It breaks my heart to read the contrast:

The story told by whites and Mexican Americans was quite different. Many (especially those close to the Curfew Zone) felt fear for their own safety or for their families’ safety during the disturbance. The Mexican American respondents in our sample (all of whom actually lived in the Curfew Zone) were particularly frightened: 52 per cent reported feeling a “great deal” of fear. Fear among whites was greatest in Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park, two integrated communities on the edge of the Curfew Zone (35 per cent reported a “great deal”) but, even in affluent Pacific Palisades 20 miles from the riot, 12 per cent reported “a great deal” of fear.
Accompanying the fear was much serious thought about obtaining guns for armed counterviolence. Forty-two per cent of the Mexican Americans and 29 per cent of the whites said “yes” to the question, “Did you at any time consider using firearms to protect yourself or your family?” Also, 5 per cent of the whites and 7 per cent of the Mexican Americans reported that they actually had bought firearms or ammunition as a consequence of the riot (164).

Almost all Whites and Mexican-Americans supported the tough, uncompromising stand toward the rioters that chief Parker and the other California law enforcement authorities established. Both groups almost invariably praised the authorities or criticized them for not being even tougher…Whites and Mexican Americans did agree, in general, that it had been a black protest but they were extremely unlikely to describe the riot in revolutionary terms…Finally, then, it should come as no surprise to learn that whites and Mexican Americans thought the riot would have quite unfavorable effects for blacks (165).

The impact this had on perceptions and strategies for struggle in teh Black community are also revealing:

Thus, our hypothesis was that the junction of the New Urban Blacks and “Watts” would leave the younger generation (irrespective of background) more drawn to imaginative and unconventional strategies, particularly those emphasizing protest and violence.

Participation in the Watts Riot itself was one key indicator of this effect. We have seen in Chapter 2 that youth was a critical factor in riot participation and in Chapters 6 and 7 that it was not merely “animal spirits” that led the young into the fray. Rather, they engaged in the riot from the same sense of grievance as older rioters.
Willingness to engage in future protest demonstrations and preference for the use of violence in the future both showed the same effect. The young were much more drawn to both protest and violence than their elders.

Malcolm X, the continuing rise of the Nation of Islam, U.S. and the Black Panthers…hardly a surprise. The authors tie the riots into a rise in Black Pride:

‘a new and more positive conception of what it meant to be black emerged in the aftermath of the violence. The riot ideology was intimately involved with this post-riot increase in positive black identity. Specifically, it seems to have occurred as part of the interpretation of the riot as a collective symbolic protest.

And this is beautiful really, in spite of painfully moralistic language and class expectations:

We have seen repeatedly that local grievances, riot participation, and the riot ideology were not to be found merely in a few deviants, isolates, political “kooks,” or half-socialized idiots. They were to be found at least as often (and frequently to an even greater degree) in the best educated, most sophisticated, most completely socialized, most modern blacks in Los Angeles. And the same is true of positive black identity: it was, in the aftermath of “Watts,” truly a mainstream value in the black community (189).

The conclusion actually does recap in detail the entire argument, and contains this nice summary of the various theories also put forward to explain the Watts uprising–and demolished quite convincingly by this book:

We constructed and then rejected empirically one formal nonpolitical alternative to our politics of violence theory, “the random outburst theory”…We also presented the far less formalized “theories” offered by authorities and by the general public. We described the conspiracy, contagion, riffraff, underclass, family life breakdown, and southern newcomer “theories” and indicated that, with the exception of unemployed males, who were quite active, they did not fit the data…The most systematic alternative formulation we considered was Banfield’s (1970) “fun and profit” theory. We described and refuted empirically his three main propositions: that the rioting simply reflected greater propensity to violence among lower classes, southerners, and the young; that it was merely a rampage or foray for pillage, rather than being motivated by identifiable and genuine discontents; and that the riot ideology merely represented post hoc rationalizations. (201).

And then in a fairly damning indictment, they list all of the recommendations made by numerous commissions on violence and rioting beginning in 1919, that are almost word for word the same:

The recommendations invariably called for a reduction of unemployment, opening of the job structure to blacks, reform of education and of programs to improve the scholastic attainments of blacks, reform of the welfare system (to cut costs) and to give the recipients “who wanted to work” assistance in getting a job, improvement of housing quality and availability, and, finally, suggestions for future police strategies. With the exception of this last [Kerner Commission], none of the recommendations made since 1919 has been pursued with any vigor and most have remained entombed in the bound official reports to be resurrected after the next series of riots (292).

The authors go further than these ‘liberal’ formulations. Ones I think the course of histor since 1973 has challenged (along with their theorization of ‘symbolic racism’) but here they are:

Jobs, housing, education, anti-discrimination laws–all of these are necessary, but insufficient answers to mounting black disaffection. In addition, symbolic gestures are called for, to deal with symbolic discontents. That a presidential candidate or a mayor would walk through the streets of Harlem or Watts or that a President would use the phrase “we shall overcome” in a message on civil rights has a profound positive effect….
With these cautions we conclude our “recommendations.” It is obvious that America does not lack for recommendations. What she lacks is equally obvious and very simple: the will to implement them. Since we doubt that white America is on the verge of suddenly acquiring this will, we feel little compulsion to add further to the list of recommendations (205).