“Fire and the Quest for Transformation,” a two-day academic symposium that featured many California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) professors, and educators and speakers from across the state, examined the significance and impact of the Watts Rebellion on the region and nation.
Organized by the 50th Anniversary Watts Rebellion Commemoration committee, the symposium included panel discussions followed by audience questions, documentaries produced by students and professional historians, and special activities and workshops.
On the first day, the symposium began with the panel “Keys to the Watts Rebellion, Significance at the Time, and Continuing Impacts.”
The panel included: Keith Claybrook, Jr., a lecturer of Africana Studies at CSUDH; Brenda Riddick, director of the Mervyn M. Dymally African American Political and Economic Institute at CSUDH; and respondent Joyce Germaine Watts, a CSUDH alumnus and acting director of the Village Nation.
During his remarks, titled “Riot or Rebellion: Call it What It Is!,” Claybrook reminded those in attendance that the word “riot” was used to describe the Watts Rebellion in the report, “Violence in the City–An End or a Beginning?,” which was presented to then California Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown.
“Such labeling communicates that the activities were unmotivated, apolitical, temper tantrums. The use of ‘riot’ and other such terms supports the McCone Commission Report’s implications that the riots were the rioters’ fault,” Claybrook said. “It assumes that peace, order, and harmony existed before the events, and that unruly people disturbed the peace.
“On this point we must be clear. If a riot is a disturbance of the peace, then how can you disturb the peace if peace is not present?“ added Claybrook. “It was not a riot, but a rebellion of a community directing their anger and frustration at the symbols of their oppression; racism and capitalism were attacked by attacking police and burning exploitative businesses.”
During Riddick’s Remarks, “On the Fringe of Hope: In Search of Equity,” she examined the causes of the Watts Rebellion in 1965, from early history in Los Angeles to present day, and how over the last five decades change and growth has been slow and often stagnant.
“We have to examine this issue through the lens of social equity, social constructivism, and–perhaps more narrowly–critical race theory; the politics of urban renewal in the form of redevelopment, or the current day buzz word ‘gentrification,’” said Riddick. “How do we address the urban decision-making regarding redevelopment efforts to transform public housing projects from a public good to a private good?”
During Watts’ response, among the items she addressed was how protest and the causes of unrest come in waves, which provides each generation new obligations and responsibilities.
“When it comes to education, you have to figure out how education does not become miseducation, and does not become domestication. You have to read about this on your own, and also figure out how education doesn’t become class-driven,” said Watts. “The divide, as we know, between rich and poor is far worse now than it was back then [in 1965]. So you all have a future you have got to figure out.”
The first day of the symposium also included the panel, “The Watts Rebellion and California State University, Dominguez Hills: Keys to the Decision to Locate the University, the University’s Mission.”
The symposium closed out day one with the viewing and discussion of the film “Mapping Connections: The Watts Rebellion and California State University, Dominguez Hills.” Produced by CSUDH students with the support of Vivian Price, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at CSUDH, the short documentary examines the university’s historic connection to the Watts Rebellion and that community.
On day two, the symposium shifted into full gear. The morning sessions included “Watching Watts: Remembering the Future of Race and Social Justice in America,” presented by Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and director of the Ralph Bunche Center at UCLA.
The following session: “Watts and the Political Power of Protest: the Influence of Minority Activism on the Federal Government,” featured speaker Daniel Gillion, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and comments from Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of The Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles.
The symposium’s keynote address took place after lunch, featuring Robin D. G. Kelley, a celebrated writer, professor of history, and the Gary B. Nash endowed chair in United States History at UCLA.
During his remarks, Kelley suggested that a revolt had already begun prior to the Watts Rebellion, and that the insurrection was the “most social expression of the revolt, creating the conditions for cultural and social revolution … which reverberated across the country and the world.”
When we turn our gaze from civil unrest to civil society, it allows us to see why the residents actually called it a revolt. -Robin D.G. Kelley
“The real story, which is often obscured by the media with violence, looting and by focusing on police, is one of residents confronting social and economic catastrophe by forming community organizations that address unemployment, schools, housing, health services and police brutality,” said Kelley. “When we turn our gaze from civil unrest to civil society, it allows us to see why the residents actually called it a revolt. And that’s what they called it.”
Later in the afternoon, there was a special screening of the Emmy-nominated documentary “California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown,” which was produced by his granddaughter Sascha Rice, who took questions from the audience after the screening. The symposium concluded with the workshop “From Watts to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement: Get Involved, Learning How to be an Active Participant,” which featured Claybrook, Miguel Cruz of the American Civil Liberties Union at USC, and alumnus David C. Turner, III (’13, B.A., Africana studies), representing “Black Lives Matter.”
The day was capped off with a tour of the exhibit “Watts: Then and Now” in CSUDH’s University Art Gallery.
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