It was dinner hour that hot summer evening: my mother, father, and I gathered around the black-and-white TV – there was no color television back in 1965 – watching the city burn. The Watts Riots lasted five days, and my father would emerge from them a changed man.
Los Angeles is huge geographically – and Watts was an hour away by car – but I, an eight-year-old little girl, was terrified.
“Don’t go!” my mother cried to my father.
My father, a liberal Jew, was an attorney who was heavily involved in civil rights. Much to my mother’s frustration, he was probably the only attorney with an office in Beverly Hills (later Encino) who couldn’t pay his bills, because so many of his cases were pro bono, and because, in general, Dad was terrible when it came to managing money. Many times he’d be “paid” with bartering – I remember getting cases of eggs and cherries; once, we got our living room sofa reupholstered and our house painted. Many times my father’s clients “helped out” by catering, cooking, or acting as wait staff at my parents’ semi-annual house parties, which were large, lavish affairs. (The thing about living in upper middle class L.A. in the 1960s was that, even if one didn’t have the bucks, one had to keep up appearances as though one did.) Mostly, there was no attempt at payment, even spread out over time. Many times, my father created jobs for his clients for work he didn’t need done, thinking that surely it was a lack of opportunity that kept them mired in poverty and that’s what drove many of them to drink. And my mother became more and more frustrated and lonely, especially when my father’s work hours became more and more obsessive as he worked all hours of the day and night, six days a week.
Many of his clients and the people he knew from the ghetto – that’s how Watts and South Central L.A. were referred to in those days – had kids who were being arrested, and he wanted to help bail them out of jail. He just assumed – he knew – that they were innocent. In those days, Los Angeles had a problem with police brutality. At the time of the riot, police were not just arresting perpetrators of looting and burning, they were sweeping people off the street wholesale. In 1965, houses didn’t have air conditioning, and August in L.A. is hot. So hot, that people would commonly loiter outside on those hot summer nights to escape the sweltering temperatures inside their uninsulated houses and apartments. Those seeking relief from the heat, standing or sitting outdoors in front of their own homes, were part of those roundups.
Every night, while Watts burned, my father would get into the thick of it. Every night, shortly before dawn, he would come home exhausted, smelling of smoke, and my mother and he would have harsh words, loud enough to wake me up.
“What about us? Don’t you care about your own family?” she would cry. She was sure he’d get himself killed. My mother had already been widowed once. She had begged her first husband, a wealthy man with a pilot’s license and a private plane, not to fly that day, but he didn’t listen. Their last words ended in argument, and he took off, straight into a storm. His stubbornness and poor judgment resulted in his crashing his own plane, killing him instantly. My mother was left a widow at age 34 with two children ages five and seven. Her lifelong lingering anger and resentment interfered with her ability to mourn. And now, with my father, her second husband, it was happening all over again. She was despondent.
But my father couldn’t let it go. These were good people, he insisted, who were being discriminated against because of the color of their skin. Not everyone living in Watts was a rabble-rouser. It was his job, his duty, his calling to protect the innocent. And so he went. For five days, every night, into Watts, where just being a white man put him at risk of attack.
Once there, he tried to convince the youth to go into their homes, to be safe. He felt if he could reason with the rioters, they would listen, and save themselves. My father was a champion debater from his college days – and he rarely lost a case in court. His words were so convincing that, on several occasions, when couples came to him for a divorce, his wise words of counsel brought them back together. He saved many marriages this way.
But his words did not help this time. He knew how to deal with anger, but not hate. He could have a discussion, a debate – but not with people who were only willing to respond with their fists.
He bailed out many innocent young black men that week. But there were many who were guilty, too – boys who had set fires to buildings and looted, carrying away TV sets and clothing and even things that were not useful, just to be looting – because it was free and exciting and daring. This was anarchy, and intoxicatingly empowering.
Because their parents were poor, tired, good people, my father bailed the hoodlums out, too. But he was devastated and disillusioned when those boys met him at the exit door of the jail with “**** you, Honky!” and spat in his face. Their parents were mortified with embarrassment, but they didn’t speak out. Perhaps they realized that something had changed, that a new era was beginning, and as parents they felt powerless.
My father just couldn’t understand it. He could not fathom why someone would remorselessly choose wrong over right. He wanted answers to questions for which he couldn’t get answers. Why would people destroy places of possible employment? Why would they steal from the stores where they could shop locally? Why would they destroy pharmacies upon which they depended to buy medications for themselves and their loved ones? Why would they burn cars that were the transportation needed to take them to work? Why would they beat up people they didn’t even know, who must now miss work and be unable to care for their families as they recovered? Why would they want to discourage idealistic business people and immigrants who wished to invest in a better, more viable future from believing in them and their neighborhoods? Why did they hurt themselves with such malicious and misguided self destruction? Why did they not realize they were hurting themselves and unfairly victimizing all the people in their neighborhoods, especially the good people who lived there but did not choose to express their dismay at police abuse with abuse and violence that was no better than that which they rose up against? Did they believe their violent and criminal actions would help them, their children, friends, neighbors, stores, and their jobs? He didn’t understand why someone would reject a job, even a menial one, in favor of a welfare handout at the expense of their dignity.
Dad grew up under the yoke of dire poverty in the Midwest (severe malnutrition was responsible for stunting his height). He came to the U.S. as a toddler from Russia in 1913 in steerage class with his mother and older siblings. (His father preceded them to America and worked for several years to pay for his wife’s and children’s tickets so they could join him.) Even as a small child, my father worked a zillion menial jobs for pennies and always studied hard, because he knew that, with the American dream, a better life was attainable no matter what color or religion you were. Even though Jews and blacks were certainly discriminated against more than other groups in the U,S,, he believed one could rise above it. During WW II, he commanded a fleet of LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) ships, where he was responsible for ferrying Marines and infantry onto beachheads throughout the South Pacific under fire. Even then, the ships under his command were known for their good and fair treatment of blacks who were typically relegated to non-combat and menial tasks, and he refused special treatment to officers on his watch when it came at the expense of enlisted men.
After the Watts riots, Dad continued to defend the downtrodden but usually not with the former passion of pre-riot days. One time he defended a young Hispanic man who lived in East L.A. This young man had been mowing his lawn for his parents, and cops came by and arrested him, because he fit the ethnic profile and description of a person who had just robbed someone. Unfortunately they got the wrong kid. They assaulted this young man on the street and beat him at the police station (even bashing his head on the metal file cabinets). That the kid maintained his innocence just incited the cops further. He was a real mess. He suffered broken bones and a concussion, and needed stitches. So my father defended him at his family’s request. My father won the case, and the officers were fired. This was huge in that day, because police brutality happened a lot, and usually there was no recourse.
Probably the hardest thing for me and my mother during these years was the seeming lack of appreciation. It was bad enough that my father’s clients couldn’t pay, but my father rarely got thanked for his talents in saving men from jail or for the excruciatingly long hours he put in on their behalf. This Latino family was different. They repeatedly expressed their gratitude and remained in contact with my father, proudly inviting him to that boy’s college graduation several years later.
My father lost a tortuous batter with cancer in 1972, when I was 14. Several of his clients somehow got word of his death. In a time when civil rights had won their legal battles yet different races still didn’t mix or socialize, there were about 150 blacks and Hispanics whom I’d never seen before (including the entire family of that Mexican boy my father had saved) who came to the funeral to pay their respects. The cemetery was over an hour away from East and South Central L.A., and it wasn’t an easy drive. They didn’t communicate with me or my mother, but I realized who they were. As mirrored by my father’s life and death, they quietly came for the service, and just as quietly left.
When Baltimore rioted, and I saw pictures of so many jubilant looters carrying away all kinds of goods from smashed and burning stores, I thought of my dad. Fifty years later, his questions sadly remain the same. And, just as infuriating, there are still no answers.
Galia Berry writes from the Maine woods. You can read about her life off the grid on her blog at www.midlifeinmaine.wordpress.com.