Watts Reverb

The Burning Shore, no. 5

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was”…It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. — Walter Benjamin

In June, 1966, Thomas Pynchon published an essay in the New York Times called “A Journey into the Mind of Watts.” Pynchon had been living on the West Coast since 1960, writing technical articles about missile systems for Boeing up in Seattle before moving down to Manhattan Beach, an incorporated town on the west side of Los Angeles whose hazy psychoactive ambience would come to saturate his 2009 novel Inherent Vice. When the Watts essay was published, Pynchon had just released the California-fried lark The Crying of Lot 49, and was no doubt already beavering away on Gravity’s Rainbow, his monumental shaggy-dog meditation on rockets, film, drugs, paranoia, and control. Despite his deep Yankee roots, Pynchon was, for one of his most crucial spells anyway, a California writer.

Pynchon’s Watts essay was inspired by an act of police violence that went down a month before the piece ran: the killing of Leonard Deadwyler, a black man from Georgia, by a white LA cop. Deadwyler had been racing his pregnant wife to the hospital, speeding and running red lights. A LAPD cruiser began pursuit near Watts, but Deadwyler, who had tied a white cloth to his radio antenna to indicate an emergency, which is what they did back home, mistook the siren for a police escort. The accounts differ, natch, but shortly after pulling over, Deadwyler was dead in the driver’s seat, the result of what was later ruled an accidental homicide. According to the other cop, Deadwyler’s last words were “She’s going to have a baby.”

At the time, even the dread pathos of Deadwyler’s demise did not convince many white Angelenos that the LAPD—the “thin blue line” drawn by chief Bill Parker against anarchy—was a brutal paramilitary instrument of white supremacy. For Watts residents, this was already a foregone conclusion, the no-shit-sherlock reality. Only ten months before, in August of 1965, the neighborhood had exploded into six days and nights of massive rioting after a (too) routine traffic stop went wonky. Driver Marquette Frye, who had failed a sobriety test, panicked, a cop broke out a shotgun, a pregnant woman got kicked, and locals started throwing crap at the police. The interminable simmer started to boil. An attempt at mediation failed the following day, and Chief Parker, who decided he was facing a Viet Cong-like “insurgence,” called in the National Guard.

The resulting uprising featured a familiar bouquet of gestures: setting fires, looting stores (mostly not black-owned), destroying shit, hurling projectiles, and prosecuting various assaults on police, firefighters, and white drivers. Law enforcement in turn deployed deadly force (see below), mass arrests, and, in the end, over two thousand National Guardsmen on the ground. When the smoke cleared—and there was a lot of smoke—there were 34 dead (mostly rioters, double natch), over one thousand injuries, more than $40 million in property damage, and another historical reminder, to supplement the easier memories of Dr. King, that the deep-seated demands for justice that drove the Civil Rights Movement did not always take non-violent forms.

Pynchon’s essay tries to take the pulse of the neighborhood in the wake of Deadwyler’s death. While the presumption of the effort is admittedly strained, Pynchon refuses Great Society pieties and pegs the very mixture of bitterness, frustration, fatigue, and extraordinary vitality that fuels the mass protests that now roil America’s streets. But though Pynchon did his legwork, his literary refusal of journalistic conventions has its costs. He does not include many black voices in the piece, nor does he reference LA’s brutal housing policies, including a recently passed proposition that protected discriminatory land owners and that some argue was the real trigger of the riot. I was particularly disappointed that, when talking about the “Renaissance of the Arts” festival held in Watts that spring, which featured objects built from the burned remnants of the destruction, he doesn’t namecheck the central artistic figure involved: the great Noah Purifoy, whose work concretely politicized the alchemy of trash practiced by the Watts Towers artist Simon Rodia and other California assemblage artists.

The most interesting part of Pynchon’s essay is his defense of riotous violence. “Far from a sickness, violence may be an attempt to communicate, or to be who you really are,” he writes. In contrast, Pynchon gently mocks “the humanitarian establishment” that flowed into Watts in the wake of the riots, well-meaning do-gooders and “innocent, optimistic child-bureaucrats” for whom rioting is

an evil and an illness, possibly because it threatens property and status they cannot help cherishing […] They remember last August's riot as an outburst, a seizure. Yet what, from the realistic viewpoint of Watts, was so abnormal? “Man's got his foot on your neck,” said one guy who was there, “sooner or later you going to stop asking him to take it off.”

Foot on your neck? With the horrible clip of George Floyd’s asphyxiation still haunting the world soul’s short attention span, this image from over fifty years back strikes a tragic and uncanny hammer blow. Call it the Eternal Reverb: the gear-slipping chunka-chunk of repeating events and images that scramble linear time into an infernal ouroboros of same-as-it-ever-was and messianic debt. Sooner or later…

“Man's got his foot on your neck” is the sort of forward-leaping memory flash that Benjamin was talking about in his “Theses” above, and very much keyed to our moment of danger. But the flashback that most folks are talking about today is not to 1965, but to 1968. Consider the parallels. A viral pandemic rages across the world (up to maybe a hundred thousand Americans died from the Hong Kong flu in ’68). A bitter election season pits a crooked law-and-order creep against a flaccid VP. Psychedelics are blowing minds, conspiracies rage, and NASA astronauts are in space. And the National Guard stomps into cities across the country in response to black-led protests—and incendiary riots—cheered on by legions of younger whites. And what does the lame-duck Lyndon Johnson say about it? Responding to the wave of ghetto riots unleashed by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, he offered more than a liberal tsk tsk: “What did you expect? I don’t know why we’re surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for 300 years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do?” He’s gonna reverb.

But it’s a knee, you might respond, not a foot. That’s the reverb, though: not quite the eternal return of the same, but the twisty reprise, the remix loop, the weird backwards scratch on history’s merciless wheels of steel. Not a foot this time, but a knee. But whose knee? When we take a knee in memory of George Floyd, we are at once refusing to forget the specific circumstances of his murder, and ritually repeating one of the more powerful media gestures of recent years: the anthem protest posture of quarterback Colin Kaepernick (go ’9er!), a move whose dignified composure is still threatening enough to send a Bible-thumping Cylon like Mike Pence to the exit doors. In the wake of Floyd’s death, taking a knee is now pure reverb, a fusion and confusion of icon and echo, healing and trauma, historical memory and demand for a new future now. As we repeat and reiterate this gesture, the hope grows that the resonance will become strong and multitudinous enough to finally break the glass, to break the cycle, to shatter the usual expectations of the same old shit.

This hope is the logic of Kairos, the messianic mode of time that on occasion erupts and disrupts the linear chug of Kronos—the daily grind of mindless billiard balls bouncing along a smoking-room table as the Man looks down, cue in hand. The Floyd uprising is such a Kairos movement—yes, including the arson, looting, assaults, and sometimes self-destructive mayhem. Of course, like everything else these days, the recent violence was complicated, with all manner of actors following contradictory agendas alongside the BLM crews—black bloc whiteys, agents provocateurs, organized criminals, maybe even some wackadoodle boogaloo boyz. But we should be wary of narratives that attempts to cleanly divide well-meaning protesters and dangerous bad apples.

As Vicki Osterweil argues in her bracing and incendiary essay “In Defense of Looting,” written in response to the Ferguson riots that followed Michael Brown, Jr.’s killing in 2014, to make that conceptual divide is already to think like a cop. A better essentialism to invoke is not the persistence of bad apples, but rather of the concept of property. However greedy or opportunistic in detail, looting and arson declare the temporary abolition of property by people whose ancestors were property. The riot becomes, in this sense, like the old Hebrew Jubilee—in which slaves were freed and debts forgiven—only now by any means necessary.

Walking around Watts in the early summer of 1966, Pynchon noted that few folks regretted the previous year’s riot. The events were already being remembered “less as chaos and more as art.” Some described a “balletic quality,” while others invoked the analogy of music.

…through much of the rioting seemed to run, they say, a remarkable empathy, or whatever it is that jazz musicians feel on certain nights; everybody knowing what to do and when to do it without needing a word or a signal: “You could go up to anybody, the cats could be in the middle of burning down a store or something, but they'd tell you, explain very calm, just what they were doing, what they were going to do next. And that's what they’d do; man, nobody has to give orders.”

This reminds me of something Junauda Petrus-Nasah, an author and organizer from Minneapolis, told a Times writer recently. On the third night of the local protests, after a police precinct house became engulfed in flames, “it felt like a glorious poetic rage.” This is how the Floyd uprising will hopefully be remembered, not just as a righteous fury and rebellious demand for immediate concrete changes, but also as a creative social improvisation in its own terms, a ferocious spell in the face of a still oppressive consensus reality, a sublime and festal reverberation that absorbs those scratchy old yesterday beats and temporarily transforms time.

The inevitable and necessary questions—what’s next? how does such poetry play in the goober gallery? who gets to write the Cliff notes?—already shows us sliding away from the grip of the reverb. Incredibly, the Minneapolis city council has voted to disband the police force, but we also know how pervasive America’s racist rot remains. Pessimism, Afro- or otherwise, is also warranted. In Benjamin’s view, we have only a “weak messianic power”—Kairos may puncture the quotidian with its visionary fist, but Kronos, that old white tyrant, with his vast System careening towards collapse by way of control, will also have his pound of flesh. What that chunk will be in 2020 remains to be seen. In 1968, the spectacle of mass riots helped drive the electorate into white flight and an overwhelming triumph for Nixon. While I would like to think that we have woken up in a different world today, navigating a different bend in the arc of history, only time will tell.

I hope you enjoyed this flicker of the Burning Shore. Over this summer, I will be experimenting with various types of content, and will eventually create subscriber-only posts. Please consider a paid subscription if you can. Or pass it along to someone who might dig it. Thanks!