NewsWhistle is pleased to feature Gary Jenneke’s “This Day In History” column.
You can read the original at Gary’s THIS DAY IN HISTORY blog — or scroll down to enjoy Gary’s unique look at life’s comings and goings.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY… AUGUST 11th
1965 – Burn Baby, Burn! Watts Riot begins. Or as it is sometimes called, the Watts Rebellion.
After WWII, a half million African-Americans moved to the West Coast, hoping to escape racism. This hope did not materialize, as they found housing and employment still not equally available. After twenty years of marginalized existence, the resentment came to a boil on August 11th in the Los Angeles suburb of Watts. A crowd gathered to watch the arrest of a black motorist, his brother and mother. Anger grew at their treatment, the crowd multiplied and more police arrived. The street confrontation became violent, and as night fell the violence escalated. “Burn baby burn” became the rallying chant during the six days of rioting that followed. The night skies were lit with flames as buildings were burned and looted, and gunfire sounded. Fourteen thousand national guardsmen were called in to try quell the uprising. The final toll was 34 dead, 1,032 injured, 3,436, arrested and tens of millions of dollars in property damage.
Much has been written about the causes of the riot since then. All the analysis brings forth no great surprises. Racial discrimination, unfair housing practices, police brutality. Proposition 14, supported by the majority of white voters and sponsored by the real estate industry of California, overturned the Rumford Fair Housing Act which had tried to address segregation in housing. Police Chief William Parker had created a military-style police force and its ranks included many white southerners who had anti-Black and anti-Mexican attitudes. Once the riot started Parker added fuel to the flames by saying the rioters were acting like monkeys in a zoo. The authorities also placed blame on outside agitators, communist sympathizers, Muslims, and criminal elements for the riot. As far as criminals, most of those arrested had no prior criminal record. Despite many studies, and some official attempts at redress, much of the same conditions that caused the riot are still in place today.
My friend, Rick, and I were in West Germany at the time of the riot. We were in the town of Helmsted, on the border of East Germany, looking for a way to get to Berlin. It was there we happened upon a circus. As we watched the circus set up for its show, a small man, a dwarf, bustled up to us. I don’t remember his name, so I’ll just call him Klaus. Small though he was, he was also formidable, and frightening. His square-shaped body was mostly torso and he had very short but powerful looking arms and legs. His head appeared disproportionately large on top of the small body. He had gray curly hair and also gray stubble on his face. His eyes were threatening, spiteful even, as if he had endured too much in life and was looking for payback. He barked something at us in a language we didn’t understand. When that didn’t work he tried German next.
Rick replied, “Verstehen Deutsch ein bishcen.”
Klaus regarded us disdainfully as he said, “Ach, Amerikaners.” Then he spat off to the side.
“Work, do you want work?” He asked in an Eastern European accented English.
Rick and I quickly nodded and with that achieved just about every little boy’s dream by joining the circus. We helped erect the big top and then assembled the bleachers inside the tent. Klaus was the head roustabout and ordered everybody around. Whether he was German, Pole, or some other nationality, I didn’t know. But he was European and twenty years earlier all of Europe had been part of the horror. I wondered how Klaus had managed to survive the Nazi scourge. Besides Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals, people like Klaus were also slated to be part of the “final solution.” The purity of the Aryan race could not afford to be tainted.
Whatever he had been forced to do to survive, whatever he had witnessed, probably accounted for the fire in his eyes. The man both terrified and fascinated me. His body, although small, looked powerful enough to rip off one of my arms if he grabbed hold. And the cold eyes were even scarier, as if there was nothing left in life that could touch him.
We ate supper with the rest of the circus workers and watched that evening’s performance. Some of the roustabouts were also performers. Klaus was a clown, which didn’t help me much with my fear of clowns. I also fell in love with a trapeze artist, certain that at the end of her performance, she was staring directly at me. Rick was just as certain she had been staring directly at him.
That night we slept on stacks of folded canvas behind the bleachers. The next morning Klaus asked us if we wanted to travel with the circus. It took us about an eighth of a second to say yes. The fact that the circus was going to tour East Germany and Poland made it all the more enticing. Traveling behind the Iron Curtain with a circus? I mean, c’mon! At twenty one this was the adventure I was seeking. Added to the mix were fantasies about the lithe, acrobatic trapeze artist.
Then, on the way to breakfast, Klaus tossed a New York Times newspaper to Rick. “Your great democracy,” he said sarcastically. The headlines read: “Burn Baby, Burn!” We were stunned to read of the rioting in Watts. I knew the area, having lived just west of there for almost a year after being discharged from the Navy. Klaus had a snide smile on his lips, as if the riots in America were some kind of personal triumph for him. Rick and I read the news articles and accompanying editorials. Starting with JFK’s assassination, it was another shock in what was to be a shock-filled decade.
Then it was time to go back to work. We helped dismantle the circus and pack a caravan of trucks with boxes and equipment. Klaus took our passports, which made us a bit uneasy, but he had everybody else’s also, in order to cross the border. While we waited we tried to get our heads wrapped around all that was happening. As disturbed as we were about Watts, we could not long shift our thoughts away from a suddenly exciting future. I looked around at the circus crew, leaning against the line of trucks, smoking cigarettes. They were a hard, tough lot but I felt confident. After a summer of scrounging our way across Europe, hair lengthening, unshaven, tanned from being outside, clothes scruffy and worn, we looked the part. I also felt at ease because our presence was met with neither hostility nor curiosity by the rest of the crew, as if there were no minimum requirements.
We saw Klaus coming, walking down the line of workers, handing back passports. When he reached us, his scowl was even darker than normal.
“No good.” Klaus said.
“What’s no good?”
“You can’t come. They won’t let Americans travel with us.”
A wave of disappointment washed over me as he handed each of us our passports.
“Why not?” Rick asked.
Klaus shrugged, a shrug directed at all the rules, laws, and stupidity that all the governments and authorities could invent. He had, no doubt, dealt with far worse decrees, so this one deserved only a shrug. With that he stomped off and my life in the circus ended before it started.
As the circus passed from our reality, so oddly, did Watts. There were no more newspapers or reports and it wasn’t until months later back in the States that I read about it in more detail. With the resilience of youth, we quickly left disappointment and memory behind and moved forward to embrace the joy of now. Nearly broke, no direction home, we stuck out our thumbs and put our focus on the adventure of surviving another day on the road.
ABOUT GARY JENNEKE
At various junctures of his life, Gary has been an indifferent grade school student, poor high school student, good Navy radioman, one-time hippie, passable college student, inveterate traveler, dedicated writer, miscast accountant (except for one interesting stint at a Communist café), part-time screenwriting teacher, semi-proud veteran, unsuccessful retiree and new blogger.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above information was sourced from the following sites and newspapers.
We’d also like to thank the following photographers and videographers for the use of their images:
* Lead-In Image (“Fire Show Performance”) – Andrii Bicher / Shutterstock.com
* “50 years on, a look back at the Watts riots” (video) – CBS News / YouTube.com
* Outro (Man-In-Museum Cartoon) – SkyPics Studio / Shutterstock.com