Gerald Horne, in Fire this Time, challenges the conventional notion, primarily propagated by the media, of the “Watts Riots” in August of 1965 and asserts that an accurate description should be an insurrection. Horne argues that the Watts Uprising ushered in a new era that focused on different tactics of resistance from the South within the movement, highlighted police brutality and made a noticeable contribution to politics. Horne asserts that this shift occurred, first, based on the socio-historical conditions that led up to and impacted the insurrection. After the insurrection started, the already existing police oppression of Blacks increased with Los Angeles Police Department using militarized tactics. The coverage of the revolt negatively portrayed Blacks which politically empowered politicians who were conservative, especially Ronald Reagan.
Horne published this book in 1995, three years after the beaten of Rodney King. King’s beaten points to the context in which Horne is writing this book. He provides some details about the resemblances between the two responses, 1965 and 1992. Horne asserts that the issues Blacks in endured in 1965 persisted in 1992 which provides another linkage to the ongoing struggle of Black freedom. Therefore, Fire this Time was pertinent to his contemporary situation. The officers who beat King were acquitted, the LAPD continued to harass Black Angelenos and a deteriorating economy persisted. Horne states: “The Watts Revolt of 1965 led to certain concessions being made to African-Americans; but as the 1990s unfolded, the black middle class – a major recipient of those concessions – remained dissatisfied, even enraged” (363).
Horne’s explication of the lack of progress points to two important characteristics of this book: the tension between a shifting era and nothing changing and the lack of voice from the poor. Horne’s argument is that the Watts insurrection was a significant event that marked a dramatic shift but he also discusses how things have not change. This is present throughout. His discussion about the LAPD provides the best example. He states:
In a study of coroner’s inquests in the county from 1 January 1962 to 31 July 1965, attorney Hugh Manes found there were sixty-five inquests involving homicide by officers during that time, and only one ended with a verdict other than justifiable homicide, a case in which two officers ‘playing cops and robbers’ in a Long Beach Police Station shot a newspaperman. (68)
The LAPD brutally treated Blacks before the insurrection, than it turn to “a police revolt against blacks” (16). As already stated, police violence continued. The tension here is the persistence of a long history of police brutality with the shift in August of 1965. Horne does articulate that 34 people were killed during the uprising which portrays a spike in the amount of deaths but, there is no point in which police stopped.
In addition to the tension of the movement to a new time frame and continual dissatisfaction, Horne provided the views of the “black middle class.” In order to display a more holistic depiction of the uprising and to strengthen his argument, Horne should have paid more attention to the poor and those actually involved with the looting. This critiques also points to his methodology. Horne vividly and intricately elucidated the course of events that led up to and happened during the insurrection. His method primarily consisted of archival research and he focused on original manuscripts such as “the Papers of the Governor’s Commission” (422); Los Angeles police department, city, county and commission on human relations papers; organization records such as the NAACP and media including the news and newspapers. He also conducted interviews. What was missing in his depiction which may not have come up in his sources was the voice of the poor.
Horne’s sources, other than the interviews, pointed to the perspective of external agencies and organizations. As a result, his argument was heavily influenced by this perspective and rarely provided the view of poor Blacks (although it was hard to tell the socio-economic status in some cases). Also, he examined why some stores were target and others were not. He would have benefited from interviewing those who were involved in the looting and lower income Blacks. Horne included the section on class divide, therefore this book could improve if he includes the class of Blacks throughout the event.
A significant contribution Horne’s articulation of the Watts uprising is revealing the usage of violent tactics as a form of resistance within the overall Black freedom struggle. This was primarily led by young adults who were not satisfied with “old leadership” which did not fully acknowledge their issues and guide them in the direction they wanted to take. This presented a challenge of the usage and usefulness of violent/non-violent techniques. While non-violence was proclaimed by Martin Luther King Jr. in the South, Horne reveals that his trip to Watts pointed out that “we as Negro leaders- and I include myself- have failed to take the civil rights movement to the masses of the people” (183).
Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer were able to balance the class tension by elevating the voice of the lower income Blacks. Horne argues that the Black Panther Party, Nation of Islam and “cultural” nationalist filled the gap in leadership and were more militant in their tactics. Horne asserts that the Watts insurrection did bring about some changes which points to the violent revolution. Therefore, the overarching question is what are the necessary elements to bring about everlasting change? Did the Watts uprising turn militant because of the lack of leadership from the NAACP and the middle class Blacks or was it inevitable based on the social conditions? The contemporary movement is addressing this very same problem. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were not welcomed by some in Ferguson and Sharpton did not provide a key role of young Ferguson activists. If things don’t change, will there be an August 2015?