The streets of Watts and the surrounding black community are testament to how little has changed in 15 years since riots devastated 150 square blocks and killed 38 people here.
Despite the election in 1973 of a black mayor, the expenditure of millions in federal funds, and years of effort by dedicated community workers, many vacant stores and empty lots created by the riot remain.
As in 1965, scores of men, young and old, still hang around the rib joints, bars and liquor stores, which are often virtually the only open businesses along what were once flourishing commercial strips.
Unemployment, cited by the prestigious McCone Commission Report as one of the prime cause of the Watts riots, is now, by some estimates, twice the level of 1965 in the black community. Up to a quarter of all adults and over 50 percent of youths may be out of work.
And police-community relations -- the trigger of the 1965 riots -- are tense. The 5,500-member police force has been criticized for the fatal shootings of about 700 suspects since 1974, although the number of killings has tapered off lately. While the Los Angeles Police Department does not tend to shoot more often than other big-city departments, according to a recent study, it does have among the highest "kill ratios' per shooting in the nation. Over half the victims have been black.
Recent riots in Miami have focused renewed attention this summer on ghetto conditions in the nation's big cities. Many mayors across the country are nervously eyeing their inner city neighborhoods. A look at one of them reveals why.
Despite the presence of Mayor Tom Bradley, numerous other black elected officials and a large number of highly visible, successful blacks in the local music and movie industry, many of this city's 500,000 black people -- about 17 percent of the total population -- say they feel completely cut off from the mainstream of Los Angeles society.
Much of their resentment is directed at the mostly prosperous, virtually all white western and San Fernando Valley sections of the city where per capita income over the last decade shot up three times as fast as in the ghetto. The contrast is stark between Watts, with its rundown stores, vacant lots and lines of people waiting for an occasional bus, and the wealthy white communities on the west side, five to 10 miles away, with streets clogged with Mercedes, Cadillacs and elegantly dressed shoppers.
"The people on the other side of town, the people who make the decisions, they don't live here," said Shay Drummond, a 33-year-old welfare recipient. "They go to their parties, wear their jewels and all the while, we starve a little bit more.Well, that's why people around here talk about striking back like we did before and they did down in Miami."
Yet for many blacks in south-central Los Angeles, the whites in places like Beverly Hills are too distant, too far removed to affect their daily lives. More direct competition -- for housing, jobs, federal dollars -- comes from the city's burgeoning Hispanic population. j
Since 1970, Los Angeles' Hispanic population has grown at a rate five times that of the black community and now constitutes as much as 30 percent of the city. Many of the new residents, including large numbers of illegal aliens, have moved into the once virtually all black south-central area until today they make up one-third of the ghetto's residents.
As in Miami, many black leaders accused the Hispanics of underbidding blacks for jobs -- particularly in the garment district, restaurant and other serve occupations -- and of being willing to pay more for rent.
"Landlords are willing to accommodate in relocating blacks in favor of Hispanics," said Linda Ferguson, a black legal aid attorney. "Black people are aware of this. It's easier to get mad at Mr. Gomez who took your apartment and your job at the service station than it is to blame the folks on the other end of town."
There are already signs of intensifying black-Hispanic conflict a number of clashes between rival ethnic gangs. At the same time, black leaders have vehemently opposed the counting of illegals in the city's census, while some Hispanic organizations have bitterly attacked Mayor Bradley for allegedly favoring his own people over their community.
Illustrative of the resentment is Mary Henry, one of the city's most respected black community leaders. "This country is declaring, openly and publicity, it doesn't give a damn about us. They'll bring in Vietnamese or the Mexicans, anything to keep us down," she said.
Even Bradley, acknowlededged to be widely popular in his native south-central community, has come under increasing criticism by frustrated black leaders like Henry. They accuse the mayor of being unable to pump sufficent funds into the community for the rebuilding of Watts, while promoting billion-dollar transportation plans favored by the city's business elite.
Bill Elkins, Bradley's top black aide, believes the mayor has unfairly had to bear the fury generated by conditions beyond his control. Much of the trouble in Watts, Elkins said for instance, stems from the federal government's cutbacks in many programs -- including a reduction over the last few years in summer jobs for youth from 20,000 to 14,000.
"What you're seeing is a frustration from people who thought that when we elected a black mayor he could raise a magic wand and change the system in five years," Elkins said.