In 1970, I was an Army Specialist 4 posted to the 72nd Army Band at Ft. MacArthur in Los Angeles. We played a lot of “public relations” concerts and parades. One, while I was there, was in the troubled neighborhood of Watts. I can’t recall the occasion, but it was a military parade.
Midway through our march across town, we had to break ranks and it was every man for himself as we were pelted with cans, bottles and anything else angry protesters could heave at us. I was told the protest was over the disproportionate number of African Americans being sent to Vietnam. With the help of LA County law enforcement, we were able to push back until we could reach our bus and leave.
Although I considered myself socially aware, it was the first time the vast difference between my life and that of minorities in inner city neighborhoods was driven home. Our first sergeant, who was out front, was African American and had grown up in Compton. So was our second-ranking NCO, who was from a dirt-poor childhood in Alabama. So were several other members of the band. But what the protesters saw were our uniforms, which represented the government that didn't represent them.
|Not personal, just the uniform|
My friend Fermin, who before entering the Army had been a member of the Black Panthers, patiently explained it to me. It wasn't personal. I was a symbol. And it didn't matter how non-racist or liberal I might be, or how much I strived to understand and empathize with the black cause. To the rioters, none of that mattered since they faced daily discrimination simply because of the color of their skin. It was something, he explained, that no matter home empathic I might be, I could never fully understand or “own” because I was white.
And then there was the context. Five years earlier Watts had been the scene of The Watts riots, sometimes called the Watts Rebellion. They were sparked, as the current ones rocking the US, by police abuse of minority citizens' civil and human rights. They broke out after police physically assaulted a pregnant, black motorist, who happened to also be a parolee, after pulling her over for reckless driving. When community members in Watts publicly decried the incident, six days of civil unrest ensued.
Nearly four thousand members of the California Army National Guard—hence, the hatred for Army green—helped suppress the disturbance, which resulted in thirty-four deaths and over forty million dollars worth of property damage. It was the city's worst unrest until the Rodney King riots—for the exact same reason—twenty-seven years later.
And still today, as US cities are again in flames over the brutal police murder of George Floyd—nothing ever seems to change. On the contrary, over the course of the last three and a half years, the situation has been vastly exacerbated by a federal administration that is openly racist and blatantly disrespectful of civil and human rights.