Unequivocally, this riot provides a classic illustration of Johan Galtung's typologies of violence, the first being direct violence that is manifested during the projected riots on the evening news, i.e., people causing physical injury to other people. However, as is often the case, this direct violence does not stand by itself but is rather rooted in structural violence, which creates an unfavorable nearly impossible economic and political climate for African Americans in the Watts neighborhood to live comfortably.
The Watts Riots through the Lens of Johan Galtung’s Typologies of Violence
In part IV of “Art and Upheaval: Artists on the Worlds Frontlines,” author William Cleveland examines the events commonly known as the “Watts riots” and shows that the riots resulted from decades of economic disparity, ultimately causing poverty, joblessness, and hopelessness in African American neighborhood in Los Angeles. To the outside world, the 1965 riot was a confusing and disturbing outburst of violence; however, to the inhabitants of the neighborhood, it was a clear rebellion against decades of marginalization at the hands of the city's white power brokers (Cleveland 173). In such a way, this riot provides a classic illustration of Galtung's three typologies of violence, the first being direct violence that is manifested during the projected riots on the evening news, i.e., people causing physical injury to other people. However, as is often the case, this direct violence does not stand by itself but is rather rooted in structural violence, which creates an unfavorable nearly impossible economic and political climate for African Americans in the Watts neighborhood to live comfortably. Although people outside the periphery had difficulty perceiving the subtle but exploitative nature of Watts’ structural composition, it was well-known to the victims that this structure was the actual cause of the rebellion. If we are to extend this to a broader context, cultural violence, in this form of inconspicuous yet persistent treatment of African-Americans as social inferiors, gave rise to a structure in which African-Americans were systematically denied equal access to jobs, education, and other avenues by which they could escape poverty (Galtung 292). I understood this underlying problem through the lens of Galtung’s text, and I learned that this injustice, as well as many others, were a result of an array of social circumstances rather than some inexplicable eruption.
Ultimately, it appears as though these riots evoked in concerned and compassionate observers a desire to better understand what caused this violence. An interesting case in which they mobilized viewers was the Academy Award–winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s decision to start a writer's workshop that would grant Watts residents an opportunity to voice their experiences (Cleveland 175). Although the majority of these writers had little formal education, they were telling a tale that nobody else could tell, and this captured my attention because it gave their work an unparalleled poignancy. For instance, Johnnie Scott's poem "Watts 1966" calls the neighborhood "a womb from whence has been spawned Molotov cocktails and shotguns, but most of all, a lack of care; for care has been exposed" (177). This unusual connection between a protective, motherly womb and violent immorality was very compelling, for I was now concerned about how terrible situations had to be if they were to spur indifference and brutality from a safe place such as a womb. Furthermore, Scott’s work further ignited in me a deeper understanding of his community, as I connected Galtung's three typologies of violence to the events in Watts. When Scott uses the word "womb," it seems as though he is talking about the circumstances of his upbringing and how "a lack of care" forced him to resort to "Molotov cocktails and shotguns" (177). This close association between the two imageries allowed me to see the clear illustrations of direct, structural, and cultural violence.
Another aspect of the “Watts Riots” I hope to explore is the “Watts Prophets,” a group of poets with deep connections to historical African American culture (Cleveland 196). Hence, I want to learn more about their efforts to heal a wounded community through insightful poetry. According to Cleveland, the “Watts Prophets” developed into agents of change, for they served as "griots [who] pass[ed] the seeds of wisdom and inspiration to unhardened hearts" (196). Thus, I think community artists with personal experiences of traumatization by structural and direct acts of violence can be more efficient at advancing their cause than those from external communities because they have a first-hand understanding of the roots of violence. For instance, one of the prophets says, “I lost a grandson” (197). Hence, he is expressing an intuitive understanding of direct, structural, and cultural violence: cultural attitudes about African Americans create a structural figure that cuts lives short due to the direct acts of violence that exist against them. As an African American with similar experiences of cultural, structural, and direct violence in the ghetto community, I am hence moved to ask a complex question: are individuals who have no first-hand experience with unbelievable trauma in their communities exempt from participating in the healing process?