August 2012 will be 47 years since the 5 days of rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles, that led to 34 deaths, nearly 3500 arrests, and the burning of hundreds of area storefronts and commercial buildings, causing over $40 million in property damage.

Most Californians today have no memory or knowledge of the Watts riots. But we should not let it fade into history yet.  We can learn particularly from the actions of state and local government officials after the riots, and the ideology that drove these actions.

Through YouTube, we can relive some of the news reports that followed the rioting. To see the extent of the destruction and how much California has changed in the 47 years, below are a few news snippets on the fires and destruction, and on the riot aftermath.


The  initial state government response to the riots was to appoint a commission, headed by Mr. John McCone, the former head of the CIA. The McCone Commission  delivered its report in December 1965, Violence in the City-and End or a Beginning? The report attributed the riots mainly to social factors of inferior schools, high unemployment,  poor health care, inadequate public infrastructure. It called for a strategy of new government programs to address these factors.

Yet, even before the Commission report, the state and local government had sprung into action, with a similar government program orientation.  Within a short time after the riots, the South Central  Los Angeles Service Center was established at 103rd Street near Compton. The Center brought together an array of government programs in a single neighborhood location: job counselors, social workers for welfare recipients , legal services, youth counselors, health care counselors, business development counselors.

Mr. Michael Dolphin is the regional manager of the Employment Development Department  (EDD) job service division  in Los Angeles and Ventura.  In 1967, he was a junior college student in the area, and went to the Service Center, seeking part time employment . “It was located first on 103rd street near Compton, before it  moved to a larger space at 109th and Central. What stood out was the number of services and staff collected in the Center: counselors to help residents with arrest warrants or legal problems, counselors to help find health care,  counselors to help find jobs .” Mr. Dolphin did get placed in a job training program for craft workers in the entertainment industry, though for a variety of reasons it did not work out. He joined the Army in 1968, eventually received his college degree,  was hired by EDD in 1971, and rose to become regional manager during the past decade—succeeding Mr. Al Dave (“Mr. EDD” in Los Angeles for many years).

By 1968, the South Central Los Angeles Service Center had expanded  its staff with the expansion of government anti-poverty programs, each with its own anti-poverty spin. Among the employment programs, there was the Job Corps, a residential program aimed at taking low income youth out of their neighborhoods, the Neighborhood Youth Corps aimed at keeping youth in their neighborhoods and providing  part-time and summer jobs, the Concentrated Employment Program , an early “holistic” approach that emphasized a variety of services to the job seeker.

Within a few years, though,  by the early 1970s, this vast edifice of programs began winding down. Part of the reason was funding. The Vietnam War spending finally caught up with domestic programs. The federal government , the main funder of these programs, cut back its domestic spending.

Of equal importance, a debate arose challenging the government program approach as an effective anti-poverty strategy. Were low income individuals and communities really in need of the counseling of social welfare professionals? Did these individuals and communities not possess important strengths and skills? Could these strengths and skills not be better utilized with different incentive structures and structures for ownership in the market system?  It is a debate that continues today in California.

The unemployment rate in Watts and South Central Los Angeles did go down in the late 1960s. But this decrease tracked mainly the decrease in unemployment in California overall, not spending on government programs. In July 1965, the unemployment rate in California stood at 6%. By the end of 1965, it had declined to 5.5%. It stayed at 5.5% or under for over four years, until February 1970, when it begin rising in the first years of the 1970s. The rise and fall of the unemployment rates in Watts and other low income areas of California followed the rises and falls in overall  job creation in California, not program spending.

In July 1990, the Los Angeles Times did a series, “Watts: Then and Now” that interviewed staff and commissioners of the McCone Commission as well as long time area residents. The results were surface-deep . A number of residents complained that nothing had changed, that they had been abandoned, while McCone Commission staff acknowledged that government had not done enough. As examples of abandonment, the Times reporters cited Drew Medical Center (then under investigation),  an unfinished  multifamily housing complex, and the Lockheed aerospace plant near Watts-Willowbrook, which had opened after the riots and closed in 1988.

In fact, none of these examples shows abandonment (Drew Medical Center, built after the riots, has achieved more steady footing, and the Lockheed plant was only one of many manufacturing facilities that have been closed in California in the past 30 years). Further, any serious analysis of Watts would recognize the diverse positive changes in infrastructure, job training, housing and business ownership since that time, that came about through individual and collective efforts.

We can learn much from examining the many government interventions in Watts since August 1965, if we are willing to do so with an open mind, abandoning the prism of government social welfare programs. As we move forward, low income communities in California, such as Watts, might best be seen not as communities of sickness or need, but as communities that can build and own, housing, businesses and other assets, with different incentive structures.