BRUGGER: The ever-changing America I know

As a high school senior in 1968, I read "Burn Baby Burn: the Los Angeles Race Riot 1965" by Jerry Cohen and William S. Murphy. I don’t remember my government teacher’s name, but I can still visualize the cover of that book — red, with bright yellow lettering; a member of the National Guard shadowed in the background, an assault rifle at the ready.
Feb 1, 2013

 

From a list of extra-credit reading, I chose the book because it was new, the binding still tight, not even a dog-eared page. My life would never be the same.

The Watts race riots began with an African-American driver being pulled over by a policeman on suspicion the driver was drunk. He was not. A tiny pebble of injustice displaced layers of oppression, creating an avalanche of anger and dissension which rumbled throughout the city. Fires were set, 34 died, thousands were arrested and property damage neared $40 million.

And so went the next year and the next. The race riots of 1967 were voracious: Tampa, Boston, Cincinnati — and then four days in Detroit where 43 died, 2,000 were injured, 442 buildings burned.

I read the description of events in Los Angeles through the lens of a naïve 17-year-old who had just started using “African-American” instead of “colored” to describe the only two classmates she knew who fit that description. “Bussing,” to force integration, was still a year away.

To say I was moved by reports that the African-Americans in Watts suffered high unemployment, poor schools and inferior living would be an understatement. I wanted my parents to assure me that we were different, that surely “it wasn’t so” in Kalamazoo. I wanted the smoke on the horizon to clear and everyone to be happy.

After writing my book report in the spring of ‘68, I grew hopeful listening to the Rev. Martin Luther King. He was a good guy; surely we could all get along, and yet, in the next heartbeat, he was shot and killed. More riots — Washington, D.C. and my own city were on fire. A week after King’s death, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

African-American Arthur Ashe won the Grand Slam in tennis that summer, but the Black Power participants at the Olympics in Mexico raised their fists in protest as the "Star Spangled Banner" was played. It seemed as if there was no safe place to stand. Nothing was as it used to be.

I entered my freshman year in college with a determination to change things. I met with the students of the Black Coalition on campus. I carried signs of protest in the pine grove. I listened to Motown and danced to Aretha’s "Respect" with the two Afro-haired girls who lived on my floor.

One of my roommates took me to her home in D.C., where the population of African-Americans was higher than the white population. She drove me downtown to see the burned-out buildings left from the riots the year before.

My optimism dimmed when time did not change things fast enough. I became distracted.

I did the status quo thing — got married, had children, worked and lived in a town where the population of people-of-color was (and is) miniscule. To my children, my husband and I modeled tolerance and respect of all people. But hey, when you live here, there are so few ways to practice.

And then, four years ago, I watched Barack Obama take the oath of office for president of the United States. Words are not adequate to describe the surge of emotion, the shear elation I felt. I had done little to affect the outcome of his election other than vote for the candidate I believed would be the most qualified to lead the United States of America. He happened to be African-American.

Forty-five years has passed since I wrote my book report for 10 extra-credit points. The majority of voters in this country have affirmed this man for a second term.

I agree with Tribune community columnist Alexander Sinn (Jan. 22): “Truthfully, we cannot fully grasp and recognize the suffering, dedication and ability of people to overcome their circumstances in one measly Monday … sometimes the race is slow, sometimes we must take a day off to examine why we are here, and dream of where we may go.”

And, what a Monday it was — Jan. 21, 2013. Although I do not consider myself old, I am glad I am alive to witness the evolution of history. We are yet young and naïve about many things, but we concur that all human-kind are created equal.

— By Ann Brugger, Tribune community columnist

Comments

Vladtheimp

From the the report of the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots (December 2, 1965)

The Frye Arrests

On August 11, 1965, California Highway Patrolman Lee W. Minikus, a Caucasian, was riding his motorcycle along 122nd street, just south of the Los Angeles City boundary, when a passing Negro motorist told him he had just seen a car that was being driven recklessly. Minikus gave chase and pulled the car over at 116th and Avalon, in a predominantly Negro neighborhood, near but not in Watts. It was 7: 00 p.m.

The driver was Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old Negro, and his older brother, Ronald, 22, was a passenger. Minikus asked Marquette to get out and take the standard Highway Patrol sobriety test. Frye failed the test, and at 7:05 p.m., Minikus told him he was under arrest. He radioed for his motorcycle partner, for a car to take Marquette to jail, and a tow truck to take the car away.

They were two blocks from the Frye home, in an area of two-story apartment buildings and numerous small family residences. Because it was a very warm evening, many of the residents were outside.

Ronald Frye, having been told he could not take the car when Marquette was taken to jail, went to get their mother so that she could claim the car. They returned to the scene about 7:15 p.m. as the second motorcycle patrolman, the patrol car, and tow truck arrived. The original group of 25 to 50 curious spectators had grown to 250 to 300 persons.

Mrs. Frye approached Marquette and scolded him for drinking. Marquette, who until then had been peaceful and cooperative, pushed her away and moved toward the crowd, cursing and shouting at the officers that they would have to kill him to take him to jail. The patrolmen pursued Marquette and he resisted.

The watching crowd became hostile, and one of the patrolmen radioed for more help. Within minutes, three more highway patrolmen arrived. Minikus and his partner were now struggling with both Frye brothers. Mrs. Frye, now belligerent, jumped on the back of one of the officers and ripped his shirt. In an attempt to subdue Marquette, one officer swung at his shoulder with a night stick, missed, and struck him on the forehead, inflicting a minor cut. By 7:23 p.m., all three of the Fryes were under arrest, and other California Highway Patrolmen and, for the first time, Los Angeles police officers had arrived in response to the call for help.

Officers on the scene said there were now more than 1,000 persons in the crowd. About 7:25 p.m., the patrol car with the prisoners, and the tow truck pulling the Frye car, left the scene. At 7:31 p.m., the Fryes arrived at a nearby sheriff's substation.

Wingmaster

Brugger:...The Watts race riots began with an African-American driver being pulled over by a policeman on suspicion the driver was drunk. He was not.

From the the report of the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots (December 2, 1965)....Minikus asked Marquette to get out and take the standard Highway Patrol sobriety test. Frye failed the test, and at 7:05 p.m., Minikus told him he was under arrest.

It appears someone is not being honest with the facts!

Walking Alive

LOL! That is what the two of you got out of that article? I think you should both volunteer when the Tribune asks for community columnists. You are both much better read/researched, and obviously have much more interesting comments than any misspoken (misguided?) columnist.

NSViews

To V&W:
It's unfortunate that the incident that instigated the riots is your sole take away from this op-ed piece; a much richer and larger idea was being conveyed in this column.

To Ms. Brugger: I always enjoy your columns. You consistently write as if you're looking in the rear-view mirror thoughtfully, while keeping your eyes on the road ahead optimistically. I like that.

Lanivan

Well said, NSViews. Your reflections so often mirror my own, Ann. Thank you for this opportunity to pause, reflect, and find understanding.

Vladtheimp

Sorry to ruin the narrative that if two racist cops hadn't discriminated against an innocent black yout the riots would never have taken place, even with all of the racial injustices inherent in the system.

I'll look forward to the next installment - How racist cops and a racist prosecutor ruined the life of Tawana Brawley.

Lanivan

Fellow traveler Vlad - I guess Mayor Ed Koch was thinking of me when he said, " I can help explain it, I can't help you to comprehend it".

Vladtheimp

Forgive me again for interjecting some reality into the conversation. When Ms. Brugger was visiting her friend in D.C., I had been living there. I was there when Stokley Carmichael rabble roused the crowd at 14th and U, and marched down Georgia Avenue -7th Street - downtown, burning and looting businesses both black and white. When Ms. Brugger was visiting I was teaching in an all Black school at 14th and S (2 blocks from the riot ground zero). ALL of my students were negatively affected by the impact on their parents, family, and neighborhoods. Some scars (physical and emotional) from the riots remain today.

If I learned one thing, it is that fuzzing over the truth about what goes on in neighborhoods does no one any good - that blaming every problem in the black community on cops, white people in general, and racism is not only factually incorrect, but does nothing to encourage change from within. I also know that the election of Barack Obama was a catharsis for many people, black and white alike. Unfortunately, I also know that Obama's policies and actions have caused great economic harm to the black community (black unemployment) and caused even greater racial divides among the American people, and to try to fuzz that over is to do everyone a disservice.

I know about agents for change - I had the privilege of seeing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in person, and I came away knowing I had been in the presence of a true agent of change for the better; he impressed me as much if not more than any speaker I have ever heard - but that does not mean that I couldn't acknowledge his personal failings and peccadilloes - to me that would have diminished both of us.

So maybe I comprehend more than you think, just a different comprehension based on my own experiences.

Lanivan

I now comprehend. I very sincerely thank you for the explanation, the clarification, the honesty.

Lanivan

"I also know that Obama's policies and actions have caused great economic harm to the black community (black unemployment)". Please elaborate.

At this point in the arc of history, there is really no argument against the fact that 8 years of the Bush administration policies and actions have caused great economic harm to black, and all, communities. Beginning with the repealing of portions of the Glass- Steagall in 1999, the permission to allow the self-regulation of investment banks, the breakdown of underwriting standards for lending, and the subsequent sub-prime mortgage crisis, the economic collapse and the Great Recession of 2008-09, - surely you agree these wrought great damage to our country.

Yes - it really is Bush's fault. Obama has had the unenviable job of picking up the pieces. Starting with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the absolutely necessary 2009 economic stimulus package, the passage of the now SCOTUS blessed Affordable Care Act, permanent tax cuts for the middle class, and much more, he has done (arguably, I admit) more for the black/non white communities than any president in the last 40 years.

While perhaps being an agent of change on a par with Martin Luther King, Jr,- perhaps even being a transitional president on a par with some of our greatest presidents,- his presidency has indeed put the spot light on the racial divides in this country. But I submit the fault is not his, but ours. Comprehension is not enough, we have to be agents of change individually, keep growing, keep looking forward.

Wingmaster

Funny how two versions of the time have such different take aways isn't it. For those who feel they need to attack Vlad for his honest and factual account of those days...shame on you. Most only live thru the sanitized version of history taught in public schools then make believe they are deep all caring and racially diverse in their thoughts. Those individuals do more harm to racial harmony in this country then true racist. At least with racist we can all see them for what they are.

Men should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of thier skin. Thank you Vlad for bringing factual clarity again to a topic that wants to stir ugly emotions.

Lanivan

"Men should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin". Wouldn't the world be a better place if all could understand - and live by - this? It also helps to understand that there is always another side, a different story, a unique perception, personal experiences that make us who we are, that shape our opinions.

Wingmaster

WOW Lan, we agree!!! Why do I have the feeling like I have a sliver of something irritating my skin right now. Have a good day.

Lanivan

Here comes the tweezers!...Hope your team wins, too.

 

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