“Unlimited Militarism,” a Culture of Deafness, and Seeing the Watts Riots in 2020 Protests

What can be seen in the United States in 2020 with the casual overpass of the continuing Black Lives Matters movements and the militaristic response to peaceful protests is a culture of engrained militarism. The white supremacists counter protests or demi-occupations are reflections of that American culture. The culture of deafness, the defeated self-interest of corporatized Americana and what Vaclav Havel referred to as the consumer stationed post-totalitarianism is an exaggerated form of grotesque theatre. As David R. Roediger writes in How Race Survived U.S. History, “‘[I]t took the Watts riots’ to make Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty add just seven from minority community organizations to his thirty-five person poverty board” (2008, 201). Such is the result of a culture of “unlimited militarism.” To cite Edward Said, from The Politics of Dispossession, 

I defy anyone to tell me of one struggle for democracy, or women’s rights, or secularism, and the rights of minorities that the United States has supported. Insead we have propped up compliant and unpopular clients, and turned our backs on the efforts of small peoples to liberate themselves from military occupation, while subsidizing their enemies. We have prompted unlimited militarism and engaged in vast arm sales […]. (1994, 296)

This genuine community of arbitrary and invested hate is maintained by cultural norms and the lack of governmental and communal attempts to rectify its past. The Watts riots is just one example where this culture of deafness was equally invoked to pass over the issues at hand and attempt to stranglehold a business-as-usual approach. What was termed the Watts riots included other neighborhoods that were cordoned off; Watts, Central, Avalon, Florence, Green Meadow, Exposition, and Willowbrook, which captured 250,000 residents (Theoharis, 2018, 72). To isolate such a large community with the labeling of one key sector is again the erasure of compliance as well as the erasure of holistic ideas that could move the country forward towards healing and the manifestation of reconciliation. 

The Voting Rights Act was signed August 6, 1965. On August 9th the Moynihan report was leaked by Newsweek portraying the “American dilemma of race” and from August 11th to 16th the Watts Riot confirmed the Moynihan report’s findings that there was a “time bomb in the ghetto” (Ibram X. Kendi, from Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of racist Ideas in America, 2016, 393). Again, the ghettoization, the reification of difference, the isolation from magnanimous reproach leads to the construction of a population not only ready to accept the terms of normalcy, but also to defend and demand it as we have seen in recent years with white terrorism on the streets of American traditionalism. 

Jeanne Theoharis states in A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses of Misuses of Civil Rights History that,

Many public officials and local residents were “shocked” by the Watts riot, as it came to be called. Proclaiming California as a “state without racial discrimination,” Governor Brown flew home immediately, informing reports that “nobody told me there was an explosive situation in Los Angeles.” It was a willful, comforting shock. Even though the Los Angeles Times had covered many of the protests of the past decade, reporters and editors refused to call city leaders to account for their long deafness of Black grievances and instead helped legitimate this frame of surprise. (2018, 72)

This unwanted witnessing of trust is framed as a surprise, not as a long-term face saving tactic used by conflict resolution specialists, but as a temporary detraction to maintain the willful inability to bring conscience to change. Theoharis continues, “[t]he ‘surprise’ also obscured the role many in the city had played in dismissing Black protest and maintaining inequality. By erasing this long history of struggle, many Angelenos could conveniently evade responsibility for maintaining these systems of inequality and creating the conditions for the uprising (2018, 72).” What is evasion but a military tactic? Collective social consciousness has many avenues of departure, but to reel in one exposure of one frame at a time is a willful prelude of the maintenance of imparity. 

Militaristic police presence at the various protests around the U.S. in 2020 is a reflection of white evasion in 1965. To depart from responsibility is to actively seek to maintain a disordered form of assembly. Token suggestions, relations, magnifications, and rehearsals will only function to preserve the contrasts that adhere to a dominant culture of deafness that disassembles with the threat of armed conflict. Just as the explication from Edward Said in seeing the United States’s role in the Mideast, so, too, does our prominent hand in matters at home weigh against forms of justice or coherent messaging that progress might follow.