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The Uprising Marches On

Writers Have a Duty Not to Exaggerate Racial Progress

In an era where even the simplest truths are under attack, it’s up to writers to remind us that systemic racism never really goes away

Photo illustration. Sources: Brooke Fasani Auchincloss, Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

This piece is part of The Uprising Marches On, a package on what’s next for the movement for Black lives.

It was just over 55 years ago, on August 11, 1965, when 21-year-old Marquette Frye was pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer in the Watts section of Los Angeles for alleged reckless driving. The motorcycle officer, Lee Minkus, reportedly smelled alcohol on Frye’s breath and administered a field sobriety test which he determined Frye failed. Minkus placed the young man under arrest and radioed for backup and a transport car as a small crowd gathered. Up to this point, as far as police interactions with Black people go, the whole thing was as agreeable as possible.

It wasn’t until Minkus’ backup arrived that things went awry. Frye’s mother had shown up — it was her Buick that he was driving, with his brother, Ronald, in the passenger seat — and was upset both that her car was being towed and that Frye had been drinking and driving. Frye grew erratic and yelled, “Those motherfucking cops ain’t going to take me to jail!” The small, jovial crowd that was there initially had grown in size and hostility. Minkus and another patrolman grabbed their batons, while yet another pulled out his shotgun. More police officers arrived on the scene, one of whom eventually struck Frye in the forehead.

And so began what we now refer to as the Watts Riots/Watts Uprising/Watts Rebellion, a six-day violent confrontation between Black residents of Los Angeles and the police. At least 34 people died, a thousand more were injured, and 4,000 were arrested, while over 200 buildings within a 50-square-mile area were destroyed or burned, resulting in $200 million in property damage. Fourteen thousand national guard troops descended on Watts.

“The whole point of the outbreak in Watts,” wrote civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin in Commentary magazine, “was that it marked the first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism and was carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life.” It was an incident of police violence that set people off, but it was the unending conditions of joblessness, segregation, and economic exploitation that angered them long before Frye and Minkus crossed paths.

It’s with that understanding of the roots of the rebellion that Gerald Horne, historian and author of Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s, said, in a 2005 interview with Democracy Now: “The basic conditions that led to the then largest episode of unrest in this country to that time, those causes are still with us.”

I think about all of this now as I contemplate the idea of what comes “after” the protests which have recently taken hold of the nation. The killing of George Floyd has prompted the largest demonstrations in this country’s history. His death was captured on video, where police officer Derek Chauvin can be seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd said repeatedly, “I can’t breathe,” while calling out for his mother. Chauvin and his fellow officers were responding to a call that Floyd had allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill.

Three nights into the protests in the Twin Cities, a police precinct was set on fire. In other cities, including Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor had been killed by police officers executing a no-knock warrant on her home, police cars burned. News cameras swarmed. Social media feeds were overtaken by images of protest, looting, and disruption. The usual suspects decried the “violence” and chastised protestors for not remaining “peaceful.” A previously fringe idea emerged as the central demand of the demonstrations: to defund the police.

After the protests there are always more protests, because the conditions that produce the protests remain fundamentally unchanged.

And then the volatility of the protests subdued, even as the numbers remained strong, and as has happened many times in the past, the news media’s thirst for violent imagery had been satiated, and once there was no more they packed up and went home. Social media feeds returned to their usual programming: Trump tweeted. Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris. Everyone and everything, seemingly, moved on.

Except the protests are still happening. So there is no “after” to contemplate at the moment, as people are still gathering in the streets, still demanding justice, still getting arrested — as well as organizing teach-ins, setting up mutual aid systems, funding grassroots organizations, and other less glamorous tasks that often go unrecognized. I wouldn’t dare to insult their work by theorizing what comes next when they are still very much now.

But also I remember that 55 years ago, Watts was on fire. And 28 years ago, Los Angeles erupted again. Six years ago, Ferguson was burning. Five years ago, Baltimore was too. After the protests there are always more protests, because the conditions that produce the protests remain fundamentally unchanged.

It is the duty of the writer to have a longer memory than the nation’s. And not only a longer memory but a more precise rendering of events as they happen. The state will only ever record its triumphs — it will celebrate its supposedly progressive constitutional amendments, court decisions, or monumental pieces of legislation, but it will never indict itself for the reasons those things were necessary. The people who resist injustice, who make “good trouble” as the late John Lewis would have put it, are written out of the official record, or else they are co-opted as further examples of American exceptionalism, where their bravery is embraced and celebrated as uniquely American in character.

It is the duty of the writer not only to resist such narratives but to ardently counter them, to remind people that a basic truth remains: The conditions that produced the protests have gone unchanged. We must repeat this as though it is the only song we know. We must not give in to the alluring narrative of progress — progress simply means that today’s suffering is slightly less deadly than yesterday’s. But where economic deprivation persists, health care is denied, safe housing is in short supply, police kill with impunity, and we are not even provided masks to prevent the spread of deadly disease during a global pandemic (in fact, expected to be the sacrificial lambs on the altar of capitalist profit-making), we must insist that what passes for progress is so inadequate as to be itself useless.

As writers, we must not say that the fire is coming, but that it was never extinguished in the first place.

Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of the New York Times bestseller Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (2016) and Stakes Is High (2020).