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“This is no place for white men.”

August 11, 2009, 11:35 am

On this day in 1965, violence raged in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles (contemporary coverage here and a more detailed tdih here). A few points about the newsreel above: First, the voiceover uses both “riot” and “insurrection” to describe the mayhem. The difference in moral valence between the two is pretty clear, so I was somewhat surprised to hear the word “insurrection” used at all.

Second, in other spots the narration remains more complicated than I would have expected: for instance, when, around the 40 second mark, we hear that “the looters…stole everything from liquor to playpens.” Maybe I’m off base, but I think looters who steal playpens sound reasonably sympathetic — as looters go, I mean. Of course they become a lot less sympathetic, it seems, in the next paragraph of the script, when it turns out that they’re shooting from rooftops at firefighters. Don’t mess with first responders, looters, if you want our sympathy!

Third, the score is all kinds of over-the-top awesome, sort of like Bernard Herrmann gone mad (there’s another Watts video, with even groovier music, here). Fourth, around the 1:20 mark, we hear about Martin Luther King, who’s portrayed as a kind of moderate Civil Rights superman, capable of quelling urban unrest using only the power of his soothing words. Of course, assuming that’s a quote from King, a source from just a few years later suggests those words could have been read in many ways. Fifth, boy those cops around the 2:00 mark are white.

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