“I Still Can’t Breathe”: Artists Decry Racism from the Watts Rebellion to the Present

Several racially charged urban uprisings rocked the United States half a century ago, drawing attention to the substantive injustices unresolved by the gains of the modern Civil Rights movement. Among the most traumatic was the rebellion in the Watts district of Los Angeles, where six days of violence caused thirty-four deaths, over a thousand injuries, more than 3,000 arrests, and 40 million dollars in property damage. Catalyzed by an incident of questionable police conduct, the underlying causes reflected the glaring poverty, lack of economic opportunity, police brutality, and intractable racism that African Americans faced in the Los Angeles area.

Fifty years later, many of the same problems endure. Despite the symbolically meaningful election of President Barack Obama and other high-profile gains, widespread economic disparities persist, and the incarceration rate of African Americans remains scandalously high. The glaring problem of police misconduct, especially the recent killings of unarmed young black men and children (in Ferguson, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio; New York City; and elsewhere) has generated massive nationwide protests inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi after Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted. Though less often publicized, protests against the violence faced by black women have also begun to spread.

These protests have in turn caused millions of Americans to reflect on the problem of institutional racism, particularly as it affects the entire criminal justice system. Many have begun to understand the deep racial divide on this issue. People of color and whites often perceive the law and legal institutions in dramatically different, even opposite, ways. To many whites, these institutions, especially the police, are protectors. For many African Americans, the same institutions are oppressive, reinforcing racial hierarchies and maintaining white privilege.

Sculpture of a black male, blindfolded and with a target on his chest.

{title}Death at the Hands of Police{/title} by Toni Scott. Credit: Toni Scott ({link url="http://toniscott.com"}toniscott.com{/link}), image courtesy of Michael Massenburg.

The Role of Art in Social Protest

An ongoing exhibition at the Watts Towers Arts Center dramatically highlights these issues, presenting one of the most compelling shows of socially conscious art in California in many years. Curated by Arts Center Director Rosie Lee Hooks and artist Michael Massenburg, “50 Years and I Still Can’t Breathe” is a stunning collection of visual works addressing themes of legal and police injustice against minority communities. With contributions by African American and other artists, the exhibition focuses on the distressing absence of progress despite the gains of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

The exhibition features original documentation of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, much of it from the collection of community archivist and activist Alden Kimbrough. It also includes media accounts of the traumatic events of that August, as well as key primary source documents, such as the governor’s McCone Commission’s report on the “riots.”
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