To the Streets of Cairo by way of Watts

Sunset: The Great Pyramid at Giza

As I watched the mayhem of the “Jasmine Revolution” televised from the Streets of Cairo last week, I couldn’t help but think back on the similar revolution in which I was a participant, on the streets of Watts, California.

We did not have Facebook, or Twitter to help us organize mass participation in our uprising. There was no Internet at all, and we certainly did not have cell phones. In fact the only computers in existence at that time were the size of a rail car, and we didn’t even have fax machines.

We did have the “Magnificent Montague,” a Soul Radio deejay, who gave us our anthem–”Burn Baby Burn”–but he did not cause our discontent. No. Weeks before the uprising, Montague invited his listeners to call in every morning, identify themselves and their neighborhood, and then tell the world how they just wanted to “Burn Baby Burn,” as in “burn” meaning to offer the most soulful expression ever heard on the radio.

No, our discontent had been seared into our souls by the brutality of the Los Angeles Police Department under the command of Police Chief William Parker. We were leaderless, but united in the cause in opposition to police brutality.

So when Ronald and Marquette Frye’s mother rushed out onto a Watts street and got into fisticuffs herself on Wednesday Aug. 11, 1965 to prevent a cop from arresting her sons…it was on! The response was spontaneous, immediate, and universal, and the uncontrollable mobs spread all over South Central Los Angeles.

Of course there were radio and news reports about mobs being out of control in Watts, but the discontent was already there, the spark was lit, and the rebellion spread like wildfire, but not because of the media. It was just like that in Egypt last week. Just like that in Tunisia the week before.

In Watts, by Friday the 13th the flames were everywhere. I recall one incident, just like it was yesterday, because it was a transcendental moment for me. It was that evening, outside a Thrifty Drug Store at 47th and Broadway. Sacking and looting stores had become the mode of expression of our discontent.

A mob had broken into this drug store, and a black and white police cruiser sped up to the scene, lights flashing, sirens blaring. Two cops jumped out, guns in hand, and it looked to me like a hail of bricks and rocks and bottles descended on the cops from every direction, in an instant.

The cops jumped back into their squad car and they beat a hasty retreat. At that moment, seeing the almighty, invincible, beat-you-with-a-rubber-hose-in-the-precinct-house-basement, L.A. police in full retreat, I felt a sense of power I had never known before. Our only “weapons” if you will, had been rocks and bottles. A few knew how to make Molotov Cocktails, but our power came from an impenetrable, collective will to resist. We were way, way beyond just “Burn, Baby Burn.” This was a Revolution. And we were winning!

Watching the Cairo protests on TV, when I saw armored personnel carriers retreat from confrontations with the crowds of youth there, I saw Watts all over again. I saw myself watching at 47th and Broadway. I saw 20-something-year-olds in Cairo at Tahrir Square, owning the night. Owning the streets. Defying the curfew, as we had done in Los Angeles, 45 years before.

This is/was Egypt’s “Jasmine Revolution.” Ours was just the Watts Rebellion, labeled simply a “riot” by those who from the outside tried to dismiss our zeal and after the fact diminish our ardor.

We didn’t gain much or anything in Watts, compared to what’s on the line in Egypt, and what will eventually transpire. “Reform” my eye!

The government, in one of the oldest civilizations on earth is being ushered out of power, right before our very eyes, by an army–like the army we almost became in California a half century ago–which has no missiles, no tanks, no rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), no improvised explosive devices (IEDs), no generals, no lieutenants, no sergeants, just a united will on the part of a long-oppressed, overlooked, and forgotten cadre who spoke with one voice: “We’re not going to take it anymore!”

“A Luta Continua. Pamoja Venceremos!”

“The Struggle Continues. Together We Will Win!”

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