Remembering the Watts Rebellion, Operation Chaos and the Infectious Logic of National Security

Burning buildings in Los Angeles during the Watts Riots in August, 1965.

Burning buildings in Los Angeles during the Watts Riots in August, 1965. (Photo: New York World-Telegram)

Originally Posted in Truthout

By Kara Z. Dellacioppa

Fifty years ago, during the hot, dry days of early August, the city of Los Angeles erupted in flames in a weeklong riot leaving dozens dead, more than 3,000 arrested and $40 million in property damage. This landmark event came to be known as the Watts rebellion of 1965. This year also marks 40 years since the revelations of the Senate committee and Rockefeller Commission investigations of US intelligence covert activity against US dissidents throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Both legendary events and their interrelationship have something important to teach us about the growth of the national security state (NSS) and the criminalization of US dissent.

The NSS refers to a set of principles and strategies to ensure political and economic hegemony over other potential political or economic rivals within the modern world system and aims to neutralize potential threats to this hegemony (both within the hegemonic state itself and within the larger world system). The NSS also refers to a set of institutions dedicated to “national security” such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Pentagon, among others. It also importantly refers to the institutional spread of the logic of “national security” to other seemingly apolitical institutions like the IRS, Health and Human Service (HSS) and the media.

The campus where I teach, California State University, Dominguez Hills, is a product of the 1965 Los Angeles uprising. Our campus was slated to be a “Harvard of the West.” Originally, it was to be constructed in the nearby wealthy community of Palos Verdes. Watts changed all that. One of the outcomes of the rebellion was the decision to relocate Dominguez Hills to serve the Black community of South Central Los Angeles, Compton and surrounding areas. This was one of the state’s modest concessions to the Black community. These concessions also included passing the Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1966, an acknowledgement of the historic deprivation and oppression suffered by the Black community. By the end of 1965, the McCone Commission released a report concluding that the social conditions of the Black community (unemployment, discrimination in housing and police abuse) were the triggers of the social explosion in Watts. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to study the origins of urban riots. The final commission report concluded that both white racism and lack of economic opportunity for Blacks were key causes of urban unrest. Continue Reading —