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From the Archives: Wattstax, 1972

"7th Watts Summer Festival Ends with Parade, Discontent"

"7th Watts Summer Festival Ends with Parade, Discontent"

The LA Times, August 21, 1972

A dashiki-clad man walked over to a little boy with a balloon who was strolling through the park, took his hand, and led him to a group of adults.

"Do you remember the revolt?" he asked the child.

The boy smiled bashfully, chewed the string on his balloon and did not answer.

 7th annual festival banner"Do you remember what happened here six years ago?" the man asked in apparent reference to the Watts riot of August, 1965.

"I just got here," answered the boy, who was not more than 6 years old.

"Do you know anything about the Watts festival?" the man asked.

"Yes," the youngster replied. "I was here last year."

"See," the man said to his three companions, having proved his point, "the people have forgotten the revolt -- the only thing that's left is the festival."

Becoming an Institution

The Watts Summer Festival, which ended Sunday with a parade and concert, is becoming an institution in Los Angeles' black community.

Many say it is the only event sponsored for black people by black people -- a time for fun and community spirit.

But, in its seventh year, there was discontent.

Wattstax - black devilsSome feel the original purpose of the festival has been forgotten and "commercialism" and "white infiltration" have taken over.

"In 1966, the festival was a grassroots thing -- it was makeshift. People just came out and did their own thing," according to Roger Williams, who worked at the Veterans Council and Guidance Center booth at the festival.

Said Tony Kuykendall, who was in the same booth:

"Booths were out on the street instead of in the park -- you could look in back of the booths and see the burned-out building. It was really hip, really free, and there was no strict police enforcement."

"In '66 I came down here and felt so good inside to see the people doing something," Williams said.

"But the whole concept has changed," Kuykendall said. "Originally, the concept was something in remembrance of the one time black people rose up and tried to say something about their experience in Los Angeles. Right now it's a testimony to the romanticism of black people."

But the festival's board of directors and many of the people who strolled through the festival buying food, clothes, jewelry and art were happy with the event.

"This is the only time of the year we can get together and have fun," said Tony Rushing, chairman of the festival's board of directors.

Concessionaires also enjoy the festival, even though some say they do not make as much money as they would like.

Pleasure For All

"The festival is designed to give pleasure to people in every class in society," said Wilson Smith, owner of the So What Shop booth.

"You can enjoy yourself and people are really involved in it -- this is the community."

Some people in the social service area of the festival, who were trying to tell the black community about their services, were critical of the festival.

When the festival was on the streets, concessionaires did not have to pay for booths, they said.

When the festival moved into the park in 1969, the booths were large and only cost $100 to $150 apiece, they said, while now the booths are smaller and cost between $200 and $300.

They pointed to armed and helmeted deputies patrolling the festival in groups of four, and remembered the days when all festival security was handled through a community organized patrol.

The men in the Veterans Counseling and Guidance Center group, who passed out literature citing racism as one of the major problems in the military, were upset with the presence of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force displays at the festival.

Down the aisle, in the Tehachapi prisoners organization booth, Mark Clemmons, out of the Tehachapi institution for the day to get donations for his group and find people to write to lonely prisoners, said he felt "defensive" about the presence of the Sheriff's Department recruiting booth across the aisle and the Police Department booth a few doors down.

Police Protest

In front of the booth co-sponsored by the black policemen's organization and the Los Angeles Police Department, Tut Hayes staged a one-man protest Thursday against the department's participation in the festival.

Later that day, he and his picket signs were carted away by sheriff's deputies.

After filing a complaint with the department, Hayes returned to the festival Thursday evening:

"The fact that they let the police set up a booth is absurd," said Hayes, who helped organize the Community Alert Patrol, a community organization that provided security for the first festival.

With the poor image both the police and sheriff's departments have in the black community, coupled with the large number of arrests made at the festival each year, Hayes said law enforcement officers should not be welcome there.

Saturday morning, Hayes showed up with six more picketers.

Director Blamed

A pamphlet being distributed called "The Truth About the Watts Summer Festival" laid much of the blame for the festival's change of emphasis on Tommy Jacquette, executive director of the festival.

But Jacquette said there has been no change of emphasis and that the festival has never had political, economic or societal purposes.

"It just evolved," Jacquette added. "It was as spontaneous as the revolt of '65 itself."

Strolling through Will Rogers Memorial Park, viewing the festival he helped create, Jacquette criticized his detractors for not dealing with reality:

"For the average brother on the street, his daily needs are so great, when it comes to the festival he just wants to ride on the ride, eat a hot dog and have a couple of drinks and he's happy. He doesn't want to be bothered with rhetoric.

"A lot of pseudo intellectuals and supposed revolutionaries lose track of the people and they deal with what the people ought to be instead of what the people are."

Permanency Hoped

Jacquette said that once the festival becomes a real community institution with a permanent following, then it can become more culturally oriented.

But right now, he said, the social services and art exhibits have to close down four hours earlier than the rest of the festival because no one attends them after 8 p.m.

The presence of law enforcement officers at the festival also is part of Jacquette's "realism."

"The Crips (young black gang members) are here," Jacquette said. "The gang situation is worse now than it's been in 10 or 15 years, and the danger from the Crips is greater than that from the police."

"Some people are only here because the sheriff's deputies are here."

Jacquette said the festival does not make money.

Still Has a Debt

In fact, he said, the festival is still paying off a $2,800 debt to the Los Angeles County Recreation and Parks Department for use of Will Rogers Park last year -- and that was the year the festival received a $135,000 grant from the Model Cities program.

Six months ago, it did not appear that there would be a festival this year, since many of the businesses that had contributed to the festival in other years assumed the federal grant would continue and did not make their customary contributions.

The only people who make money from the festival, Jacquette said, are concessionaires, who, at a minimum, double their $250 to $300 investment. He said the festival gets no percentage of their profits.

Proceeds Divided

A six-hour benefit concert starring Isaac Hayes and other recording artists was held Sunday to help the festival out of its financial bind.

The concert was cosponsored by the Schlitz Brewing Co. and the black-owned Stax Record Co. The proceeds are to be split among the festival, the Martin Luther King Memorial Hospital and the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation.

--Celeste Durant

Next: "Wattstax Concert at Coliseum" »