“The economic deprivation, social isolation, inadequate housing, and general despair of thousands of Negroes teeming in Northern and Western ghettos are the ready seeds which give birth to tragic expressions of violence.”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In response to the Watts Rebellion, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that community members were responding to harms that were ‘environmental and not racial’. The Watts Rebellion began in Los Angeles following an instance of police brutality and lasted for six days. The Rebellion lasted six days, resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 4,000 arrests, and totalled $40 million in damages. While Dr. King and local government officials later understood the violent rebellion to be a response to strained tensions between police and residents, staggering unemployment rates, and impoverished schools and communities, even very young residents were aware of the community’s challenges. In fact, a 16-year-old Felicia Bragg starred in a short documentary about her life as a “Negro teenager living in Watts”. In the film Felicia reflects on her experiences growing up in Watts and the daily environmental and racial harms leveraged against her neighbours.
In the film Felicia reflects on her educational goals and the classist and racist barriers that might stand in her way. She also discusses how invasive public transportation, segregated and overcrowded schools, and immense waste impact residents of Watts. The film opens with shots of a well-manicured neighbourhood, a busy community pool, and a sprawling campus. Felicia’s voiceover narrates that the communities viewers are looking at are different from her own. Felicia says, “I guess what impresses me most in other neighbourhoods is a sense of space. There’s nothing jammed up against anything else and there’s lots of room to breathe”. The camera pans over a sprawling campus with lots of grass and room for the noticeably all white students to surround one another without being crowded. Suddenly, a train runs noisily through a row of houses facing it. This immediate and large and noisy train completely disrupts the previous sense of open space and calmness. The rumbling train charges through the Watts, which Felicia tells us is her home. While the focus of the film appears to be about family, school, and Felicia’s plans for the future, her environment also prominently displays the consequences of racist policies. According to Enviroliteracy trains ‘…have their own effects on the environment, including producing nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter that can contribute to air pollution and negative health effects’ . Today viewers might understand this kind of community invasion as environmental racism.
Environmental racism describes the way minority group neighbourhoods ‘(populated primarily by people of color and members of low socioeconomic groups) are burdened with a disproportionate number of hazards, including toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of environmental pollution and foul odors that lower the quality of life’. In the opening shot Felicia had also noted that she was aware her segregated school did not have newer textbooks and was structurally inadequate to nearby all-white schools. Some environmental justice advocates argue that overcrowding and underfunding in schools contribute to inequitable education that might also be understood as environmental racism. In a later scene, Felicia is in a crowded classroom, prompting the viewer to search for her among many faces. She talks about the limited career aspirations of the students around her. She tells viewers that many of her female peers have decided to pursue careers such as secretaries, beauticians, and cosmetologists because they “won’t be allowed to do anything else”. When discussing her peer’s aspirations Felicia’s tone is not judgmental. She is merely noting that even as high-school aged children they are already aware of the socio-eco limitations that a racist and politically antagonistic society has for them.
Later, when Felicia recalls her experience at an integrated summer programme she discusses the confidence her predominately white peers have in their educational and professional aspirations. Casey Berkovitz writes that ‘Environmental racism is inseparable from racial segregation. Residential segregation—which is itself a result of individual and systemic racism, including public policy choices at every level of government and exclusionary choices by financial actors—means that people of colour are often concentrated in neighbourhoods that have frequently been disempowered, both politically and financially’. Felicia is anticipating a link between segregation, overcrowded schools, and racism that has become a robust field of study in recent decades.
On her walk home from school Felicia says that many people refer to Watts as filthy, dirty, and a place residents should try to escape. Felicia also mentions that she is aware that metal and other waste have to go somewhere, but that it should not end up in people’s backyards. She says “I think that’s dangerous and I don’t see why the city allows it to be like that”. These flaws are spatial and environmental, which even 16-year-old Felicia recognises is a result of policies that devalue this predominantly Black community. Specifically, by allowing such a massive amount of waste to be dumped in people’s backyards, local governments have failed to provide basic social and environmental protections. Further, the already devalued local junk car businesses exacerbate the literal property devaluation. The camera zooms in on various junk cars as Felicia discusses them and slowly zooms out to reveal what could be hundreds of smashed cars stacked atop each other. The directors’ allow viewers to take in the tower of cars that hover over the homes and many small children. Community members’ access to the sky is blocked by a barrage of battered cars that, as Felicia notes, could easily topple over and crush them.
On her walk home Felicia talks about wanting to stay in Watts and seems optimistic about improving her community. She wishes that more of her friends shared in that desire, but that there must be structural changes made to improve their quality of life. She tells viewers that everyone cannot just abandon the city and the people that will remain behind. In hindsight viewers today can turn to this film as an example of what kinds of frustrations participants in the Rebellion might have been responding to. Perhaps Felecia unintentionally provides expression for those who had already felt abandoned by local and national government policies. Pointedly, racist socio-environmental policies that actively worked to erode their communities. Ever optimistic, the film closes with Felicia walking over an empty train track, school books in hand and a clear path ahead of her, all the space she needs.
by Ashely B. Tisdale
Ashely B. Tisdale (she/her) is a Ph.D. candidate researching and writing about U.S. Multiethnic gothic fiction and critical disability studies. She is also an aspiring culture and film writer and devoted dog mom. Follow her on twitter @whoaskedash