Haiti tragedy recalls 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles

February 11, 2010

Haiti. Tear stained faces, broken limbs, looting, houses toppled, people crushed, orphans sleeping in the streets, elderly broken and bruised and thousands upon thousands of dead and dying. You can’t imagine, can you? Neither can I. Even with the news coverage bringing reality to our very door steps, you really can’t grasp it. And yet.

I was in Los Angeles in the ’60s, a young student visiting college-age friends. I flew into the airport, the horizon reddened by a town in flames. I was met by friends who were en route downtown to retrieve a friend stranded there, doing his best to quell the burgeoning riots.

The downtown streets were strewn with litter — broken bottles, metal, shards of shattered store fronts — and people running pell mell, screaming and shouting and throwing objects.

My friends located their missing friend running down a street, going nowhere, trying to get out of the mob that was growing angrier by the moment. When he was pulled into the car, the singe of heavy burning clung to his clothes. He was disheveled and dirty. We sped through the streets, darting and dodging a growing crowd of looters and rioters.

They didn’t stop until we reached one of their homes in a valley north of Los Angeles; the burning city clear in the rearview mirror.

I have never forgotten the sight of that city burning, the thunder of anger, the stench of destruction; nor have I forgotten those who ventured into the midst of violence to retrieve a friend who was passing out loaves of bread. The juxtaposition of rioter and helper stick in my mind, even today.

The juxtaposition of hope and destruction were there then, even as it is now in Haiti. There are those who are moved by the tear stained faces and abandoned children, believing we should give what we can and those with the least giving the most.

There are those who believe that our efforts are best spent at home, helping the homeless, feeding the hungry, healing the sick who are attended at free clinics or not at all, lifting up our next door neighbor. Who is my neighbor?

I think back on those college students, in the ’60s when I was yet in high school, who risked life and limb to reach out to their neighbors with a belief in doing good deeply implanted in their psyches. They were artists, writers, sculptures, teachers, lifting up nameless, faceless people.

We are a giving people, inside and outside our borders with our better character reaffirmed by the outpouring of support for the people of Haiti. Deep within our collective psyche is the belief in doing good and an understanding that in doing good for others, we are ourselves lifted up.

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