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As If I was Carrying a Gun: Art and Surveillance in 1960s Watts

Watts from above | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts
“I was in their files, like the rest of the cats, as if I was carrying a gun. But I was more dangerous, so to speak, because I could get on the microphone, say or play something, and people would…look up to you, listen to you, and believe you.” – Horace Tapscott, “Songs of the Unsung”

Learn more about the artistry and creativity of Watts on "Artbound" S11 E4: The Watts Towers Arts Center." Watch now.
S11 E4: The Watts Towers Arts Center - Media Manager

In the late 1960s, Black communities across the country erupted against the systemic racism and police brutality that persisted in the face of civil rights gains. The uprisings sparked a new era of revolutionary and cultural nationalism, rich in Black art and cultural production, with raised fists, images and words that countered the anti-Black dominant culture and proclaimed “Black is Beautiful.” The Black Arts Movement and the cultural arms of Black nationalist organizations knew art could be a weapon. So did federal and local law enforcement. They perceived associations between artists and activists as a threat and subjected the community, leaders, and arts and cultural institutions to widespread surveillance.        

Poet/musician Jayne Cortez, who co-founded Studio Watts Workshop and founded the Watts Repertory Theater, wrote, “artists drew energy from the rebellion and produced works exploring the aftermath, the confrontations, the wounds, and the revolutionary ideas…Musicians, literary and visual artists in Los Angeles… were talking about black consciousness, black power, black images, and how to free themselves and their people.” During this time, these artists crafted new art from the destruction and used it to envision a new city. Studio Watts Workshop later transitioned from a home base “for avant-garde black drama and poetry performance” to the Watts Community Housing Corporation (WCHC). With funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), co-founder James Woods applied artistic practices toward developing an affordable housing complex with open-air theater space and units set-aside for artists-in-residence.

See how Horace Tapscott's Pan African People’s Arkestra sound has flourished today on "Artbound" S11 E2: The New West Coast Sound: An L.A. Jazz Legacy. Watch now.
S11 E2: The New West Coast Sound: An L.A. Jazz Legacy (Media Manager)

Along with Studio Watts Workshop, musician Horace Tapscott’s Underground Musician’s Association (later changed to Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension or UGMAA) and Pan African People’s Arkestra hosted multimedia programs that became a model for Black cultural events in Los Angeles. The Watts Writers Workshop developed local writers, playwrights and actors, who became nationally known. They also produced hip-hop forerunners, The Watts Prophets, and one of the earliest Black Arts anthologies, “From the Ashes” (1967). The Watts Happening Coffee House offered “a community theater, a jazz venue, a painting and sculpture studio, writers’ workshop, a filmmaking class, and an all-around neighborhood hangout” jumpstarted by dynamic performances by Tapscott and the Arkestra. These groups, along with others like the Mafundi Institute, energized and redefined Watts as an arts community.

The proximity of these arts spaces to each other promoted collaboration amongst artists and activists. Tapscott and the Arkestra performed at local Black Panther Party (BPP) events and recorded several albums with activist Elaine Browne, who later became BPP Chair. Brown also worked as an employee for a time at the Watts Happening Coffeehouse. BPP and US Organization members sang in the Voices of UGMA choir or served on the Mafundi Institute board. These interconnections subjected the area to  federal government counterinsurgency programs in the 1960s and 1970s that “focused on destroying Black-controlled spaces.” Counterinsurgency programs did not limit investigation to particular criminal or violent activity but administered “broad intensive surveillance of Black groups."

Desiree Edwards chat with customers at Watts Coffee house in the Mafundi Community Center | Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Desiree Edwards chat with customers at Watts Coffee house in the Mafundi Community Center | Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In 1967, the FBI Counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) called for each of its 41 national offices to designate agents “ familiar with black nationalist activity, and interested in counterintelligence.” Of the five goals identified as the basis of the program, two, in particular, laid the framework for investigating both politically active and non-active residents: prevent "the coalition of militant black nationalist groups.… An effective coalition of black nationalist groups might be… the beginning of a true black revolution" and "militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability” (emphasis theirs). The FBI, CIA, U.S. Army, IRS, HUD and other federal agencies all collected information that went beyond identifying resistance. According to historian Daniel Widener, “Federal agents maintained dossiers on Tapscott and UGMA, as well as the Watts Writers Workshop, Watts Happening Coffee House, and Mafundi Institute.” Many artists were targeted “simply because of their participation in political protests or their association with those who were engaged in such political activity.”

The Watts Prophets, Richard A. DeDeaux, Otis O'Solomon, and Anthony (Amde) Hamilton at the Mafundi Community Center |  Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
The Watts Prophets, Richard A. DeDeaux, Otis O'Solomon, and Anthony (Amde) Hamilton at the Mafundi Community Center | Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Local law enforcement worked with federal enforcement agencies as well as operated their own surveillance programs: “Police did more than watch…Officers conducted repeated raids on the Watts Happening Coffee House, and the Arkestra’s rehearsal space on Figueroa Boulevard was stormed more than once,” wrote Widener. In his memoir, “Songs of the Unsung,” Tapscott recalled: “…after another rehearsal, we took a break and…[w]hen I came back… The FBI had busted the whole house. Those carloads of cops had just been watching the place for the feds…We were targeted now, and stayed that way for a long time…I had a tail everywhere I went.” With the physically and socially connected areas of Compton, Watts and South Central, patrolled by  Compton Police Department, County of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles Police Department and California Highway Patrol, federal and local agencies saturated the area with overt and covert surveillance, and subjected residents to brutal encounters with police seeking vengeance for the uprising. The U.S. Senate Church Committee, which investigated the federal government’s surveillance of American citizens during that time, found that “…many Americans…suffered injuries from domestic intelligence activity, ranging from deprivation of constitutional rights of privacy and free speech to the loss of a job or professional standing, break-up of a marriage, and impairment of physical or mental health.”

John Outterbridge (right), director of Watts Towers Art Center, seen with a group of students, from the El Segundo Center St. Elementary School, who are touring the Watts Towers. March 22, 1985 | Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
John Outterbridge (right), director of Watts Towers Art Center, seen with a group of students, from the El Segundo Center St. Elementary School, who are touring the Watts Towers. March 22, 1985 | Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In a UCLA Center for Oral History Research interview, artist John Outterbridge, who served as the Director of the Compton Communicative Arts Academy and the Watts Towers Arts Center, stated that while “there was a vibrant sense of community, culturally and otherwise… well-formulated forces” threatened the work. In 1973, the 350-seat Watts Writers Workshop Theater was burned down. Before that, Harry Dolan, leader of the Watts Writers Workshop “discovered that [the] fundraising mailing list of 15,000 names had suddenly disappeared…two $15,000 TV cameras were lifted, and then three out of seven Workshop typewriters disappeared.” Years later, a former FBI COINTELPRO informant confessed to infiltrating and sabotaging the Watts Writers Workshop and other art spaces and programs and confessed to the Workshop’s theater's arson. The property damage dealt the Watts Writers Workshop a financial blow it could not recover from. The sculpture “Oh Speak, Speak,” created by Outterbridge, Elliott Pinkney, Charles Dickson, Dale Davis, Nate Ferance and Tom Little for the WCHC groundbreaking, was also destroyed under controversial circumstances. Competing claims say that it was an agent or fellow artist.

An arts movement emerged in Watts after the uprising as a tool for activism, rebuilding and inspiration. Federal and local law enforcement enacted counterinsurgency programs that infiltrated and co-opted Black arts and culture institutions and surveilled and targeted activists, artists, and community members. While most of the art spaces and institutions that activated the community after the uprising no longer exist, art survived, through the images, murals and symbols that remain part of Watts’ consciousness and aesthetic and continued to be a rallying force in movements for equity and justice.


Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI Records: The Vault – COINTELPRO  - Black Extremist.

Horne, Gerald. The Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.

Isoardi, Steven L. The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Lipsitz, George. How Racism Takes Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

Outterbridge, John. “African American Artists of Los Angeles: Interview of John W. Outterbridge,” interview by Richard Candida Smith. Department of Special Collections, Center for Oral History Research, UCLA. January 22, 1990.,%20John%20W.

Smethurst, James Edward. The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Tapscott, Horace. Songs of the Unsung: The Musical and Social Journey of Horace Tapscott. Ed. Steven Isoardi. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

United States Senate. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. April 29, 1976.

Watts: Art & Social Change in Los Angeles 1965-2002. Haggerty Museum of Art.  Milwaukee: Marquette University, 2003.

Widener, Daniel. Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Top Image: Watts from above | Still from "Broken Bread" Watts

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