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1965 Watts Riot

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1965 Watts Riot

The Watts Riots (or Watts Rebellion)[1] took place in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles from August 11 to 17, 1965. The six-day riot resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. It was the most severe riot in the city's history until the Los Angeles riots of 1992.


In the Great Migration of the 1920s, major populations of African-Americans moved to Northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, and New York City to escape racial segregation, Jim Crow Laws, violence, and racial bigotry in the Southern States. This wave of migration largely bypassed Los Angeles. In the 1940s, in the Second Great Migration, black Americans migrated to the West Coast in large numbers, in response to defense industry recruitment at the start of World War II. The black population in Los Angeles leaped from approximately 63,700 in 1940 to about 350,000 in 1965, making the once small black community visible to the general public.[2]

Residential segregation

Los Angeles did not have the outright de jure segregation (separation by law) like the South, but it did have racial restrictive covenants which prevented blacks and Hispanics from renting and buying in certain areas, even long after the courts ruled them illegal in 1948. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Los Angeles has been geographically divided by ethnicity. In the 1920s, the city was the location of the first racially restrictive covenants in real estate. By the Second World War, 95 percent of Los Angeles housing was off-limits to blacks and Asians. Minorities who had served in World War II or worked in L.A.'s defense industries returned to face increasing patterns of discrimination in housing. In addition, they found themselves excluded from the suburbs and restricted to housing in East or South Los Angeles, which includes the Watts neighborhood, and Compton. Such real-estate practices severely restricted educational and economic opportunities available to the minority community.

With an influx of black residents, housing in South Los Angeles became increasingly scarce, overwhelming the already established communities and providing opportunities for real estate developers. Davenport Builders, for example, was a large developer who responded to the demand, with an eye on undeveloped land in Compton. What was originally a mostly white neighborhood in the 1940s increasingly became an African American, middle-class dream where blue-collar laborers could enjoy suburbia away from the slums. These new housing developments provided better ways of life with more space for families to grow and enjoy healthy living.

For a time in the early 1950s and with its increasing numbers of African Americans, South Los Angeles became the site of significant racial violence, with whites bombing, firing into, and burning crosses on the lawns of homes purchased by black families south of Slauson Avenue. In an escalation of behavior that began in the 1920s, white gangs in nearby cities such as South Gate and Huntington Park routinely accosted blacks who traveled through white areas. The black mutual protection clubs that formed in response to these assaults became the basis of the region's fearsome street gangs.

The explosive growth of suburbs, most of which barred black people using a variety of methods, provided an opportunity for white people in neighborhoods bordering black districts to leave en masse. The spread of African Americans throughout the area was achieved in large part through "blockbusting," a technique whereby real estate speculators would buy a home on an all-white street, sell or rent it to a black family, and then buy up the remaining homes from Caucasians at cut-rate prices for sale at a hefty profit to housing-hungry black families.

Police discrimination

Not only were the city's black and Latino residents excluded from the high-paying jobs, affordable housing, and politics available to white residents, they also faced discrimination by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). In 1950, William H. Parker was appointed and sworn in as Los Angeles Chief of Police. Parker pushed for more independence from political pressures that would enable him to create a more professionalized police force after a major scandal called Bloody Christmas of 1951. The public supported him and voted for charter changes that isolated the police department from the rest of government. In the 1960s, the LAPD was promoted as one of the best police forces in the world.

Despite its reform and having a professionalized military-like police force, William Parker's LAPD faced heavy criticism from the city's Latino and black residents for police brutality. Police beat black and Latino residents, assaulted women, and governed by fear and intimidation in a similar manner to the South.

Chief Parker, who coined the term Thin Blue line, made it a policy for officers to make sure they engaged as many young black teens and pre-teens as possible. His philosophy was to establish a presence and dominance while they were still young and let them know who was boss. These racial injustices caused Watts’ African American population to explode on August 11, 1965 in what would become the Watts Rebellion.[3][4]

Inciting incident

On the evening of Wednesday, August 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye, an African American man behind the wheel of his mother's 1955 Buick, was pulled over by white California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer Lee Minikus on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Minikus was convinced that Frye was under the influence and radioed for his vehicle to be impounded. Marquette's brother Ronald, a passenger in the vehicle, walked to their house nearby, bringing their mother, Rena Price, back with him. When Rena Price reached the intersection of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street that evening, she scolded Frye about drinking and driving, he recalled in a 1985 interview with the Orlando Sentinel.[5] The situation quickly escalated: Someone shoved Price, Frye was struck, Price jumped an officer, another officer pulled out a shotgun. Backup police officers attempted to arrest Frye by using physical force to subdue him. After rumors spread that the police had roughed Price up and kicked a pregnant woman, angry mobs formed.[6][7] As the situation intensified, growing crowds of local residents watching the exchange began yelling and throwing objects at the police officers.[8] Frye's mother and brother fought with the officers and they were eventually arrested along with Marquette.[9] After Price's and the Frye brothers' arrests, the crowd continued to grow. Police came to the scene to break up the crowd several times that night, but were attacked by rocks and concrete.[10] A 119-square-kilometer (46-square-mile) swath of Los Angeles would be transformed into a combat zone during the ensuing six days.[11]

The riot

After a night of increasing unrest, police and local black community leaders held a community meeting on Thursday, August 12, to discuss an action plan and to urge calm; the meeting failed. Later that day, Los Angeles police chief William H. Parker called for the assistance of the California Army National Guard.[12]

The rioting intensified and on Friday, August 13, about 2,300 National Guardsmen joined the police trying to maintain order on the streets. That number increased to 3,900 by midnight on Saturday, August 14. Sergeant Ben Dunn said "The streets of Watts resembled an all-out war zone in some far-off foreign country, it bore no resemblance to the United States of America." Martial law was declared and curfew was enforced by the National Guardsmen who put a cordon around a vast region of South Central Los Angeles.[13] In addition to the guardsmen, 934 Los Angeles Police officers and 718 officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department were deployed during the rioting.[12]

Between 31,000 and 35,000 adults participated in the riots over the course of six days, while about 70,000 people were "sympathetic, but not active."[10] Mainstream white America viewed those actively participating in the riot as criminals destroying and looting their own neighborhood. Many in the black community, however, saw the rioters as taking part in an "uprising against an oppressive system."[10] Black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in a 1966 essay stated, "The whole point of the outbreak in Watts was that it marked the first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism and was carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life."[14]

Those actively participating in the riots started physical fights with police, blocked firefighters of the Los Angeles Fire Department from their safety duties, or beat white motorists. Arson and looting were largely confined to white-owned stores and businesses that were said to have caused resentment in the neighborhood due to perceived unfairness.[15]

Los Angeles police chief Parker publicly described the people he saw involved in the riots as acting like "monkeys in the zoo."[15] Overall, an estimated $40 million in damage was caused as almost 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Homes were not attacked, although some caught fire due to proximity to other fires.

Businesses & Private Buildings Public Buildings Total
Damaged/burned: 258 Damaged/burned: 14 Total: 272
Looted: 192 Total: 192
Both damaged/burned & looted: 288 Total: 288
Destroyed: 267 Destroyed: 1 Total: 268
Total: 977

Post-riot commentary

As this area was known to be under much racial and social tension, debates have surfaced over what really happened in Watts. Reactions and reasoning about the Watts incident greatly vary because those affected by and participating in the chaos that followed the original arrest had varying perspectives. A California gubernatorial commission under Governor .

The report identified the root causes of the riots to be high unemployment, poor schools, and other inferior living conditions for African Americans in Watts. Recommendations for addressing these problems included "emergency literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing, more job-training projects, upgraded health-care services, more efficient public transportation, and many more." Most of these recommendations were not acted upon.[16]

More opinions and explanations appeared as other sources attempted to explain the causes as well. Public opinion polls have shown that around the same percentage of people believed that the riots were linked to Communist groups as those that blame social problems like unemployment and prejudice as the cause.[17] Those opinions concerning racism and discrimination emerged only three years after hearings conducted by a committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights took place in Los Angeles to assess the condition of relations between the police force and minorities. The purpose of these hearings was also to make a ruling on the discrimination case against the police for their mistreatment of black Muslims.[17] These different arguments and opinions still prompt debates over the underlying causes of the Watts Riots.[15] Martin Luther King Jr. spoke two days after the riots happened in Watts. The riots were also a response to Proposition 14, a constitutional amendment sponsored by the California Real Estate Association that had in effect repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act.[18]

Marquette Frye, who smoked and drank heavily, died of pneumonia on December 20, 1986; he was 42.[19] His mother, Rena Price, died on June 10, 2013, at 97.[20] She never recovered the impounded 1955 Buick in which her son had been pulled over for driving while intoxicated on that fateful night of August 11, 1965, because the storage fees exceeded the car's value.[21]

Cultural references

  • The film Menace II Society (1993) by the Hughes brothers opens with images taken from the riots of 1965. The entire film is set in Watts' black suburban ghetto, from the 70s to the 90s.
  • The novel The New Centurions, by Joseph Wambaugh, not only culminates in the Watts Riot but examines the negative impact of racist police in minority communities in the years preceding it.
  • Frank Zappa wrote a lyrical commentary inspired by the Watts Riots, entitled "Trouble Every Day", containing such lines as "Wednesday I watched the riot / Seen the cops out on the street / Watched 'em throwin' rocks and stuff /And chokin' in the heat". The song was originally released on his debut album Freak Out! (with the original Mothers of Invention), and later slightly rewritten as "More Trouble Every Day", available on Roxy and Elsewhere and The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life.
  • Charles Bukowski mentioned the Watts riots in his poem "Who in the hell is Tom Jones?"
  • The 1990 film Heat Wave depicts the Watts Riots from the perspective of journalist Bob Richardson as a resident of Watts and a reporter of the riots for the LA Times.
  • The 1994 film There Goes My Baby tells the story of a group of high school seniors during the riots.
  • The producers of the "Planet of the Apes" franchise stated that the riots were the inspiration for the ape uprising in the film "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes"[22]
  • The television series Quantum Leap did an episode entitled "Black on White on Fire" which aired November 9, 1990. The "leap" places the main character, Sam Beckett, into a black man who is living in Watts during the riots and is engaged to a white woman.
  • Action of episode "Burn, Baby, Burn" of the series Dark Skies takes place in Los Angeles during the riots.
  • The movie C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America Mentions the Watts Riot as a Slave Rebellion rather than a riot.
  • Walter Mosley's novel Little Scarlet, in which Mosley's recurring character Easy Rawlins is asked by police to investigate a racially charged murder in neighborhoods where white investigators are unwelcome, takes place during the Watts Riot.
  • The Riots are depicted in the third issue of the Before Watchmen: Comedian comic book, including a scene in which The Comedian throws dog feces into the face of Police Chief Parker.

See also

Greater Los Angeles portal
African American portal


Further reading

  • Cohen, Jerry and William S. Murphy, Burn, Baby, Burn! The Los Angeles Race Riot, August 1965, New York: Dutton, 1966.
  • Conot, Robert, Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness, New York: Bantam, 1967.
  • A situationist interpretation of the riots
  • Horne, Gerald, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.
  • full text
  • David O' Sears, The politics of violence: The new urban Blacks and the Watts riot
  • Clayton D. Clingan, Watts Riots
  • Paul Bullock, Watts: The Aftermath. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1969.
  • Johny Otis, Listen to the Lambs. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. 1968.

External links

  • Watts Riot 1965 Watts riot / riots of the 1960s.
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