The term Watts Riots of 1965 refers to a large-scale riot which lasted 6 days in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, in August 1965. By the time the riot subsided, 34 people had been killed, 1,032 injured, and 3,438 arrested. It would stand as the most severe riot in Los Angeles history until the Los Angeles riots of 1992. The riot is viewed by some as a reaction to the record of police brutality by the LAPD and other racial injustices suffered by black Americans in Los Angeles, including job and housing discrimination.The riots began on August 11, 1965, in Watts, a neighbourhood in Los Angeles, when Lee Minikus, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, pulled over Marquette Frye, who Minikus believed was intoxicated because of his observed erratic driving. Frye failed to pass sobriety tests, including walking in a straight line and touching his nose, and was arrested soon after.
Minikus refused to let Frye’s brother, Ronald, drive the car home, and radioed for it to be impounded. As events escalated, a crowd of onlookers steadily grew from dozens to hundreds. The mob became violent, throwing rocks and other objects while shouting at the police officers. A struggle ensued shortly resulting in the arrest of Marquette and Ronald Frye, as well as their mother. Burning buildings during the riots.Though the riots began in August, there had previously been a build-up of racial tension in the area. The riots that began on August 11 resulted from an amalgamation of such events in Watts, and the arrest of three Frye family members broke the tension as violence spilled onto the streets of Watts for four days.Watts suffered from various forms and degrees of damage from the residents’ looting and vandalism that seriously threatened the security of the city. Some participants chose to intensify the level of violence by starting physical fights with police, blocking the firemen of the Los Angeles Fire Department from their safety duties, or even beating white motorists. Others joined the riot by breaking into stores, stealing whatever they could, and some setting the stores themselves on fire.LAPD Police Chief William Parker also fueled the radicalized tension that already threatened to combust, by publicly labeling the people he saw involved in the riots as “monkeys in the zoo”. Overall, an estimated $40 million in damage was caused as almost 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Most of the physical damage was confined to white-owned businesses that were said to have caused resentment in the neighborhood due to perceived unfairness.
Homes were not attacked, although some caught fire due to proximity to other fires.Day-by-day breakdownWednesday, August 11A white California highway patrolman, Lee Minikus, arrested Marquette Frye at around 7 p.m. after Frye failed his sobriety tests.By 7:23 all three Fryes—Marquette, his brother Ronald, and their mother—had been arrested as a crowd of a couple hundred gathered around the scene.The police withdrew by 7:40, leaving behind an angered, tense crowd.
For the last 4 hours of the night, the mob stoned cars and threatened police in the area.Thursday, August 12Black leaders such as preachers, teachers, and businessmen tried to restore order in the community after a night of rampage, telling people to stay indoors.Around 10 a.m. community workers and officers called residents in the area, telling them to remain in their houses.At 2 p.m. a community meeting was held, at which members representing different neighborhood groups discussed solutions to the problem at hand; the meeting failed.At 5 p.m. Police Chief William Parker, after learning the meeting had failed, notified the California National Guard in Sacramento to be on alert. Police arrest a man during the riots.
Friday, August 13At 8 a.m. rioting grew.Saturday, August 14By 1 a.m. there were around 100 fire brigades in the areas, trying to put out fires started by rioters.Over 3,000 national guardsmen had joined the police by this time in trying to maintain order on the streets.By midnight there were around 13,900 guardsmen in the area.A curfew was set at 8 p.m. to keep people inside their houses – allowing the government officials to gain more control of the situation.Sunday, August 15The riots died down, leaving around $40 million in property damage.Churches, community groups, and government agencies gave out aid.The vandalism ceased and the curfew was lifted by Tuesday, August 17By the following Sunday, a week later, less than 300 national guardsmen remained to help out with the aftermath.Businesses & Private Buildings Public Buildings TotalDamaged/burned: 258 Damaged/burned: 14 Total:272Looted: 192 Total:192Both damaged/burned & looted: 288 Total:288Destroyed: 267 Destroyed: 1 Total:268 Total: 977 Government interventionEventually, the California National Guard was called to active duty to assist in controlling the rioting. On Friday night, a battalion of the 160th Infantry and the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron of the 18th Armored Cavalry were sent into the riot area (about 2,000 men).
Two days later, the remainder of the 40th Armored Division was sent into the riot zone. A day after that, units from northern California arrived (a total of around 15,000 troops). These National Guardsmen put a cordon around a vast region of South Central Los Angeles, and the rioting was largely over by Sunday. Due to the seriousness of the riots, martial law had been declared. 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”. The initial commander of National Guard troops was Colonel Bud Taylor, then a motorcycle patrolman with the Los Angeles Police Department, who in effect became superior to Chief of Police Parker. National Guard units from Northern California were also called in, including Major General Clarence H. Pease, former commanding general of the National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division.
Watts: then and nowAs 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 were from a diverse crowd. The government tried to help by releasing The McCone Report, claiming that it was a detailed study of the riot, but it turned out to be a short summary with just 15 pages of the report devoted to actually describing the whole event. More opinions and explanations then 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. 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. These different arguments and opinions still continue to promote these debates over the underlying cause of Watts Riots. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke two days after the riots happened in Watts.A California gubernatorial commission investigated the riots, identifying the causes as high unemployment, poor schools, and other inferior living conditions. Subsequently, the government made little effort to address the problems or repair damages. 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. Today, Watts still faces problems of poverty, crime, and poor education.
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- Mark Ridley-Thomas: Forty-Five Years After the “Watts Riot”, King Hospital Remains Crucial to Healing the Lingering Wounds (huffingtonpost.com)
- Watts riots: The fuse is still lit 45 years later (thegrio.com)
- Watts in Retrospect (theroot.com)
- LA gang tours (boingboing.net)