Watts Riots Explained

The Watts Riots [1] was a civil disturbance in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California from August 11 to August 15, 1965. The five-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.

Inciting incident

On the evening of Wednesday, August 11, 1965, Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old African American man, was pulled over by white California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer Lee Minikus on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Minikus was convinced Frye was under the influence and radioed for his car to be impounded. Marquette's brother Ronald, a passenger in the car, walked to their house nearby, bringing their mother back with him.[2] Backup police officers arrived and attempted to arrest Frye by using physical force to subdue him. As the situation intensified, growing crowds of local residents watching the exchange began yelling and throwing objects at the police officers.[3] Frye's mother and brother fought with the officers and they were eventually arrested along with Marquette.[4] After the Fryes' arrests, the crowd continued to grow. Police came to the scene to break up the crowd a few times that night, but were attacked by rocks and concrete.[5] Twenty-nine people were arrested.[6]

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.[6] 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 13,900 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.[7] In addition to the guardsman, 934 Los Angeles Police officers and 719 officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department were deployed during the rioting.[6]

Between 31,000 and 35,000 adults participated in the riots over the course of five days, while about 70,000 people were "sympathetic, but not active."[5] 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."[5] Black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in a 1966 essay states, "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."[8]

Those actively participating in the riots started physical fights with police, blocked firemen of the Los Angeles Fire Department from their safety duties, or beat white motorists. Arson and looting were mostly confined to primarily white-owned stores and businesses that were perceived to discriminate against black residents.[9]

Los Angeles police chief Parker publicly described the people he saw involved in the riots as acting like "monkeys in the zoo".[9] 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.

Businesses & Private BuildingsPublic BuildingsTotal
Damaged/burned: 258Damaged/burned: 14Total: 272
Looted: 192Total: 192
Both damaged/burned & looted: 288Total: 288
Destroyed: 267Destroyed: 1Total: 268
colspan=3
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 Pat Brown investigated the riots. The McCone Commission, headed by former CIA director John A. McCone, released a 101-page report on December 2, 1965 entitled Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965. 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] These different arguments and opinions still continue to promote these debates over the underlying cause of Watts Riots.[9] 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.[13]

Cultural references

See also

Further reading

External links

Notes and References

  1. Web site: Watts Rebellion (Los Angeles, 1965). King Encyclopedia. Stanford University. November 23, 2011.
  2. News: Dawsey. Darrell. To CHP Officer Who Sparked Riots, It Was Just Another Arrest. November 23, 2011. Los Angeles Times. August 19, 1990.
  3. Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  4. Book: Walker, Yvette. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. Oxford University Press. 2008.
  5. Book: Barnhill, John H.. Watts Riots (1965)

    . Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History, Volume 3. 2011. ABC-CLIO. Watts Riots (1965). Danver, Steven L.. Watts Riots (1965).

  6. Web site: Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?. 3 January 2012.
  7. Web site: A Report Concerning the California National Guard's Part in Supressing the Los Angeles Riot, August 1965.
  8. News: Rustin. Bayard. The Watts. 3 January 2012. Commentary Magazine. March 1966.
  9. Oberschall, Anthony. "The Los Angeles Riot of August 1965" Social Problems 15.3 (1968): 322–341.
  10. News: Dawsey. Darrell. 25 Years After the Watts Riots : McCone Commission's Recommendations Have Gone Unheeded. November 22, 2011. Los Angeles Times. July 8, 1990.
  11. Jeffries,Vincent & Ransford, H. Edward. "Interracial Social Contact and Middle-Class White Reaction to the Watts Riot". Social Problems 16.3 (1969): 312–324.
  12. Jeffries,Vincent & Ransford, H. Edward. "Interracial Social Contact and Middle-Class White Reaction to the Watts Riot". Social Problems 16.3 (1969): 312–324.
  13. Tracy Domingo, Miracle at Malibu Materialized, Graphic, November 14, 2002
  14. Web site: Abramovich. Alex. The Apes of Wrath - By Alex Abramovich - Slate Magazine. Slate.com. 2001-07-20. 2011-08-30.