Watts Riots Explained
The term Watts Riots of 1965 refers to a large-scale race 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 3,952 arrested. It would stand as the worst riot in Los Angeles history until eclipsed by the Los Angeles riots of 1992.
Eventually, 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 for all intents and purposes the rioting was over by Sunday. Due to the seriousness of the riots, martial law had been declared. 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 49th Infantry Division.
Watts: then and now
Since 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 participated 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 showed 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, but racial issues and the violence it has caused have decreased considerably since the outbreak of the riots.
- The film There Goes My Baby features the riots.
- Singer-songwriter Phil Ochs composed in "In the Heat of the Summer" about the riots, shortly after they took place. The song was most famously covered by Judy Collins, who included it on her Fifth Album in late 1965.
- 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.
- In the film Dark Blue (set during the Rodney King Riots), Detective Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) talks about being a teenager during the Watts Riots. He talks of being with his father (an L.A. Police Officer) and shooting several African Americans who were looting a Woolworth's store with his Daddy's hunting rifle before the burning Woolworths collapsed on the remaining looters.
- 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, among other albums.
- The title article in Tom Wolfe's collection of essays, The Pump House Gang, is about a group of surfers from Windansea Beach in La Jolla, California who "attended the Watts riots as if it were the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena." (See http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=0553380613&view=excerpt for an excerpt.)
- In the U.S. television series, Quantum Leap, an episode called "Black and White on Fire" features Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) put into the body of a black medical student who is in love with the white daughter of a police captain. This episode begins on the eve of the Watts riots.
- The rallying cry of "burn, baby, burn" came from KGFJ radio personality Magnificent Montague. Montague was not directly responsible; he was fond of yelling "Burn!" when he played a record that particularly interested him and his listeners followed suit when they called him on the air.
- "BURNBABY" is the master ignition routine in the Apollo Lunar Module's guidance software, named in an allusion to contemporary civil unrest. (See Tales From The Lunar Module Guidance Computer and Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Journal: Program Alarms)
- "Burn, Baby, Burn" is also the title of an episode of the television series Dark Skies, which takes place in the midst of the Watts riots.
- "Burn, baby" is used as a battle cry by Axel in Kingdom hearts II.
- A fictitious version of the Watts riots is depicted in the NBC miniseries The '60s.
- 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 1993 movie Menace II Society also made mentioning of the infamous riots in the beginning of the film as a precursor to the slowly emerging drug and gang culture in Los Angeles.
- Uncle Phil from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air says he was at the Watts Riots.
- In the first chapter of the novel Blood on the Moon by James Ellroy, Lloyd Hopkins, the main character, participates in the pacification of the Watts neighbourhood as a member of the National Guard. He later becomes an L.A.P.D. officer.
- The riot is mentioned in the film American History X in which the Nazi skinhead main character Derek Vinyard argues with his mother and her date about how racial tensions build into riots.
- The riot may have been the inspiration for the song "Down Rodeo" by L.A. band Rage Against the Machine.
- Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the 4th film in the Planet of the Apes film series, reputedly drew inspiration from the Watts Riots.
- California punk rock band American Steel, in their song "Loaded Gun", reference the riots in the line "I didn't see Watts burn, but I felt the embers."
- The song "One More Time" by The Clash from the album Sandinista! contains the verse "You don't need no silicone to calculate poverty/ watch when Watts Town burns again, the bus goes to Montgomery."
- The band My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult has a song titled "Rivers of blood, years of darkness," which may or may not have relation to the book of the same title written by Robert Conot. (The book relates to the riots and is listed below in further reading)
- On the television series Sanford and Son, set in Watts, Lamont is presented a toaster from his uncle Edgar. Edgar claimed he bought the toaster as a gift, but Fred Sanford said "You know good and well you didn't buy that toaster. That's something you had left from the riots."
- There is an album by Don Adams recorded in 1969 which was not released until 2007 by sonorama records called "Watts Happening"
- Referenced in the poem Speak White composed by Québécois writer Michèle Lalonde in 1968
- 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.
- Guy Debord, Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy, 1965. A situationist interpretation of the riots
- Horne, Gerald, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.
- Thomas Pynchon, "A Journey into the Mind of Watts", 1966. full text
- Violence in the City -- An End or a Beginning?, A Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965, John McCone, Chairman, Warren M. Christopher, Vice Chairman. Official Report online\
- 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
- The book little scarlet takes place during the race riots
- Johny Otis Listen to the Lambs. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.. 1968
- Book: Division of Fair Employment Practices, California Department of Industrial Relations. Negroes and Mexican Americans in South and East Los Angeles. State of California, Division of Fair Employment Practices. 1966. San Francisco. 2.
Notes and References
- Jeffries,Vincent & Ransford, H. Edward. "Interracial Social Contact and Middle-Class White Reaction to the Watts Riot". Social Problems 16.3 (1969): 312-324.
- Tracy Domingo, Miracle at Malibu Materialized, Graphic, November 14, 2002