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.

Government Intervention

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

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Notes and References

  1. Jeffries,Vincent & Ransford, H. Edward. "Interracial Social Contact and Middle-Class White Reaction to the Watts Riot". Social Problems 16.3 (1969): 312-324.
  2. Tracy Domingo, Miracle at Malibu Materialized, Graphic, November 14, 2002