What started with a routine traffic stop exploded into, a protest. Rumors helped light the fuse that accelerated from protest to the deadly destructive riot Los Angeles would never forget.
Fifty years have passed since the so-called Watts riots broke out Aug. 11, 1965. Fifty years since the rage that burned for most of that week.
Fifty years since the smoke cleared and revealed that 34 people were dead, more than a 1,000 were injured and over 600 buildings were ashes or severely damaged.
A DRUNKEN DRIVER DRAWS A CROWD
Last week AP reporter Brian Medley took the following look at the event and its impact 50 years later.
“On a hot summer evening near the predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, a white California Highway Patrol officer pulled over Marquette Frye, 21, for reckless driving, according to a report commissioned by the governor.
When the black man failed a sobriety test, an older brother who was a passenger in the car walked two blocks home and returned with their mother so she could drive the car home. When his mother scolded him for drinking and driving, Frye, who had been cooperative, moved toward a crowd that had grown from a couple dozen to nearly 300 people. He cursed the police and said they would have to kill him to take him away.”
The book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. opens with an introduction by Vincent Harding (as well as a forward by Coretta Scott King) set in the ashes of the Watts riots, barely a year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
When King and several of his coworkers rushed to Watts to engage some of the young men who were most deeply involved in the uprising, they heard the youth say, “We won.” Looking at the still smoldering embers of the local community, the visitors asked what winning meant, and one of the young men declared, “We won because we made them pay attention to us.”
“In the ensuing scuffle, a patrolman struck Frye in the head with a baton and his mother jumped on another officer.
After police arrested the mother and both sons, someone in the growing, hostile crowd spit at officers.
Patrolmen arrested a black woman and a man they said had been inciting the crowd.
Some in the crowd mistakenly thought the woman was pregnant because she was wearing a smock. Rumors spread that cops had roughed up an expectant black mother.
Police retreated under a hail of rocks. The riots had begun.”
Gerald Horne, author of Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s said after that week, “A lot of resentment, anger, pent-up frustration was combined with the idea that things were changing, that the country was changing. You have all this progressive change taking place, but not necessarily reflected in the daily lives of people, which I think also helps to feed the frustration.”
The events in Watts have since been called a riot. But Horne, a history professor at the University of Houston, chose to christen them an uprising. While the riots weren’t organized and exploded spontaneously, there was still some sense of order.
For 18year old Earl Ofari Hutchinson the first night of the uprising was “almost a carnival-like atmosphere.” Hutchinson who became president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable recalled. “There was that youthful thrill … a sense of the first time of hitting back, striking back.”
The worst day of the uprising was when the National Guard was called in. It was Friday the 13th.
A black man was caught in the cross fire between officers and the crowd. His was the first death.
Most of the 34 people killed were black.
The $40 million damage covered 50 square miles, much outside of Watts itself. Over a third of the 600 buildings were totally destroyed by fire.
The official agency that examined the riots advised for better schools, job mentoring, added low-income housing, greater access to health services, improved public transportation, and a better relationship between the Watts community and the police department.
Hardly any of that hope was realized.
Watts today is mostly Hispanic, poor, and still burdened by high unemployment.
The 1967 Detroit ‘riot’ had far more deaths and greater damage than the uprising in Los Angeles of 1965. But Watts is still the usual reference point for protests against police when they turn violent.
Watts was invoked in the past year after disruptive demonstrations followed police killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.
“Fifty years later, we’re still talking about it,” Hutchinson said.
“Watts is kind of the granddaddy of civil disturbance.”
THE UPRISING TURNS FIFTY
Brenda Gazzar of the Los Angeles Daily News reported that 50 years ago Larry Aubry witnessed Los Angeles police officers shoot at least four looters as they were leaving an appliance store at West 61st Street and South Vermont Avenue during the Watts uprising.
At the time he was a Los Angeles County probation office and he lived near ground zero in South Central where the rebellion began. Today he is the co-chair of the Black Community Clergy and Labor Alliance.
Aubry feared he could also be targeted and die because of his skin color. “It was not so much disbelief, just anxiety and fear. That could happen to me,” Aubry recalled, “It was such a sharp line between us and them at this point. Even if you were vaguely perceived to be suspicious, then you were in line to be moved on by the police.
It was like a war.”
Cynthia Gonzalez, a Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science professor and a Watts resident who was an investigator on the 2013 study said, “We see the same outcomes happening with two (different racial and ethnic) populations. I don’t think asking for employment, quality education, access to care, places for shopping and sit-down restaurants is too much for a community.”
There has been an infusion of programs and facilities into Watts since the uprising that include the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, Charles Drew University, Bank of America, and various nonprofits. Even though these have improved things Gonzalez said, “urban renewal did not materialize.”
“It did feel like immediate effective responses, but they weren’t effective in the long term,” said Gonzalez but, “There wasn’t a focus on self-determination. How do we remove the ills of poverty? Poverty produces a lot of the conditions we speak about in Watts, like poor health, violence and social stigma.”
AN UPRISING OF SELF DETERMINATION
Desiree Edwards, the owner of one of the few sit-down restaurants in the area, says that Watts still has a long way to go.
“You know, there needs to be another grocery store over here, gas station closer,” she says. “You know, little things like that — just more service.”
This Watts coffee house has a long and winding past.
Kurt Streeter of the LA Times reported that,
“After a police stop turned violent, sparking riots that tore through Watts in 1965, a group of churches transformed an old furniture store on a fire-charred street. They created the Watts Happening Coffee House, and amid an explosion of pride and creativity that rooted in this corner of the city during the ’60s, it became a smoke-filled community hub.”
“It’s one of the only decent things we have in Watts,” a young man was quoted telling city officials (in another) Times’ story published in 1966.
“Today, an updated version of Watts Happening is still in the neighborhood, on the same street, on a different corner. You’ll miss it if you’re not careful. It’s tucked behind an iron fence, stuck inside a worn community center, set behind a charter school. It’s simply the Watts Coffee House now.
Don’t let that fool you. Coffee isn’t king here. This is actually a bustling soul food joint. But as good and filling as the food is, as much as the wafting odor of grilled onions and brisket entice, it’s not just another place to eat.
Desiree Edwards greets customers at Watts Coffee House, which she has owned since 1994.
“I didn’t take a single loan,” she says. “I ran on faith and prayer.” (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times)
“It’s the only real, bona fide sit-down restaurant in Watts,” says Elvonzo Cromwell, echoing a sentiment heard repeatedly during my recent, gut-expanding visits. Cromwell is 34 and grew up in the nearby Jordan Downs projects. He clearly remembers being a teenager, walking into the coffeehouse for the first time. “It was fresh air. The first time in my life I saw class, real class, right here where I live.”
Without prompting, without knowing it, he then echoed the young man we quoted in 1966: “It’s one of the best parts of Watts. One of the only places here where people can just relax and hang.”
AND NOW REMEMBER THE UPRISING ..
As he remembers, he stood nearby as another African-American Watts resident, Marquette Frye, was pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer for drunk driving.
“I was right there when [the officer] started calling him ‘nigger boy’ and all that stuff right here,” Crouch remembers.
“And his mother say, ‘His name is Marquette. You don’t have to call him like that.’ He told her, ‘Shut up, you black bitch, stay in your place.’ And then people was like, ‘I knew he didn’t say that.’
“Officer told her, ‘Get your black ass out the way, don’t be interfering,’ and pushed her,” Crouch recalls. “When he pushed Ms. Frye, then him and Marquette got to tussling. Then she jumped on his back.
“The crowd then swelled to about 150 to maybe 200, and then a bottle sailed over the thing — bam — and it was on.”
Crouch takes issue with the language that was often used to describe what happened:
— phrases like “insurrection by hoodlums” and characterizations of LA as “reminiscent of war-torn cities.” Crouch describes the unrest differently, as a rebellion rather than a riot.
“People were angry and that was the way to relieve that anger,” he says.
“It was a rebellion. It was an uprising.”
You see, a riot has no purpose. This was that spark everybody needed.”
He thinks it’s much less likely that a police conflict today could spiral into the kind of violence Watts saw 50 years ago.
“Everything that’s been thrown at us have been thrown at us, so we know how to navigate effectively now,” he says. “It was a training experience for us, and we learned.”
“We got them to see us as a partner,” Crouch says. “And they got to seeing us doing certain things to make their job easier. Like community leaders, our job is crowd control.”
Perry Crouch says that, while things are by no means perfect in Watts today, there may be lessons here for activists in Ferguson, Mo., and other communities across America facing racial tension between residents and law enforcement.
But he hopes those lessons don’t take 50 years to learn.
(UCLA Film & Television Archive)
Grace and Peace be Unto You .. Michael