Remembering the 1965 Watts Riots

This week marks the 45th anniversary of a violent eruption that revealed the frustration--and fury--injustice creates inside walled-off urban ghettos.

By Hatty Lee Aug 14, 2010

This week marked the 45th anniversary of the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Watts, a mostly black working-class neighborhood since the 1940s, became a hotbed of racial tension and injustice throughout the early 1960s. Residents were targets of police brutality, housing discrimination and inadequate access to public services. So when two white police officers pulled over Marquette Frye on August 11, 1965, just two days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, Watts residents were already on edge. Frye had been stopped on suspicion of drunk driving, but residents say the cops needlessly roughed him up in the street. In a Los Angeles Times news report on the rioting, residents described the scene–and how police stoked the incident into violence:

"I have lived in this city for 17 years and consider myself a responsible person," said Mrs. Ovelmar Bradley, 40, of 1806 W. 131st St., a mother of seven children. "But I have never heard the policeman talk like they did last night. I have never seen anything like this happen here."

Mrs. Bradley arrived with her husband, Henry, to visit a relative in the Avalon area, getting there shortly after the initial flareup over the arrest by two patrolmen.

Things had quieted down momentarily, she said, when 25 to 30 police cars went through the neighborhood with sirens wailing.

"If the police hadn’t come in like that," she said, "people wouldn’t all have come running out of their houses to see what was going on.

"My husband and I saw 10 cops beating one man. My husband told the officers, ‘You’ve got him handcuffed.’ One of the officers answered, ‘Get out of here, niggers. Get out of here, all you niggers!"

The melee at the traffic stop grew into six days of riots, where more than 34 people died, 1,000 were wounded and 3,000 were arrested.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson recalls the incident on New American Media and how even though forty-five years have passed, not much has changed in Watts.

Yet, underneath, there was a subtext of hope that the mass orgy of death and destruction that engulfed our neighborhood during the harrowing five days and nights of the Watts riots in August 1965 might improve things for blacks. Over the years, when I returned to the block I lived on during the riots, I often thought of his bitter yet hopeful words.

Forty-five years after the riots, those words remain just that: hopeful. The streets that my friend and I were shooed down by the police and the National Guard 45 years ago look as if time has stood still. They are dotted with the same fast food restaurants, beauty shops, liquor stores, and mom-and-pop grocery stores. The main street near the block I lived on then is just as unkempt, pothole-ridden and trash littered. All the homes and stores in the area are all hermetically sealed with iron bars, security gates and burglar alarms.

Here is a slideshow of Watts then, and now.