Watts Riots

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The term Watts Riots refers to a large-scale riot which lasted five days in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, in August 1965.


[edit] Background

The riot began on August 11, 1965, in Watts, when Lee Minikus, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, pulled over Marquette Frye, who Minikus believed was intoxicated because of his observed erratic driving. However, in this part of town especially, traffic stops were not so routine. While police questioned Frye and his brother Ronald Frye, a group of people began to gather. The mob, fed up with the way law enforcement was treating African Americans[citation needed], began to throw rocks and other objects and shout at the police officers. A struggle ensued shortly after Frye's mother Rena arrived on the scene, resulting in the arrest of all three family members.

Shortly after the police left, tensions boiled over and the rioting began. Over six days, US$35,000,000 in destruction of property occurred. The neighborhood was 99% black. The only other non-blacks in the neighborhood were a few people of Hispanic origin, and several Jewish store owners. The community believed racially motivated police brutality was rampant.[citation needed] Only 5 of the 205 police officers assigned to this neighborhood were African American. Police were accused of the rape of black women, use of racial epithets, and use of excessive force in arrests.[citation needed] In the Watts area, only one out of eight adults had a high school education, and poverty and unemployment were higher in this section of Los Angeles than any other neighborhood.[citation needed]

This riot occurred in the midst of a period of rioting across the nation - having started in Rochester, Philadelphia and New York City the previous year, and continuing throughout the remainder of the decade: San Francisco and Cleveland in 1966; Detroit, Newark, and Baltimore in 1967; and Baltimore, New York, Washington, and Chicago in 1968.

[edit] Aftermath

As a result of the riots, 34 people were officially reported killed, 1,032 people were injured, and 4,000 people were arrested. Amongst the dead, was a fireman, a deputy sheriff, and a Long Beach police officer. The injured included 90 Los Angeles police officers, 136 firemen, 10 national guardsmen, 23 persons from other governmental agencies, and 773 civilians, out of which 118 were caused by firearms[1].

600 buildings were damaged or destroyed, and an estimated $35 million in damage was caused. Most of the physical damage was confined to businesses that had caused resentment in the neighborhood due to the perception of unfairness. Homes were not attacked, although some caught fire due to proximity to other fires.[citation needed]

[edit] 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 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 and 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. 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[citation needed].

The Black Panther Party of Self-Defense formed in Oakland, California, approximately one year after the riots.

[edit] Media coverage

Los Angeles TV station KTLA covered the riots live using its station's helicopter, on more than one occasion spotting rioters and arsonists in the act. KTLA was the only station with a helicopter and therefore the only station to show air coverage of the riot. The use of a helicopter in both news coverage and in tracking activities led to increased use of the vehicles by law enforcement and other media broadcasters.

Newspaper reporter Robert Richardson provided on-the-ground coverage for the Los Angeles Times. Richardson was only working in LA Times' mailroom at the time, but because he was the only African American working at the Times and a resident of Watts, he was the only person from the paper who was able to get close enough to the riots to provide on-the-ground coverage without being blocked entry by police or targeted for violence by rioters. This provided more direct information about the riots for white audiences than was available from most other mainstream media sources.

[edit] Cultural references

  • In the film American History X, Edward Norton's character, Derek (a Nazi skinhead), engages in a heated debate with his mother and her new boyfriend (who is Jewish). Derek's mother discusses the Watts Riots with empathy and compassion, but Derek views them simply as "opportunism at its worst".
  • The novel The New Centurions, by Joseph Wambaugh, not only culminates in the Watts Riot but examines the negative impact of police in minority communities in the years preceding it.
  • In the film Dark Blue, Detective Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) talks to his partner about the beating of Rodney King. He tells his partner of being a teenager during the riots, in the wake of the Rodney King riots set in the actual film timeline. He talks of shooting several blacks with a shotgun who were looting a Woolworth's store.
  • 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 [2] for an excerpt.)
  • In the U.S. television series, Quantum Leap, an episode called "Black on 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.
  • "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.
  • A fictitious version of the Watts riots are 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 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 a L.A.P.D. officer.

[edit] See also

[edit] Further reading

  • 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

[edit] External links

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