Monday, August 11, 2014

Traffic Stop Turns into the Watts Riots of 1965

The term Watts Riots of 1965 refers to a large-scale 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, 2,032 injured, and 3,952 arrested. It would stand as the most severe riot in Los Angeles history until the Los Angeles riots of 1992. The riot is viewed by some as a reaction to the record of police brutality by the LAPD and other racial injustices suffered by black Americans in Los Angeles, including job and housing discrimination.


The riots began on August 11, 1965, in Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, when Lee Minikus, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, pulled over Marquette Frye, who Minikus believed was intoxicated because of his observed erratic driving. Frye failed to pass sobriety tests, including walking in a straight line and touching his nose, and was arrested soon after. Minikus refused to let Frye's brother, Ronald, drive the car home, and radioed for it to be impounded. As events escalated, a crowd of onlookers steadily grew from dozens to hundreds.[1] The mob became violent, throwing rocks and other objects while shouting at the police officers. A struggle ensued shortly resulting in the arrest of Marquette and Ronald Frye, as well as their mother.

Though the riots began in August, there had previously been a buildup of racial tension in the area. The riots that began on August 11 resulted from an amalgamation of such events in Watts, and the arrest of three Frye family members broke the tension as violence spilled onto the streets of Watts for four days.

Watts suffered from various forms and degrees of damage from the residents' looting and vandalism that seriously threatened the security of the city. Some participants chose to intensify the level of violence by starting physical fights with police, blocking the firemen of the Los Angeles Fire Department from their safety duties, or even beating white motorists. Others joined the riot by breaking into stores, stealing whatever they could, and some setting the stores themselves on fire.[2]

LAPD Police Chief William Parker also fueled the radicalized tension that already threatened to combust, by publicly labeling the people he saw involved in the riots as "monkeys in the zoo."[2] Overall, an estimated $40 million in damage was caused as almost 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Most of the physical damage was confined to white-owned businesses that were said to have caused resentment in the neighborhood due to perceived unfairness. Homes were not attacked, although some caught fire due to proximity to other fires.

Day-by-day breakdown

Wednesday, August 11

A white California highway patrolman, Lee Minikus, arrested Marquette Frye at around 7 p.m. after Frye failed his sobriety tests.

By 7:23 all three Fryes—Marquette, his brother Ronald, and their mother—had been arrested as a crowd of a couple hundred gathered around the scene.

The police withdrew by 7:40, leaving behind an angered, tense crowd.

For the last 4 hours of the night, the mob stoned cars and threatened police in the area.

Thursday, August 12

Black leaders such as preachers, teachers, and businessmen tried to restore order in the community after a night of rampage, telling people to stay indoors.

Around 10 a.m. community workers and officers called residents in the area, telling them to remain in their houses.

At 2 p.m. a community meeting was held, at which members representing different neighborhood groups discussed solutions to the problem at hand; the meeting failed.

At 5 p.m. Police Chief William Parker, after learning the meeting had failed, notified the California National Guard in Sacramento to be on alert.

Police arrest a man during the riots.

Friday, August 13

At 8 a.m. rioting grew.

Saturday, August 14

By 1 a.m. there were around 100 fire brigades in the areas, trying to put out fires started by rioters.

Over 3,000 national guardsmen had joined the police by this time in trying to maintain order on the streets.

By midnight there were around 13,900 guardsmen in the area.

A curfew was set at 8 p.m. to keep people inside their houses – allowing the government officials to gain more control of the situation.

Sunday, August 15

The riots died down, leaving around $40 million in property damage.

Churches, community groups, and government agencies gave out aid.

The vandalism ceased and the curfew was lifted by Tuesday, August 17.

By the following Sunday, a week later, less than 300 national guardsmen remained to help out with the aftermath.

Damaged/burned: 258 Damaged/burned: 14 Total:272

Looted: 192 Total:192

Both damaged/burned and looted: 288 Total:288

Destroyed: 267 Destroyed: 1 Total:268

Total: 977

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 the rioting was largely over by Sunday. Due to the seriousness of the riots, martial law had been declared. Sergeant Ben Dunn said "The streets of Watts resembled an all-out war zone in some far-off foreign country, it bore no resemblance to the United States of America." 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 40th 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 participating 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 shown 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.[3] These different arguments and opinions still continue to promote these debates over the underlying cause of Watts Riots.[2] 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.[4] Today, Watts still faces problems of poverty, crime, and poor education.

Cultural references

The film There Goes My Baby features the riots.

The Easy Rawlins detective story Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley takes place in Watts during 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."[5]

In a 1992 episode of L.A. Law that depicted the Rodney King riots, character Leland McKenzie (Richard A. Dysart) is shown reminiscing to one of his associates about his tenure as an associate during the Watts Riots.

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.

In the 1992 film, South Central, the head of the Deuce gang, Ray-Ray, invokes the Watts Riots in a compelling speech to the rank-and-file of the gang. In reference to white oppression, Ray-Ray declares that "During the 1965 Watts Riots, they tried to control the day. You don't control the day. The man controls the day. But we will control the night."[6]

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.[7][8]

"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 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 directed by Allen Hughes and Albert Hughes and starring Tyrin Turner, Larenz Tate, Jada Pinkett Smith and Samuel L. Jackson, shows footage and images of Watts, Los Angeles in 1965 at the height 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.

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.

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."

On the television show Sanford and Son, in episode #12 (The Suitcase Case) Fred has forgotten the combination to the safe in the living room. He asks Lamont what years did the Stock Market Crash (1929), when World War II ended (1945), and when did the Watts riot occur (1965).

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.

Tom Russell's song "That's What Work Is" mentions the 1965 Riots.

At KPFA, Berkeley, news directors Scott Keech and Ned Paynter fantasized the Final Solution in The Bombing of Watts.

The drum n bass track "Bad Ass" by Aphrodite and Mickey Finn contains a sample from South Central.

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.

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

Johny Otis Listen to the Lambs. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.. 1968


1.^ 1 Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
2.^ Oberschall, Anthony. "The Los Angeles Riot of August 1965" Social Problems 15.3 (1968): 322–341.
3.^ Jeffries,Vincent and Ransford, H. Edward. "Interracial Social Contact and Middle-Class White Reaction to the Watts Riot". Social Problems 16.3 (1969): 312–324.
4.^ Tracy Domingo, Miracle at Malibu Materialized, Graphic, November 14, 2002
5.^ "The Pump House Gang by Tom Wolfe - Trade Paperback - Random House - Read an Excerpt". Random House. 1999-10-05.
6.^ States of rage: emotional eruption ... - Google Books.
7.^ Tales From The Lunar Module Guidance Computer
8.^ Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Journal: Program Alarms


Division of Fair Employment Practices, California Department of Industrial Relations (1966). Negroes and Mexican Americans in South and East Los Angeles. San Francisco: State of California, Division of Fair Employment Practices. p. 2.

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