Watts riots

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Watts riots
Part of the Ghetto riots
Burning buildings during the riots
DateAugust 11–16, 1965
GoalsTo end mistreatment by the police and to end discrimination in housing, employment, and schooling systems
MethodsWidespread rioting, looting, assault, arson, protests, firefights, property damage

The Watts riots, sometimes referred to as the Watts Rebellion,[1] took place in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles from August 11 to 16, 1965.

On August 11, 1965, Marquette Frye, an African-American motorist on parole for robbery, was pulled over for reckless driving.[2][3] A minor roadside argument broke out, which then escalated into a fight with police.[2] Community members reported that the police had hurt a pregnant woman, and six days of civil unrest followed.[3] Nearly 4,000 members of the California Army National Guard helped suppress the disturbance, which resulted in 34 deaths[4] and over $40 million in property damage.[5] It was the city's worst unrest until the Rodney King riots of 1992.


In the Great Migration of 1915-1940, major populations of African Americans moved to Northeastern and Midwestern cities such as Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City to pursue jobs in newly established manufacturing industries; to cement better educational and social opportunities; and to flee racial segregation, Jim Crow laws, violence and racial bigotry in the Southern states. This wave of migration largely bypassed Los Angeles.

In the 1940s, in the Second Great Migration, black workers and families migrated to the West Coast in large numbers, in response to defense industry recruitment efforts at the start of World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 directing defense contractors not to discriminate in hiring or promotions, opening up new opportunities for minorities. The black population in Los Angeles dramatically rose from approximately 63,700 in 1940 to about 350,000 in 1965, rising from 4% of L.A.'s population to 14%.[6][7]

Residential segregation

Los Angeles had racially restrictive covenants that prevented specific minorities from renting and buying property in certain areas, even long after the courts ruled such practices illegal in 1948 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. At the beginning of the 20th century, Los Angeles was geographically divided by ethnicity, as demographics were being altered by the rapid migration from the Philippines (then-U.S. unincorporated territory at the time) and immigration from Mexico, Japan, Korea, and Southern and Eastern Europe. In the 1910s, the city was already 80% covered by racially restrictive covenants in real estate.[8] By the 1940s, 95% of Los Angeles and southern California housing was off-limits to certain minorities.[9][10] Minorities who had served in World War II or worked in L.A.'s defense industries returned to face increasing patterns of discrimination in housing. In addition, they found themselves excluded from the suburbs and restricted to housing in East or South Los Angeles, which includes the Watts neighborhood and Compton. Such real-estate practices severely restricted educational and economic opportunities available to the minority community.[9]

Following the U.S. entry into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government removed and interned 70,000 Japanese-Americans from Los Angeles, leaving empty spaces in predominantly Japanese-owned areas. This further bolstered the migration of black residents into the city during the Second Great Migration to occupy the vacated spaces, such as Little Tokyo. As a result, housing in South Los Angeles became increasingly scarce, overwhelming the already established communities and providing opportunities for real estate developers. Davenport Builders, for example, was a large developer who responded to the demand, with an eye on undeveloped land in Compton. What was originally a mostly white neighborhood in the 1940s increasingly became an African-American, middle-class dream in which blue-collar laborers could enjoy suburbia away from the slums.[9]

In the post-World War II era, suburbs in the Los Angeles area grew explosively as black residents also wanted to live in peaceful white neighborhoods. In a thinly-veiled attempt to sustain their way of life and maintain the general peace and prosperity, most of these suburbs barred black people, using a variety of methods. White middle-class people in neighborhoods bordering black districts moved en masse to the suburbs, where newer housing was available. The spread of African Americans throughout urban Los Angeles was achieved in large part through blockbusting, a technique whereby real estate speculators would buy a home on an all-white street, sell or rent it to a black family, and then buy up the remaining homes from Caucasians at cut-rate prices, then sell them to housing-hungry black families at hefty profits.

The Rumford Fair Housing Act, designed to remedy residential segregation, was overturned by Proposition 14, which was sponsored by the California real estate industry, and supported by a majority of white voters. Psychiatrist and civil rights activist Alvin Poussaint considered Proposition 14 to be one of the root causes of black rebellion in Watts.[11]

Police discrimination

Because of discrimination Los Angeles' African American residents were excluded from the high-paying jobs, affordable housing, and politics available to white residents; moreover, they faced discrimination by the white-dominated Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).[citation needed] In 1950, William H. Parker was appointed and sworn in as Los Angeles Chief of Police. After a major scandal called Bloody Christmas of 1951, Parker pushed for more independence from political pressures that would enable him to create a more professionalized police force. The public supported him and voted for charter changes that isolated the police department from the rest of the city government. In the 1960s, the LAPD was promoted as one of the best police forces in the world.

Despite its reform and having a professionalized, military-like police force, William Parker's LAPD faced repeated criticism from the city's Latino and black residents for police brutality—resulting from his recruiting of officers from the South with strong anti-black and anti-Mexican attitudes. Chief Parker coined the term "Thin Blue Line", representing the police as holding down pervasive crime.[12]

Resentment of such longstanding racial injustices are cited as reasons why Watts' African-American population exploded on August 11, 1965, in what would become the Watts Riots.[13]

Inciting incident

On the evening of Wednesday, August 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye, an African-American man driving his mother's 1955 Buick, was pulled over by California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer Lee Minikus for alleged reckless driving.[14] After administering a field sobriety test, Minikus placed Frye under arrest and radioed for his vehicle to be impounded.[15] Marquette's brother, Ronald, a passenger in the vehicle, walked to their house nearby, bringing their mother, Rena Price, back with him to the scene of the arrest.

When Rena Price reached the intersection of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street that evening, she scolded Frye about drinking and driving, as he recalled in a 1985 interview with the Orlando Sentinel.[16] But the situation quickly escalated: someone shoved Price, Frye was struck, Price jumped an officer, and another officer pulled out a shotgun. Backup police officers attempted to arrest Frye by using physical force to subdue him. After community members reported that police had roughed up Frye and kicked a pregnant woman, angry mobs formed.[17][18] As the situation intensified, growing crowds of local residents watching the exchange began yelling and throwing objects at the police officers.[19] Frye's mother and brother fought with the officers and were eventually arrested along with Marquette Frye.[20][21]

After the arrests of Price and her sons the Frye brothers, the crowd continued to grow along Avalon Boulevard. Police came to the scene to break up the crowd several times that night, but were attacked when people threw rocks and chunks of concrete.[22] A 46-square-mile (119 square kilometer) swath of Los Angeles was transformed into a combat zone during the ensuing six days.[18]

Riot begins

Police arrest a man during the riots on August 12
Soldiers of the California's 40th Armored Division direct traffic away from an area of South Central Los Angeles burning during the Watts riot

After a night of increasing unrest, police and local black community leaders held a community meeting on Thursday, August 12, to discuss an action plan and to urge calm. The meeting failed. Later that day, Chief Parker called for the assistance of the California Army National Guard.[23] Chief Parker believed the riots resembled an insurgency, compared it to fighting the Viet Cong, and decreed a "paramilitary" response to the disorder. Governor Pat Brown declared that law enforcement was confronting "guerrillas fighting with gangsters".[4]

The rioting intensified, and on Friday, August 13, about 2,300 National Guardsmen joined the police in trying to maintain order on the streets. 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."[24][25] The first riot-related death occurred on the night of August 13, when a black civilian was killed in the crossfire during a shootout between the police and rioters. Over the next few days, rioting had then spread throughout other areas, including Pasadena, Pacoima, Monrovia, Long Beach, and even as far as San Diego, although they were very minor in comparison to Watts itself. About 200 Guardsmen and the LAPD were sent to assist the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) in controlling the unruly crowd.

By nightfall on Saturday, 16,000 law enforcement personnel had been mobilized and patrolled the city.[4] Blockades were established, and warning signs were posted throughout the riot zones threatening the use of deadly force (one sign warned residents to "Turn left or get shot"). Angered over the police response, residents of Watts engaged in a full-scale battle against the first responders. Rioters tore up sidewalks and bricks to hurl at Guardsmen and police, and to smash their vehicles.[4] Those actively participating in the riots started physical fights with police, blocked Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) firefighters from using fire hoses on protesters and burning buildings, or stopped and beat white motorists while yelling racial slurs in the area. Arson and looting were largely confined to local white-owned stores and businesses that were said to have caused resentment in the neighborhood due to low wages and high prices for local workers.[26]

To quell the riots, Chief Parker initiated a policy of mass arrest.[4] Following the deployment of National Guardsmen, a curfew was declared for a vast region of South Central Los Angeles.[27] In addition to the Guardsmen, 934 LAPD officers and 718 officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD) were deployed during the rioting.[23] Watts and all black-majority areas in Los Angeles were put under the curfew. All residents outside of their homes in the affected areas after 8:00pm were subject to arrest. Eventually nearly 3,500 people were arrested, primarily for curfew violations. By the morning of Sunday, August 15, the riots had largely been quelled.[4]

Over the course of six days, between 31,000 and 35,000 adults participated in the riots. Around 70,000 people were "sympathetic, but not active."[22] Over the six days, there were 34 deaths,[28][29] 1,032 injuries,[28][30] 3,438 arrests,[28][31] and over $40 million in property damage.[28] Many white Americans were fearful of the breakdown of social order in Watts, especially since white motorists were being pulled over by rioters in nearby areas and assaulted.[32] Many in the black community, however, believed the rioters were taking part in an "uprising against an oppressive system."[22] In a 1966 essay, black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin wrote:

The whole point of the outbreak in Watts was that it marked the first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism and was carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life.[33]

Despite allegations that "criminal elements" were responsible for the riots, the vast majority of those arrested had no prior criminal record.[4] Only three sworn personnel were killed in the riots: an LAFD firefighter was struck when a wall of a fire weakened structure fell on him while fighting fires in a store,[34] an LASD deputy was shot when another deputy's shotgun was discharged in a struggle with rioters,[35] and an LBPD officer was shot by another police officer's gun that was discharged during a scuffle with rioters.[36] 23 out of the 34 people killed in the riots were shot by LAPD officers (16 deaths) or National Guardsmen (seven deaths).

Parker publicly said that the people he saw rioting were acting like "monkeys in the zoo."[26] Overall, an estimated $40 million in damage was caused ($320,000,000 in 2019 dollars), with almost 1,000 buildings damaged or destroyed. Homes were not attacked, although some caught fire due to proximity to other fires.[citation needed]

Businesses and private buildings Public buildings Total
Damaged/burned: 258 Damaged/burned: 14 Total: 272
Looted: 192 Total: 192
Both damaged/burned & looted: 288 Total: 288
Destroyed: 267 Destroyed: 1 Total: 268
Total: 977

After the riots

Debate rose quickly over what had taken place in Watts, as the area was known to be under a great deal of racial and social tension. Reactions and reasoning about the riots greatly varied based on the perspectives of those affected by and participating in the riots' chaos.

National civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke two days after the riots happened in Watts. The riots were partly a response to Proposition 14, a constitutional amendment sponsored by the California Real Estate Association and passed that had in effect repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act.[37] In 1966, the California Supreme Court reinstated the Rumford Fair Housing Act in the Reitman v. Mulkey case (a decision affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court the following year), declaring the amendment to violate the US constitution and laws.

A variety of opinions and explanations were published. Public opinion polls studied in the few years after the riot showed that a majority believed the riots were linked to communist groups who were active in the area protesting high unemployment rates and racial discrimination.[38] Those opinions concerning racism and discrimination were expressed 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. These hearings were also intended to make a ruling on the discrimination case against the police for their alleged mistreatment of members of the Nation of Islam.[38] These different arguments and opinions are often cited in continuing debates over the underlying causes of the Watts riots.[26]

McCone Commission

A commission under Governor Pat Brown investigated the riots, known as the McCone Commission, and headed by former CIA director John A. McCone. It released a 101-page report on December 2, 1965 entitled Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965.[39]

The McCone Commission identified the root causes of the riots to be high unemployment, poor schools, and related inferior living conditions that were endured by African Americans in Watts. Recommendations for addressing these problems included "emergency literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing, more job-training projects, upgraded health-care services, more efficient public transportation, and many more." Most of these recommendations were never implemented.[40]


Marquette Frye died of pneumonia on December 20, 1986 at age 42.[41] His mother, Rena Price, died on June 10, 2013, at age 97.[42] She never recovered the impounded 1955 Buick which her son had been driving, because the storage fees exceeded the car's value.[43]

Cultural references

See also


  1. ^ "Watts Rebellion (Los Angeles) | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute". June 12, 2017. Retrieved October 22, 2018.
  2. ^ a b James Queally (July 29, 2015). "Watts Riots: Traffic stop was the spark that ignited days of destruction in L.A."
  3. ^ a b "How Legacy Of The Watts Riot Consumed, Ruined Man's Life". tribunedigital-orlandosentinel. Retrieved March 2, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Hinton, Elizabeth (2016). From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Harvard University Press. pp. 68–72. ISBN 9780674737235.
  5. ^ Bloom, Joshua, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against Empire: the History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016) 30.
  6. ^ "The Great Migration: Creating a New Black Identity in Los Angeles", KCET
  7. ^ "Population", LA Almanac
  8. ^ Taylor, Dorceta (2014). Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility. NYU Press. p. 202. ISBN 9781479861620.
  9. ^ a b c Bernstein, Shana (2010). Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Oxford University Press. pp. 107–109. ISBN 9780199715893.
  10. ^ Michael Dear; H. Eric Schockman & Greg Hise (1996). Rethinking Los Angeles. SAGE. p. 40. ISBN 9780803972872.
  11. ^ Theoharis, Jeanne (2006). The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era. (New York: Routledge), p. 47-49. Archived at Google Books. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  12. ^ Shaw, David (May 25, 2014). "Chief Parker Molded LAPD Image--Then Came the '60s : Police: Press treated officers as heroes until social upheaval prompted skepticism and confrontation". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
  13. ^ Watts Riots (August 1965) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. The Black Past (August 11, 1965).
  14. ^ Dawsey, Darrell (August 19, 1990). "To CHP Officer Who Sparked Riots, It Was Just Another Arrest". Los Angeles Times.
  15. ^ Cohen, Jerry; Murphy, William S. (July 15, 1966). "Burn, Baby, Burn!" Life. Archived at Google Books. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  16. ^ Szymanski, Michael (August 5, 1990). "How Legacy of the Watts Riot Consumed, Ruined Man's Life". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved June 22, 2013.
  17. ^ Dawsey, Darrell (August 19, 1990). "To CHP Officer Who Sparked Riots, It Was Just Another Arrest". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 23, 2011.
  18. ^ a b Woo, Elaine (June 22, 2013). "Rena Price dies at 97; her and son's arrests sparked Watts riots". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 22, 2013.
  19. ^ Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  20. ^ Walker, Yvette (2008). Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. Oxford University Press.
  21. ^ Alonso, Alex A. (1998). Rebuilding Los Angeles: A Lesson of Community Reconstruction (PDF). Los Angeles: University of Southern California.
  22. ^ a b c Barnhill, John H. (2011). "Watts Riots (1965)". In Danver, Steven L. (ed.). Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History, Volume 3. ABC-CLIO.
  23. ^ a b "Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?". Retrieved January 3, 2012.
  24. ^ Siegel, Fred (January 28, 2014). The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class. Encounter Books. ISBN 9781594036989.
  25. ^ Troy, Tevi (2016). Shall We Wake the President?: Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office. Rowman and Littlefield. p. 156. ISBN 9781493024650.
  26. ^ a b c Oberschall, Anthony (1968). "The Los Angeles Riot of August 1965". Social Problems. 15 (3): 322–341. doi:10.2307/799788. JSTOR 799788.
  27. ^ "A Report Concerning the California National Guard's Part in Suppressing the Los Angeles Riot, August 1965" (PDF).
  28. ^ a b c d "The Watts Riots of 1965, in a Los Angeles newspaper... ". Timothy Hughes: Rare & Early Newspapers. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  29. ^ Reitman, Valerie; Landsberg, Mitchell (August 11, 2005). "Watts Riots, 40 Years Later". Los Angeles Times.
  30. ^ "Watts Riot begins - August 11, 1965". This Day in History. History. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
  31. ^ "Finding aid for the Watts Riots records 0084". Online Archive of California. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
  32. ^ Queally, James (July 29, 2015). "Watts Riots: Traffic stop was the spark that ignited days of destruction in L.A.", Los Angeles Times.
  33. ^ Rustin, Bayard (March 1966). "The Watts". Commentary Magazine. Retrieved January 3, 2012.
  34. ^ "Fireman Warren E. Tilson, Los Angeles Fire Department". Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive.
  35. ^ "Deputy Sheriff Ronald E. Ludlow". Officer Down Memorial Page.
  36. ^ "Police Officer Richard R. LeFebvre". Officer Down Memorial Page.
  37. ^ Tracy Domingo, Miracle at Malibu Materialized, Graphic, November 14, 2002
  38. ^ a b Jeffries, Vincent & Ransford, H. Edward. "Interracial Social Contact and Middle-Class White Reaction to the Watts Riot". Social Problems 16.3 (1969): 312–324.
  39. ^ Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965. University of Southern California. Retrieved August 21, 2014.
  40. ^ Dawsey, Darrell (July 8, 1990). "25 Years After the Watts Riots : McCone Commission's Recommendations Have Gone Unheeded". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 22, 2011.
  41. ^ "Marquette Frye Dead; 'Man Who Began ///..Riot". New York Times. December 25, 1986. Retrieved June 23, 2013.
  42. ^ "Rena Price, woman whose arrest sparked Watts riots, dies at 97".
  43. ^ Woo, Elaine (June 22, 2013). "Rena Price dies at 97; her and son's arrests sparked Watts riots". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 22, 2013.
  44. ^ Maycock, James (July 20, 2002). "Loud and proud". The Guardian – via
  45. ^ Abramovich, Alex (July 20, 2001). "The Apes of Wrath". Slate Magazine. Retrieved August 30, 2011.
  46. ^ Millar, Mark (w), Torres, Wilfredo; Gianfelice, Davide (a). Jupiter's Circle v2, 2 (December 2015), Image Comics

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
  • 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.

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