10 Things You Need To Know About The Watts Riots Of 1965

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Written by Ann Brown
The Watts Riots took place in the predominantly-Black, Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles from August 11 to 16, 1965 to protest police brutality. Rifle-toting deputy sheriffs conduct a sweep through Will Rogers Park in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Aug. 12, 1968. (AP Photo)

The Watts Riots, which is also known as the Watts Rebellion, took place in the predominantly Black Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles from August 11 to 16, 1965. Thirty-four people died and there was more than $40 million in property damage. It was Los Angeles’ worst unrest until the Rodney King riots of 1992.

What Happened

It was the evening of August 11, 1965. Police pulled over 21-year-old African-American driver Marquette Frye, who happened to be on parole for robbery. He was pulled over, police said, for reckless driving. Frye was driving his mother’s 1955 Buick. The police officer administered a field sobriety test, which Frya failed. They then placed Frye under arrest. Marquette’s brother, Ronald, who had been a passenger in the car, walked to their nearby house and brought their mother, Rena Price, back with him to the scene of the arrest.

An argument broke out between the family and the police. It escalated into a fight with the police. More and more people from the community got involved and it was believed police had hurt a pregnant woman. Outrage spread in the community. Six days of civil unrest followed. 

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Pregnant Woman?

Police claimed Joyce Ann Gaines spit at them during the ruckus and they arrested her. “She resisted and was dragged out of the crowd which, believing she was pregnant, became even angrier. By 7:45 p.m., the riot was in full force, with rocks, bottles and more being thrown at the buses and cars that had been stalled in traffic because of the escalating incident,” History.com reported.

The National Guard

Nearly 4,000 members of the California Army National Guard were called out to suppress the disturbance.

History Of Police Discrimination In L.A.

“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),” Wikipedia reported.

The military-like LAPD police force became now for police brutality against Black and brown residents.

Mass Arrest

In the wake of the unrest, the chief of the LAPD called for a policy of mass arrest. In addition to the National Guard, 934 LAPD officers and 718 officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were deployed. South Central Los Angeles was put under an 8:00 pm curfew. Any outside of their homes after 8:00 pm could be arrested. “Eventually more than 3,500 people were arrested, primarily for curfew violations,” Wikipedia reported.

People Power 

During the six days of the riot, between 31,000 and 35,000 adults participated and an estimated 70,000 people were “sympathetic, but not active.”  There were 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage, according to Wikipedia.

Bayard Rustin

The civil rights icon who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the Watts Riots in a 1966 essay. 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.”

LAPD Chief William Parker

During the riot, local leaders asked that more Black police be sent into Watts, but then-Los Angeles Police Department Chief William H. Parker denied the request.

“Monkeys”

Police Commissioner Parker called the rioters “monkeys in a zoo.” He also implied Muslims were infiltrating and agitating the uprising, according to History.com. 

After The Watts Rebellion

“A commission was set-up to study the causes of the riot, after which several community-improvement suggestions were made that would improve schools, employment, housing, healthcare and relations with the police department,” History.com reported.

But in the end, little changed in the area in terms of economic improvements for the area and police brutality.