1965 Watts Riots
One of the chapters of history that’s least studied by historians is the 300 to 500 riots in the U.S. between 1965 and 1970. —Tom Hayden, former State Senator and political activist
Excluding the fact that no single incident occurred within its boundaries that was of the magnitude of, say, the Great Depression or a global war, the 1960s are arguably the most dramatic decade of the 20th Century in terms of impact on social norms. And of all the events included within this 10-year-span, the 1965 Watts Riots (or Rebellion) may be said to trump any by virtue of the ripple effect it had on society as a whole.
Although the term “Black Power” had been used as early as 1954, in the title of a book by Richard Wright, the Watts Uprising denoted a benchmark in the emergence of Black consciousness, and uncovered a division within, the split between the growing middle class who endeavored to escape sections like Watts as soon as possible, and the increasingly disgruntled and marginalized underclass left behind.
This week, we remember the 45th anniversary of what has variously been deemed a riot, insurrection, or uprising, depending on your point of view. In the interim since it occurred, this event has been chronicled, analyzed, examined, and dissected. It has initiated several in-depth studies, among them the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, the Kerner Commission, the McCone Commission, and the United States National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Piggy backing upon this, scores of social programs were launched, fueled by government funding easily reaching tens of millions of dollars, yet yielding mixed results.
In the eyes of historians and social scientists, the 1992 Los Angeles riots bears the same relationship as World War I has with World War II: a follow-up event addressing business that had not been resolved by its predecessor. Like those historical events, each social uprising has become a cultural touchstone in its own right, as the events that transpired are used as a reference point in understanding similar events. A headline covering the national riots led by Muslim dissents across France in 2005 proclaimed “Watts Riots, European Style.”
Los Angeles Blacks are better paid than any others in the United States, but they are also the most separated from the California super opulence that is flaunted all around them. Hollywood, the pole of the global spectacle, is right next door. —from “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy,” December, 1965 by French Marxist Guy Debord.
A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard. —Martin Luther King Jr.
Curiously enough, Los Angeles had been proclaimed as the best city in the United States for Blacks the previous year by the Urban League. Although the Watts Riots are credited with ushering in an especially violent episode of American history, it was preceded by several other uprisings, notably in Philadelphia, Rochester, N.Y., and New York City the previous year. Be that as it may, this local insurrection stands out, possibly because then and now Los Angeles has served as a beacon of glamour and the pursuit of hedonism throughout the world. The presence of such opulence within a short commute of a community in which the few grocery stores and markets there regularly sold rancid meat and over-priced foodstuff certainly contributed to the rage that had been simmering. The city as a whole, never noted for an efficient mass transit system, took a step backwards, when the Pacific Electric “Red Car” Line discontinued service in 1961, further isolating a neighborhood with few employment prospects, from the rest of a city in which conspicuous consumption was (and is) the order of the day.
The precipitating events then (see side bar) are unimportant, as the question of Marquette Frye’s intoxication at the wheel of a motor vehicle paled compared to the question of whether he’d been mistreated arose. Years of disrespect gave locals the urge to utilize this instrument (violence as a political end) for voicing their frustrations in a manner as ostentatious as their counterparts on the Westside flaunted their material wealth.
‘They walking in fours and kicking in doors;
dropping Reds and busting heads;
drinking wine and committing crime, shooting and looting,
high-siding and low-riding, setting fires and slashing tires;
turning over cars and burning down bars;
making Parker mad and making me glad;
putting an end to that ‘go slow’ crap and putting sweet Watts on the map
-my Black ass is in Folsom but my Black heart is in Watts!’
—from “Soul on Ice,” by Eldridge Cleaver, 1968.
The unrest is a landmark in that it was documented by a news helicopter from KTLA. Televised simulcasts were still a thing of the future, but the whirly bird provided a glimpse of a sordid side of America not readily seen by its global neighbors (and government officials were not anxious for them to be aware of). Friend and foe aboard watched with rapt attention as the mask slipped and the façade of Yankee affluence was exposed.
Jefferson High alumnus Alfred Lee Johnson was far away from his hometown, when the Uprising went down. His childhood interest in becoming an amateur radio operator or “HAM” led to his selection as radio operator, when he was drafted in 1964. Upon his arrival at the tactical airlift facility in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, he was shipped out to a forward fire control base out in the boondocks without ready access to news from the “world.” Military brass were not interested in keeping their troops appraised of the turmoil back home, and attempted a policy of censorship.
Being in country meant acquiring a working knowledge of the local language within six months, and some G.I.’s could interpret the mayhem as it was broadcast to Vietnamese news-casters on televisions in native settlements outside American outposts and while on leave in Thailand. Information quickly spread through the grapevine including the brothers on patrol in the “bush,” meaning that the command attempt at censorship was a bust.
Leon Lenore, a 45-year resident of Compton, had just moved into his house a month before the riot. Having grown up in the city he’d had his share of harassment by cops, White and African American (who, few in number, seemed to be pre-occupied with showing their fair-skinned colleagues that they were cast from the same mold) as a teenager and young adult. Marriage, parenthood, and home ownership had elevated his status in the eyes of law enforcement and he rarely suffered the indigence that’d been a staple of his existence just a few years earlier.
A gas company employee, he lived outside of the curfew area and freely traveled to his work location in Venice without incident, aside from dirty looks from his clients and other Whites he encountered. He remembers that after a small market in the predominantly Black section of Venice was burnt down, the residents would still gather in front of its charred remains to gossip, as they’d done when the store was in operation.
His acquaintances who actually participated in the riots were not especially politically aware, and seemed to be caught up in the almost festive atmosphere that abounded, along with the promise of immediate gratification to be attained with the possession of stolen property.
One of his friends, a musician who’d pawned his saxophone in a shop on 43rd and Central, was embroiled in looting when he suddenly remembered his “axe” was in hock, and went to retrieve it. By the time he reached the pawnshop other looters had already plundered his instrument, so he resigned himself to the compensation of other ill-gotten gains.
Bill and Arthur Greenberg’s hardware store had been a fixture on Central Avenue since 1926, and they and their parents had enjoyed a cordial relationship with the community even though their Jewish heritage set them apart from most of Watts’ residents. As the riot progressed, they hand painted “Blood Brother” across its frontage in the hope that they’d be spared. As news from the hot zone continued its pessimistic turn, they decided to load their Corvette Sting Ray convertible with guns, knives and other weaponry and made the trek south towards Central to check the status of their property. They got as far as the National Guard check point on Slauson Avenue when they and their weapons cache were turned back. Miraculously they found their store unscathed after the quarantine lifted.
Before we were Black …
Anthony Hamilton was a young man of 25 that summer of 1965, and remembers an environment with a variety of social circles gravitating to different corner cafés to mingle. These included preachers, developers in real estate and construction, automobile enthusiasts, and so on. The crowd Hamilton associated with considered themselves “hipsters,” and as such sported the neatly cropped haircuts and manicured goatees favored by the jazz musicians they idolized. These included people like pianist Horace Tapscott, who cast a considerable intellectual shadow over the community. The police however, targeted those attired in this fashion for special attention.
In the period prior to that fateful day, Blacks were more prone to be referred to as “Colored” or “Negro,” but the collective mentality went through a dramatic conversion in short order. Despite its cultural wealth, Watts stood at the bottom of the social strata existing in Black Los Angeles, and was viewed derisively as backward and countrified in some circles. The riots achieved a curious transformation in this regard, as it suddenly became a badge of honor to live in Watts. Hamilton sums it up: “We went from Negroes to another way of thinking.”
Suddenly, Black was beautiful
Music occupied a special place in the heart of the community, and so as the insurrection progressed, its participants adopted the trademark of a popular disc jockey of the day. Nathaniel “Magnificent” Montague was known for shouting the phase “Burn, baby! Burn,” whenever he played a compelling single, and that became the battle cry for the disadvantaged, impoverished, and ignored.
The P.R. Leader, the Ghetto bleeder, creeps into
the community from an unknown place, stands in
the face of the leadership there, as he spreads
his P.R. every-where
—from “P.R. Leader” by Anthony Hamilton
Spurred on by this elevation of the collective consciousness, Hamilton and his buddies immersed themselves into the many self-help and social improvement programs implemented in Watts in short order. Among the organizations he took part in were the Brotherhood Crusade and the House of Uhuru. To voice his personal feelings about the transpiring events, he and his partners experimented with the medium of spoken word as performance art, incorporating rhythm and melody, eventually forming a group called the Watts Prophets. The concoction of speech, prose, poetry, and song that they practiced ultimate became the art form we now know as Rap.
In the midst of all this social progress appeared a collective of people who readily utilized these programs towards their own end. In another time--the Reconstruction era following the Civil War--individuals possessing skills in exploitation and manipulation to make political and material advances were called carpet-baggers, but in Watts in the parlance of modern lingo they became known as “poverty pimps.”
A pimp, or should I say simp with puppies for a staff
he must have, he treats men like boys women like
whores, and acts like there’s nothing he does not know
it’s good security for his hidden fat ego
—from “P.R. Leader” by Anthony Hamilton
Over time for many Americans, the name “Watts” has become intertwined with riots, gang warfare, drive-by shootings, and crack dealing. For Hamilton the transition of his neighborhood turned out to be more painful than he could bear, as the Watts of today offers little in the way of constructive possibility. Politicians and others controlling the purse strings came into the situation with preconceived notions about social engineering. Community leaders used fear as leverage to get money out of impressionable White contributors malleable for the ends of their Black exploiters. The deaths of so many of his friends prompted his relocation to Humboldt County of Northern California. In a phone conversation from his home there, he shared his sentiments with the state of affairs with Our Weekly’s readership along with his hope fop the future:
He has the character of a carpetbagger hog with one
man rule as his tool, community
creativity is suppressed
Money and power speak to him best
But no matter how slick he think he be
have eyes and
—from “P.R. Leader” by Anthony Hamilton
Turn left or get shot. —Message on a sign on the perimeter of the riot area.
The origins of this clash are by now well-known. At about 7 o’clock on the evening of August 11, a California Highway Patrolman arrested Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old high school dropout with prior record of gang involvement on suspicion of DUI near the intersection of 103rd Street and Compton Boulevard.
As Frye resisted, his mother and older brother arrived to escalate the situation while a crowd formed, and motivated by past mistreatment by law enforcement, they became belligerent. The L.A.P.D. was called in for back up. Within a half hour, all three of the Frye family members had been apprehended, but reportedly some 1,000 people had gathered to taunt the police, spitting on one of the officers and stoning a patrol car, leading to more arrests, including a young woman erroneously thought to be pregnant.
This led to more rumors alleging police abuse, and for the rest of the evening the crowd proceeded to stone passing cars, in some cases pulling White motorists from their vehicles to beat them, resulting in more arrests. A series of meetings held the following day to try to neutralize the atmosphere fizzled out, and the police set up a mobile command post near the conflict’s focal point while Chief William Parker called on the National Guard (NG) for assistance. By midnight of that Thursday, roving bands had begun throwing rocks and looting local businesses, and Lt. Governor Glenn Anderson (sitting in for Governor Pat Brown who was in Greece) was informed that as many as 8,000 rioters were roaming the streets of Watts, as firemen arriving in the area to extinguish three burning cars were pummeled with rocks.
That Friday the 13th, Parker and Mayor Sam Yorty requested for 1,000 guardsmen to be deployed, because the business district of Watts was besieged by some 3,000 people who began to methodically burn a wide section of 103rd Street (later dubbed “Charcoal Alley”) to the ground. The first fatality, a bystander shot in an exchange of gunfire between police and rioters, was recorded by 7 p.m. For the remainder of the night police escorted as many as 100 engine companies of firefighters into the area, as snipers took pot shots at them while they battled flames.
By the end of the following day Saturday, a full contingent of nearly 14,000 NG troops, more then a division, were in place to augment the police and sheriff’s deputies in addressing the emergency. On Sunday, the turmoil settled down as the final tally read 34 dead, thousands more arrested or injured, and a property loss of some $40 million. Other isolated areas reporting burning, looting, or rioting in general included Pasadena, Pacoima out in the San Fernando Valley, and sections of Long Beach. By the following Tuesday a Watts-area curfew had been lifted and a few hundred guardsmen remained for clean-up as authorities argued about how much the chaos had been planned or just erupted spontaneously.