Black Reporter’s Eyewitness Account of Watts Riots
For six bloody, destructive days in the summer of 1965, from Aug. 11-16, the predominantly African-American area of Watts (Los Angeles, California) was torn apart in a series of riots that left 34 people dead, over 1,000 injured and more than 3,400 arrested. It was an explosion of violence triggered by a white police officer’s arrest of a black man on suspicion of drunken driving, along with his brother and mother—but the underlying cause was the long-simmering tension caused by poverty, discrimination, and distrust of an almost all-white police force.
On the second night of rioting, Aug. 12, an African-American reporter for United Press International dressed casually and mixed in with the rampaging crowds, witnessing awful acts of violence and assault. His disturbing account is presented in this copyrighted article printed by the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) on Aug. 14, 1965:
Newsman on Scene
White Motorists Beaten by Mobs, Negro Reports
(Editor’s Note: Warren Wilson, a United Press International reporter and a Negro, covered Thursday night’s rioting in Los Angeles. He tells of his experience in the following dispatch.)
By Warren G. Wilson
Los Angeles, Calif. (UPI)—The hot, sticky evening oozed with tension, and I knew only a tiny spark would touch off another night of bloody rioting.
There were too many sullen youths, standing on the streets still littered with broken glass and debris from the previous night’s melee.
I had driven into the riot-battered area, 10 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, about 7:45 p.m.
The crowd, mostly young Negroes, stared unsuspectingly at me. I was one of them and they called me “brother.”
I was careful to hide the fact I was a news reporter. I wore a torn shirt with the tail hanging out of work trousers that were half way up my legs from over-washing.
I moved among the crowds, listening to shouts at passing motorists to get out of the area. Occasionally there was the crack of a brick or bottle hitting a passing car—thrown by someone using the crowds as a shield.
As darkness set in, the crowd began to stir and a band of youths hurried past me. A man next to me said, “It’s starting.”
A car had stopped in the street, blocking traffic after being hit repeatedly by rocks and bricks. A police car raced by me, rounding up three youths.
More youths, many carrying rocks, bottles and sticks, crowded onto the street in the drab area of grayish-colored apartments inhabited only by Negroes.
A car driven by a Caucasian drove by and someone yelled out, “It’s a white man, get him.” A barrage of bricks and rocks struck the car, knocking out windows and leaving ugly dents. The driver lowered his head from sight and accelerated. The car plowed into two other cars which in turn were pushed into another vehicle.
The crowd swarmed into the street, chanting, “Get that white man, get that white man.”
First he hid on the floor of the car, then he jumped from it with his arms over his head and ran.
A band of screaming youths threw him to the pavement, stomping on him and throwing rocks at close range. Bloody and limp, his face mangled, he was pulled away from the youths by older Negroes.
A squad car appeared, followed by several others, and the second night of violent rioting was underway.
Howling youths attacked all cars that ventured into the area, but were particularly vicious when the vehicles were driven by whites.
The crowd grew to about 1,000. Police alighted from their cars to be met by a hail of rocks. They chased the youths and seized some.
Shots rang out, rocks sailed through the air and bottles of pepper and other strong smelling spices were hurled at police. A market was set afire.
Police secured one block of the area, but as the officers and I walked back into the street, a shot rang out. We took cover behind trees.
I walked to another area five blocks away where more violence had broken out. I heard screams for help from women in cars being stoned.
At one intersection, a crowd of about 200 were standing around a car yelling, “Get that white man.” They attacked the vehicle with tire irons, bricks and bottles.
The man’s face was battered and he was pulled from the car and left on the street, a lifeless-appearing bloody heap. A Negro minister, disregarding his own safety, drove up and took the victim away. As he drove away, his car was stoned.
I left, too. I had seen enough.
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