Watts Riots: 6-Day Rampage in Black Area of L.A.
It was 7:00 on a sweltering summer night in the Watts area of Los Angeles on Aug. 11, 1965, when a white police officer stopped a car on a suspicion of drunken driving. It seemed a routine police matter, but what followed was anything but routine: a massive six-day riot in the predominantly African American neighborhood that pitted angry stone-throwing blacks against the largely white police force, augmented by 15,000 National Guardsmen. Before order was finally restored 34 people had been killed, over 1,000 injured and more than 3,400 arrested, as well as nearly 1,000 buildings looted and/or destroyed with estimates of $50 to $100 million in damages.
Los Angeles would not experience such trauma again until April 29, 1992, when anger erupted over the acquittal of four L.A. police officers for the beating of Rodney King.
The 1965 trouble began when officer Lee Minikus stopped Marquette Frye, the African American driver of the car, and his brother Ronald, the passenger. Marquette failed the sobriety test, and Minikus refused to allow Ronald to drive the car home. As a crowd gathered around the altercation, the boy’s mother Rena showed up. Tensions mounted, voices were raised, other police officers arrived on the scene, and soon all three Fryes were under arrest. The angry crowd refused to disperse and started throwing rocks and bottles, carrying on even after the police left. The Watts Riots had begun, sparked by a single arrest but reflecting anger and resentment born of poverty, discrimination, and distrust of an almost all-white police force.
The following four newspaper articles are about the riots, including eyewitness accounts of what they experienced during the frightening days and nights of rage and destruction. The first copyrighted article was published by the Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey) on Aug. 12, 1965:
Rioting Erupts in L.A.
Los Angeles (UPI)—Hundreds of rioting Negroes swarmed through an eight-block area here last night and early today, battling police, smashing windows, looting, and damaging automobiles.
The massive disturbance reached its peak about midnight PDT (3 a.m. EDT) when police attempted to disperse the mob of about 500 persons. Toward dawn it quieted down.
Only sporadic trouble was reported through the early hours in the predominantly Negro district of Watts and Compton, about 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
Police declined to attribute the trouble to racial causes.
The disturbance began when two White California highway patrolmen tried to arrest a drunken driving suspect, Marquette Frye, 21. An angry crowd—apparently aggravated by the hot, humid weather—swarmed around the suspect and officers.
The crowd began throwing rocks and bottles. Within hours, about 70 policemen and rioters clashed head-on in the streets.
At the height of the riot, Negroes jeered at helmeted officers with nightsticks and hurled bricks and bottles at police, newsmen and vehicles.
At least a dozen persons were injured, including policemen, three newsmen and one woman.
At least 50 to 60 vehicles were damaged, including mobile units from two television stations, police said.
When the disturbance worsened, police charged into the crowd to make it disperse. Then the officers were withdrawn from the area to let the rioters “cool off.”
This copyrighted article was published by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on Aug. 13, 1965:
Negroes Battle Police 8 Hours
Los Angeles (AP)—“My sister and I were in the car with her three children and my two. We stopped for a light.
“Several youths approached with bricks tied to two-by-four boards and began beating the car. They knocked out every window. They dented the fenders and scared us half to death.”
Thus Mrs. Lena Markus of Fresno, Calif., visiting here, described her experience Wednesday night at a riot by more than 1,000 persons in the Negro suburb of Watts.
Police said a crowd that gathered after a drunken-driving arrest began tossing rocks and, as teenagers flocked in, got out of control and ran wild. The riot lasted eight hours.
More than 100 policemen sealed off an eight-block area after the outbreak. Packs of youths bombarded police cars and a fire engine, burned a television broadcasting truck, engaged in fist fights and chased pedestrians. Store front windows were broken. There was minor looting.
Nineteen policemen—one stabbed in the back by an assailant he never saw—and at least 15 civilians were injured, none seriously. Twenty-eight persons were arrested on various charges.
Focal point of the riot was at Avalon and Imperial Boulevards, a neat area where homes and apartments adjoin commercial establishments.
A Negro youth, 18, two bloody bandages indicating head and arm wounds in the melee, gave his reason for his and others’ violence: “I guess we didn’t feel like taking no more mess off the police. It was how the police were treating the people they arrested. Most of the cops are all right, but these rookies, they come on strong to get a reputation.
“Every time something like this happens, it just goes on and goes on and goes on. This time we didn’t want to just let it slide.”
Police have repeatedly denied allegations of brutality.
Here are reports from other eyewitnesses:
Darrel Hirsch, 32, Redondo Beach, Calif., engineer: “My wife, Pat, my daughter, Erin, 6, and I were driving in our convertible about midnight.
“The car was hit four or five times. I don’t know what they were throwing. They cut a hole through the cloth top and damaged the windshield and a side panel.
“I’m surprised someone wasn’t killed. The man behind us got a rock through his windshield.”
David Roth, 34, magazine writer: “My car was hit by a bottle and a brick that came through the windshield and just grazed my head.”
Sam Arnold, 46: “A rock ricocheted off my car. I stopped and saw a lot of Negro boys. I asked them to stop. I told them I was sympathetic to their cause and there was no need to be rowdy.
“They cursed me and told me to get moving or something worse would happen. As I left they threw a brick which dented my car.”
The area calmed about 3 a.m. but during the day teenagers clustered on streets, talking about taking on police again. Said one, who declined to give his name: “Anyone with any sense will stay out of here tonight, because we’re really going to show those cops.”
This copyrighted article was published by the Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia) on Aug. 13, 1965:
L.A. Negroes Riot in Streets of City for Second Night
Los Angeles (AP)—Police sealed off a six-block area of a Negro neighborhood Thursday night as an unruly crowd estimated at 6,000 massed for a second night of rioting.
Youths ran wild, pelting cars and pedestrians with rocks. There were reports of cars overturned, people pulled from cars and beaten, a man cut with a knife. Several police cars radioed for help.
The brawling began Wednesday night when a crowd got out of hand after a white officer arrested a Negro on a drunken driving charge. A crowd of 1,500 rioted for eight hours, causing damage to homes and stores, injury to nearly two score, and many arrests.
Despite daylong efforts by police, clergymen and social workers to head off new violence, crowds began massing at sunset Thursday in the same area—Watts, southeast of downtown Los Angeles, core of this city’s Negro population.
Crowds Jam Streets
The crowds lined Avalon and Imperial streets, then soon jammed the streets themselves, blocking traffic.
At first, a few youths began throwing rocks—fulfilling promises youngsters had made earlier in the day to return Thursday night. One said: “Anyone with any sense will stay out of here tonight, because we’re really going to show the cops.”
At first, police stayed away, hoping that by doing so they would not draw fire from the crowd. But as the mob swelled, 80 officers went in. Then 135 sheriff’s deputies were called in. And later 240 more were called for.
“We’re firming up a National Guard commitment,” Police Inspector James Fisk said at 9 p.m.
Officers permitted people to leave the sealed-off area, but allowed no one to enter.
No one seemed immune to pelting. Negroes in passing cars were bombarded. Police cars were favorite targets. A radio news-car had its windshield smashed. Even ambulances were hit.
Negro clergymen waded into the masses, imploring a halt to the violence. They were paid no heed.
There was no apparent motivation. It was another warm night of the kind that invited outdoor activity. But the best explanation police could offer was general “rebellion against authority—any authority.”
Negroes who live in the area said that many persons, especially teenagers, have grievances against policemen—and were taking advantage of the opportunity to express them.
Police tried to chase down youngsters who threw rocks, pursuing them into alleys and cornering them. Several times they got into fist fights.
Ron Sterry, 17, and Linda Grosneck, 16, both white, stopped on a motorcycle at an intersection. His nose was bloodied by a missile before they could escape a barrage.
Wendell Hardy, 37, a Negro, said: “I was driving down Imperial minding my own business. I started to take off when all of a sudden rocks and bottles and stones were being hurled at my head. I got right out of there.”
There were reports of gasoline bombs tossed in some areas.
Inspector Fisk commented: “There are some identifiable leaders in there agitating that may have to be rounded up.”
Deputy Police Chief Henry E. Murdock said: “It’s worse than we anticipated. There are unconfirmed reports of shooting.”
This copyrighted article was published by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on Aug. 14, 1965:
Prelude to a Riot: The ‘Black Ghetto’
Los Angeles (AP)—Civil rights workers call Watts the “Black Ghetto.”
They warned police it was ready for a riot: segregated, overcrowded, plagued by unemployment, its people largely distrustful of police.
Then came the catalyst: a week of sweltering temperatures.
Since Sunday the mercury in the grimy, sprawling suburb had risen each day past the 90-degree mark.
When the first riot came Wednesday night, it followed an attempt by police to arrest a drunken driving suspect.
Thursday night riots came again. Why? This time there was no one incident anyone could blame—only the tensions social workers had long reported:
Segregation: 98% of Watts is Negro.
Crowding: Watts has 27.3 persons per acre, compared with a county average of 7.4.
Unemployment: Each month 1,000 Negroes come to Los Angeles, most to Watts, the city’s largest pocket of Negro population. Many are jobless.
Civic blight: Most of the buildings in Watts date to past decades when the area was still white. Many stores stand empty.
Hatred of police: From the 77th Street police station the city of Los Angeles enforces the laws in Watts with 205 men—five of them Negroes. Civil rights workers have compared the station to the headquarters of “an occupying power.”
Officer Michael B. Hannon became a civil rights demonstrator after being stationed there, and was subsequently suspended from the force for one year after a police department trial on charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer.”
Hannon said of the precinct: “I was offended by an air of smug self-satisfaction that I observed among other white officers in that division.
“I think it’s a crime that in a country as rich as ours, poverty like that has to exist. I saw a Negro woman give birth to a baby on a sidewalk at night in the rain while trying to walk to a charity hospital.”
But, police said, many of the rioters in Watts were found to be from outside the immediate district, indicating the riots were symptomatic of attitudes widespread through the Los Angeles area’s pockets of Negro population.
There are 334,916 Negroes among the city’s 2,479015, or about 12% of the population.
Despite acts of senseless violence against whites who ventured into the riot-torn area yesterday, there were also many cases of Negroes risking their lives to save whites from rioters.
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