Jul 20, 2015
On August 11, 1965, a white California Highway Patrolman stopped a car driven by Marquette Frye. It was just another supposed “traffic stop” like so many others in black Los Angeles neighborhoods. But this time, when cops pushed Frye and his family around, arresting him, his brother and his mother, onlookers opposed the cops. One witness, Lacine Holland later told the Los Angeles Times: “I went to the corner to see what was going on and saw a large crowd. The police were there. They were making an arrest of a young man. I remember that they took him and threw him in the car like a bag of laundry and kicked his feet in and slammed the door.”
These arrests started the Watts Rebellion, one of the biggest in U.S. history. The rebellion covered a 46.5 square mile zone (larger than Manhattan or San Francisco).
Most participants in the rebellion were the working class people living in South Central, the large black ghetto of Los Angeles. Employment and residence data, based on arrest records, showed that the great majority of the participants had lived in Los Angeles for at least five years and were currently employed.
After the rebellion was over, CBS radio correctly stated what had happened: “This was not a riot. It was an insurrection against all authority …. If it had gone much further, it would have become civil war.”
This was not the first rebellion of the 1960s. In the summer of 1964, black communities in seven eastern cities had been hit by rebellions, the most important being in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City. As the McCone commission formed after the Watts Rebellion noted, the main causes of these rebellions were largely the same: “Not enough jobs to go around .... Not enough schooling…. A resentment, even hatred, of the police, as the symbol of authority.” All these rebellions, added the commission, “…started over a police incident…. In each of the 1964 riots, ‘police brutality’ was an issue, as it was here.”
High unemployment, inadequate schools, nonexistent healthcare, high prices for shoddy or bad quality products in stores, and above all, abject racial discrimination, in addition to police brutality formed the grievances, frustrations and discontent of the black community.
These conditions were produced in part by restricted housing available to the black population. During the 1940s, in the Second Great Migration, black people moved from the South to the West Coast in large numbers in response to defense industry recruitment at the start of World War II. The black population in Los Angeles increased almost tenfold from 75,000 in 1940 to 650,000 in 1965. Close to 90 percent of this population resided in the 46.5 square miles of South Central Los Angeles that included the Watts neighborhood.
This cramming of the black population into one area was not accidental. Los Angeles – like the rest of the Northern cities – had restrictive racial covenants that prevented blacks from renting and buying in certain areas, even long after the courts ruled them illegal in 1948. Black people found themselves excluded from the suburbs and restricted to housing in East or South Los Angeles.
LAPD “proactively” policed this area. That is, the police harassed thousands of young black men in the street or beat them at the South Central police stations. One South Central activist, Ted Watkins observed: “Many times, I’d see a white policeman drop-kick a guy and laugh and say ‘Well, this is the first nigger I’ve kicked today.’ I’ve seen that with my own eyes.” In the two-year period from 1963 to 1965, the police killed sixty black people, twenty-seven of whom were shot in the back.
Chief William Parker, a blatant racist, ran the LAPD. Parker explained poverty the following way: “You cannot ignore the genes in the behavior pattern of people.”
That’s why the people of Watts exploded collectively. And when they did, the police, so ready to batter individuals, couldn’t contain them. LAPD Chief Parker announced during the rebellion, “This situation is very much like fighting the Viet Cong…. We haven’t the slightest idea when this can be brought under control.” Parker was forced to call the California Army National Guard. Starting from August 13, California sent close to 16,000 guards to South Central to quell the rebellion. Bob Hipolito, one of those Guardsmen, later told the Los Angeles Times how they were picked up: “They sent us in first ‘cause we were the only all-white unit. There were other units closer but they decided they didn’t know what the reaction would be to interracial troops - at least that was what we heard.” So, the State treated this uprising as a racial warfare.
Eventually the rebellion died down starting on the sixth day.
For a short period, jobs began to open up and social programs flooded money into the ghetto. But these were only temporary. The real gain of the Watts Rebellion was the sense of power people got. Tommy Jacquette, 40 years later, summed up to the Los Angeles Times what this rebellion was about: “I actually participated in the revolt of ‘65, not as an onlooker but as a participant. People keep calling it a riot, but we call it a revolt because it had a legitimate purpose. It was a response to police brutality and social exploitation of a community and of a people, and we would no more call this a riot than Jewish people would call the extermination of the Jewish people ‘relocation.’ A riot is a drunken brawl at USC because they lost a football game. People said that we burned down our community. No, we didn’t. We had a revolt in our community against those people who were in here trying to exploit and oppress us. We did not own this community. We did not own the businesses in this community. We did not own the majority of the housing in this community. Some people want to know if I think it was really worth it. I think any time people stand up for their rights, it’s worth it.”