Observing Los Angeles

Watts + 50 years: The media reflects

King-solomon-church.jpgKing Solomon Baptist Church in Watts. LA Observed photo

On August 11 1965, a California Highway Patrol officer stopped Marquette Frye at Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street and tried to arrest him. A crowd that included Frye's mother gathered. Backup officers used force to take Frye and others into custody. The crowd didn't like what they saw and began scuffling with police. Descriptions of the scene circulated in the neighborhood that were worse than what actually occurred, and more people in the area came out on the streets. The Watts Riots of 1965 were on.

Over six days, 34 people died. There were 1,032 injuries and 3,438 arrests made. Across a 46-square-mile area much, much bigger than Watts, businesses were burned totaling more than $40 million in damage. And the world discovered that sunny Los Angeles had a vast African-American ghetto where the police were deeply mistrusted and public services and opportunity were measurably worse than in the rest of the city. The McCone Commission issued "Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965," calling for "emergency literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing, more job-training projects, upgraded health-care services, more efficient public transportation" and much more.

50 years later, a lot has changed in Watts and South Los Angeles and much hasn't. Here is some of the anniversary reflection:

  • Erin Aubry Kaplan in Los Angeles Magazine, with a photo-portfolio by Joaquin Trujillo.
  • watts-community-garden-lamag.jpgWe paid homage. We flocked to the summer festivals and the annual parade. Ted Watkins, the founder of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, delivered a solemn speech to my third-grade class at 93rd Street School about change and uplift and moving forward. The Wattstax concert at the Coliseum in 1972 was instantly legendary, a triumphant musical expression of a time when black people unified fairly easily over causes such as police brutality, poverty, education. Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital was built, followed some years later by Drew University, boosting Watts’s stature as a long-aggrieved black place that could indeed transform, at least in some ways. For a few shining years Watts seemed to be living the L.A. creed of reinvention and shedding an unworkable past.

    Watts wasn’t glamorous. I sensed it never would be. But it evidenced possibility and hope. It showed black people to themselves, reminding us at key moments that the good life had less to do with swimming pools and two-car garages than with attaining justice for all….

    Fifty years on, Watts remains a contradiction: Things have changed dramatically there, and they have changed too little. As exhibit A in the ongoing demographic shift from black to Latino in Greater Los Angeles, Watts is at once an emblem of black resistance and of black resilience (Latinos now make up more than 60 percent of the population). The narrative of black struggle and pride is alive, but it’s been subsumed. The hospital that had for decades stood as a monument to the struggle, and as proof of positive change, was closed in 2007 after an onslaught of press coverage exposed malfeasance and substandard care; a new clinic is opening this summer, but it’s about a third the size, far smaller than needed.

  • Watts' elders reflect on riots' legacy: Too much change or not enough? Sandy Banks column in the LA Times
  • Progress can be a touchy subject for black people who came of age in South Los Angeles during the era of the Watts riots.

    The uprising that started 50 years ago Tuesday exposed rampant disadvantage and raging anger — and spawned a host of programs that were supposed to remedy both.

    But once the fear and sympathy of outsiders faded, the remedies evaporated. Over the next few decades, optimism was snuffed out by murderous street gangs and the scourge of crack cocaine.

    "Are our grandchildren doing better? I don't think so," said 87-year-old Woodrow Reed, who moved to Watts in 1943 from a farm in Arkansas.

  • Watts, 50 Years On, Stands in Contrast to Today’s Conflicts. NYT
  • Confrontations between African-Americans and the police are once again convulsing the country; in Ferguson, Mo., where protesters gathered over the weekend to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown and the riots that ensued, a gunman fired at the police on Sunday night and was shot, and other gunfire and skirmishes broke out. But Watts — once a symbol of urban strife and racial tensions — stands as a stark contrast. There were fewer than a dozen homicides in the neighborhood last year, compared with hundreds in 1965. Community leaders like Mr. Joubert, a former gang leader turned peacemaker and respected mentor, say relations with the police have never been better.

    “They don’t think the kid is out to kill them; they’re not out to kill the kid,” Mr. Joubert said. “They walk and they know who they are talking to. We’ve been through this before, we’re still kind of recovering and saying there’s another way.”

    Still, this is no utopia.

  • UCLA professor Robin D.G. Kelley on how a civil society arose in Watts before and after the unrest. LA Times op-ed
  • A focus on violence and looting reduces the people of Watts to “rioters” rather than residents confronting social and economic catastrophe. What they burned is less important than what they built, both before and after the insurrection….

    The rebellion grew not from chaos but from a mobilized community seeking change. And six days of violence could not destroy the community or its institutions, although they did change in character.

    The earlier civil rights orientation gave way to a political culture of Black Power and cultural alternatives to middle-class assimilation. Just two months after the rebellion, in October 1965, activists converted an abandoned furniture store on 103rd Street into the Watts Happening Coffee House, which doubled as a gallery and performance space. Two years later, it housed a black cultural academy called the Mafundi Institute.

    Also soon after the rebellion, radicalized street gangs formed the Sons of Watts and later joined the Black Panther Party. Ex-gang banger Ron Wilkins created the Community Alert Patrol to monitor police and document misconduct. Maulana Karenga and Hakim Jamal founded US organization, which promoted African culture and the teachings of Malcolm X as a path to political unity and community revitalization.

    The new political culture was not without contradictions. Feuds erupted between cultural nationalists, radicals and liberals, and some of the new leaders spewed misogynistic rhetoric. Civil society, however, flourished.

  • Los Angeles firefighters took photos during the riots that were placed in the city archives and only re-discovered last year. After being found by an intern, 40 of the photos were compiled into a video by the city archives and posted to YouTube. Backstory at the Daily News.

  • Author and retired LAPD office Joseph Wambaugh on the view from inside a police black and white. LA Times op-ed
  • The three helmeted partners meet up in the parking lot. They don't know one another or the geography in this part of southeast L.A….

    The sun is still high and they are not three blocks from the station, passing mobs on both sides of Broadway, when a chunk of concrete smashes the rear window of their car. A cheer goes up from 100 people at the corner of 81st Street, daring them to stop and investigate. Another 100 yell and jeer from the opposite corner.

    The cop riding shotgun turns up the radio and they hear the frantic female operators:

    “Officer needs help, Manchester and Broadway! Officer needs assistance, one-O-three and Grape! Officer needs assistance, Vernon and Central! Looting, five-eight and Hoover!”

    Another operator cuts in: “Looters, four-three and Main! Looting, one-O-five and Avalon! Shots fired, four-three and Main!”

    And then something happens that none of the cops in the car has ever heard before. The stress overload gets to one of the operators and she starts sobbing.

  • Norman E. Edelen was a black LAPD officer working in South LA's 77th Street division in 1965. He remembers with Patt Morrison in the LA Times.
  • There were six black cops in 77th and I made the seventh. We were uneven numbers, and because black and white cops didn't work together [in patrol cars], they put me on the desk.

    The day before I had to report, I went to 77th to familiarize myself with the station. I pulled into the lot, went in the back door and down the hall, and boom — I'm hammer-locked into the wall. The officer said, "How many times do I have to tell you people not to come in this station?" The cop who'd been at the door smoking when I came in said, "He's a cop from Wilshire," and [the other officer] released me.

    When I checked in, I opened my locker and there was a shrunken head with an NAACP bumper sticker. I just threw it in the trash.

    You should've seen the bulletin board. You'd think it was the bulletin board for the Klan. There was a picture of Sammy Davis Jr. when he married [Swedish actress May Britt]. They put "nigger lover" on it. We'd pull that stuff down; by the time we'd come back in, it'd all be back up. Wherever a black cop sat in roll call at 77th, no white cop would sit in that aisle.

  • Angelenos recount what lit up the powder keg. KPCC Airtalk
  • For younger Californians and new Californians who have little knowledge or understanding of what transpired 50 years ago, AirTalk hosts an historical primer on the riots.

    What were the demographic and economic realities of the time? Why did a police stop of a young man spur six days of rioting over miles of LA that culminated in $200 million in fire damage alone? And, in the aftermath, how did it impact politics of Angelenos?

  • Los Angeles Times editorial: Not enough has changed.
  • For decades after the violence that broke out following a traffic stop on Aug. 11, 1965, “Watts” became a byword for urban dysfunction and a euphemism for African American communities in Los Angeles, wherever they were. Yet the traffic stop was outside Watts, the violence started outside Watts and the community assets that were offered as a salve — the new medical center, the new high school — also were built outside of Watts proper. Watts bore the stigma and got too little in return.

    By the 1990s, “South Central” had become the euphemism, but the pattern was disturbingly familiar. The police beating of Rodney King took place in the San Fernando Valley, and the 1992 violence was citywide. But South Los Angeles was branded as the locus of dysfunction.

  • Larry Harnisch, a Los Angeles Times copy editor and LA historian, debunked a media myth that the Times did not send white reporters into the riot zone and dispatched a black advertising staffer, Bob Richardson, into a reporter. The Times won a Pulitzer for its riot coverage. He quotes the late reporter Charles Hillinger. Daily Mirror blog
  • The morning after the riot erupted I was sent to where it all started. Accompanying my story was a photo showing me interviewing a group of Black residents who were witness to the start of the riot.

    Like [Eric] Malnic I worked the riot from then until it finally ended. The Times didn’t seek out Richardson to have a Black go into the area. Richardson, a messenger for the ad dept. came into the city room late on the second night right from the scene where all hell had broken out to tell us he was caught in the middle of the riot.

    The desk had Richardson talk to me and I wrote a story based on his eyewitness account. It was decided to make my story a first person piece with Richardson’s byline. That was the first time anything from him appeared in the paper. It had nothing to do with white reporters not covering the story.

    I worked with different photogs throughout the riot, Ray Graham, Dick Oliver and Bruce Cox. As Eric noted, angry mobs gave us a bad time verbally. But no one threw anything at us or our car.

    Also: The LAT's Framework blog runs photos of the staff that covered the riots.

  • CBS: "Granddaddy of civil disturbance": The Watts riots, 50 years later
  • NPR: Out Of Long-Gone Rubble Of The Watts Riots, Scars And Signs Of Healing
  • KQED: The L.A. Rebellion: How the Watts Riots Helped Spark a Cinematic Revolution
  • What the Watts Riots Could Teach Us About Future Fergusons. John McWhorter/Time

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