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Watts Riots: After 55 years, ghosts of violent race uprising that rocked Black LA neighborhood still haunt USA

The Watts riots of 1965 was a week-long fight against racial intolerance and police brutality just as the current scenario in the US
A National Guard jeep patrols the Watts section of Los Angeles (Getty Images)
A National Guard jeep patrols the Watts section of Los Angeles (Getty Images)

The protests that ensued after the death of George Floyd in May with demands to end police brutality and centuries-long systemic racism is a stark reminder that African-Americans have endured these atrocities for a very long time. Every major state across the nation saw demonstrators filing into the streets chanting 'Black Lives Matter' with the aim of bringing justice to the fallen brethren in the Black community who had been subject to bigotry and met an unfair end. This isn't the first time in history that protests seeking justice for African-Americans broke out, but it surely is among those that have been especially peaceful, impactful, and ceaseless. The George Floyd protests are still underway, over two months later. 

August 11, 1965 was like any other day in the segregated Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. Civil rights activists deemed the overcrowded locality the 'Black ghetto', with a 98 percent African-American population. Just like they are today, even back then, people were largely distrustful of the police. So, when a White California Highway Patrol officer Lee Minikus tried to arrest Marquette Frye, a young Black man, for driving drunk in the Watts neighborhood, it was the last straw for the community. The event raised the ire of fellow Black Americans and resulted in an uprising -- one of the most violent ones of its kind -- which famously came to be known as the 'Watts Riots'.

8/13/1965-Los Angeles: African-American residents of the Watts district look over damage early following the second night of wild rioting. Molotov cocktails were hurled at cars and buildings. More than 100 persons were injured including comedian Dick Gregory who was shot in the leg (Getty Images)

The protests that erupted was sparked by the attempted arrest, but fueled by the various problems the Watts residents had been facing including brutality at the hands of the police, high unemployment rates and limited access to health care. The riots lasted a whole week and saw a surge in violence like never before. Fires leveled hundreds of buildings and some three-dozen people lost their lives, two-thirds of whom were shot by police of National Guard troopers. Most of the buildings in Watts dated back decades to when the area was still predominantly white. 

55 years ago, Watts was a powder keg of segregated racial tension, despite being legally integrated. The high school at Watts comprised a 99 percent Black student population but like many services available to the neighborhood, the school wasn't exactly serving them well. “Watts is the kind of community that cries out for urban renewal, poverty programs, job training. Almost anything would help. Two-thirds of its residents have less than a high school education; one-eighth of them are technically illiterate,” Time magazine wrote in a 1965 cover story about the Watts riots. “Only 13% of the homes have been built since 1939—the rest are decaying and dilapidated.”

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses a group of Watts district residents and tells them he is "here to support you because you supported me in the South". King spoke only a few blocks away from the worst damage left in the wake of the week-long rampage during the Watts Riots of 1965 (Getty Images)

Each month, 1,000 hopeful Black Americans came to Los Angeles, mostly to Watts, in search of job opportunities but in vain. The federal government's Office of Economic Opportunity, under the office of President John F Kennedy, criticized then Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty, for running the only major US city without an anti-poverty program. The federal body, run by Kennedy's brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, also called Yorty out for being one of the only two big-city mayors to refuse a confidential offer of federal grants towards job programs.

“I think the real cause is that N***o youth—jobless, hopeless—does not feel a part of American society,” movement leader Bayard Rustin told Time magazine. “The major job we have is to find them work, decent housing, education, training, so they can feel a part of the structure. People who feel a part of the structure do not attack it.” Time also estimated that the same federal program had created 4,000 jobs to keep Harlem, New York calm that summer, despite the unrest that had unfolded the previous year. Yorty's response was to accuse Shriver's agency of withholding the federal funds. 

National Guard troops (Getty Images)

Another catalyst that drove this violent insurgence in the sprawling suburb was the scorching temperatures that had risen each day past 90 degrees Fahrenheit. But people were beyond enraged with law enforcement that was more like an oppressor than a protector of the law. A Time magazine article published a week later pinpointed LA police chief William Parker who demeaningly compared Watts rioters to "monkeys in a zoo." Even Dr Martin Luther King Jr said at that time that “[there] is a unanimous feeling that there has been police brutality” in Watts, despite a 1962 Civil Rights Commission investigations inability to pinpoint any specific instances. 

The Watts riots were certainly not the end of interracial violence and demonstrations in Los Angeles. The city has been a boiling pot of racial and ethnic tensions since its inception. But the tipping point was the event of 1965 and by then, Watts was a largely Black town near South Central Los Angeles. The riots have also been deemed as among the worst in a series of riots that broke out in more than 100 cities in the late 1960s. It is also essential to note that the violence exploded in poor neighborhoods and areas concentrated with deprived minorities. The rioters' response to injustice was arson, looting as well as fighting with motorists, firemen, and the police.