The term Watts Riots of 1965 refers to a large-scale race riot which lasted 6 days in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, in August 1965. By the time the riot subsided, 34 people had been killed, 1,032 injured, and 3,952 arrested. It would stand as the worst riot in Los Angeles history until eclipsed by the Los Angeles riots of 1992.
The riots began on August 11, 1965, in Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, when Lee Minikus, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, pulled over Marquette Frye, who Minikus believed was intoxicated because of his observed erratic driving. Frye failed to pass sobriety tests; including walking in a straight line and touching his nose, and was arrested soon after. Minikus refused to let Frye's brother, Ronald, drive the car home, and radioed for it to be impounded. As events escalated, a crowd of onlookers steadily grew from dozens to hundreds. The mob became violent, throwing rocks and other objects while shouting at the police officers. A struggle ensued shortly resulting in the arrest of Frye, Ronald, and their mother.
Though the riots began in August, there had previously been a build up of racial tension in the area. The riots that began on August 11 resulted from an amalgamation of such events in Watts and the arrest of three Frye family members broke the tension as violence spilled onto the streets of Watts for six days.
After the news and emerging rumors spread from the angry mob to other residents, aggressive acts of violence broke out across the city making Watts a serious danger zone. Watts suffered from various forms and degrees of damage from the looting, fighting, and vandalism that seriously threatened the security of the city. Some participants chose to intensify the level of violence by starting physical fights with police, blocking the firemen of the Los Angeles Fire Department from their safety duties, or even beating white motorists. Others joined the riot by breaking into stores, stealing whatever they could, and some setting the stores themselves on fire. The majority of the residents simply wandered the streets choosing to encourage the active rioters and give the police a difficult time rather than getting directly involved. A few did not join in the violence at all just choosing to continue their daily routine while observing the chaos.  LAPD Police Chief William Parker also fueled the radicalized tension that already threatened to combust, by publicly labeling the people he saw involved in the riots as "monkeys in the zoo".  Overall, an estimate of 40 million dollars in damage was caused as almost 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Most of the physical damage was confined to white-owned businesses that were said to have caused resentment in the neighborhood due to perceived unfairness. Homes were not attacked, although some caught fire due to proximity to other fires.
Wednesday, August 11
- A white California highway patrolman, Lee Minikus, arrested Marquette Frye at around 7 p.m. after Frye failed his sobriety tests.
- By 7:23 all three Fryes -- Marquette, his brother Ronald, and their mother -- had been arrested as a crowd of a couple hundred gathered around the scene.
- The police withdrew by 7:40, leaving behind an angered, tense crowd.
- For the last 4 hours of the night, the mob stoned cars and threatened police in the area.
Thursday, August 12
- Black leaders such as preachers, teachers, and businessmen tried to restore order in the community after a night of rampage, telling people to stay indoors.
- Around 10 a.m. community workers and officers called residents in the area, telling them to remain in their houses.
- At 2 p.m. a community meeting was held, at which members representing different neighborhood groups, discussed solutions to the problem at hand – the meeting failed.
- At 5 p.m. the Police Chief, William Parker, after learning the meeting had failed, called the California National Guard in Sacramento to let them know he may need the guard to come in and help to control the situation.
Friday, August 13
- At 8 a.m. rioting grew in the business district and Parker called in the guard due to the absence of the governor.
- At 5 p.m. the lieutenant governor signed a proclamation officially calling the guard.
- First death during the riots occurred between 6 and 7 p.m. and events escalated, and police were shooting at rioters.
- Troops were deployed at 10 p.m.
Saturday, August 14
- By 1 a.m. there were around 100 fire brigades in the areas, trying to put out fires started by rioters.
- Over 3,000 national guardsmen had joined the police by this time in trying to maintain order on the streets.
- By midnight there were around 13,900 guardsmen in the area.
- A curfew was set at 8 p.m. to keep people inside their houses – allowing the government officials to gain more control of the situation.
Sunday, August 15
- The riots died down, leaving around $40 million in property damage.
- Churches, community groups, and government agencies gave out aid.
- The vandalism ceased and the curfew was lifted by Tuesday, August 17
- By the following Sunday, a week later, less than 300 national guardsmen remained to help out with the aftermath.
|Businesses & Private Buildings||Public Buildings||Total|
|Damaged/burned: 257||Damaged/burned: 14|
|Looted: 192||Destroyed: 1|
|Both damaged/burned & looted: 288|
|Destroyed: 267||Total: 977|
Eventually, the California National Guard was called to active duty to assist in controlling the rioting. On Friday night, a battalion of the 160th Infantry and the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron of the 18th Armored Cavalry were sent into the riot area (about 2,000 men). Two days later, the remainder of the 40th Armored Division was sent into the riot zone. A day after that, units from northern California arrived (a total of around 15,000 troops). These National Guardsmen put a cordon around a vast region of South Central Los Angeles, and for all intents and purposes the rioting was over by Sunday. Due to the seriousness of the riots, martial law had been declared.reference required The initial commander of National Guard troops was Colonel Bud Taylor, then a motorcycle patrolman with the Los Angeles Police Department, who in effect became superior to Chief of Police Parker. National Guard units from Northern California were also called in, including Major General Clarence H. Pease, former commanding general of the National Guard's 49th Infantry Division.
Watts: then and now
Since this area was known to be under much racial and social tension, debates have surfaced over what really happened in Watts. Reactions and reasoning about the Watts incident greatly vary because those affected by and participated in the chaos that followed the original arrest were from a diverse crowd. The government tried to help by releasing The McCone Report, claiming that it was a detailed study of the riot, but it turned out to be a short summary with just 15 pages of the report devoted to actually describing the whole event. More opinions and explanations then appeared as other sources attempted to explain the causes as well. Public opinion polls have showed that around the same percentage of people believed that the riots were linked to Communist groups as those that blame social problems like unemployment and prejudice as the cause. Those opinions concerning racism and discrimination emerged only three years after hearings conducted by a committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights took place in Los Angeles to assess the condition of relations between the police force and minorities. The purpose of these hearings was also to make a ruling on the discrimination case against the police for their mistreatment of Black Muslims. These different arguments and opinions still continue to promote these debates over the underlying cause of Watts Riots. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke two days after the riots happened in Watts.
A California gubernatorial commission investigated the riots, identifying the causes as high unemployment, poor schools, and other inferior living conditions. Subsequently, the government made little effort to address the problems or repair damages. The riots were also a response to Proposition 14, a constitutional amendment sponsored by the California Real Estate Association that had in effect repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act. Today, Watts still faces problems of poverty, crime, and poor education, but racial issues and the violence it has caused have decreased considerably since the outbreak of the riots.
- Cohen, Jerry and William S. Murphy, Burn, Baby, Burn! The Los Angeles Race Riot, August 1965, New York: Dutton, 1966.
- Conot, Robert, Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness, New York: Bantam, 1967.
- Guy Debord, Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy, 1965. A situationist interpretation of the riots
- Horne, Gerald, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.
- Thomas Pynchon, "A Journey into the Mind of Watts", 1966. full text
- Violence in the City -- An End or a Beginning?, A Report by the Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965, John McCone, Chairman, Warren M. Christopher, Vice Chairman. Official Report online\
- David O' Sears The politics of violence: The new urban Blacks and the Watts riot
- Clayton D. Clingan Watts Riots
- Paul Bullock Watts: The Aftermath New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1969
- The book little scarlet takes place during the race riots
- Johny Otis Listen to the Lambs. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.. 1968
- 1 Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
- Oberschall, Anthony. "The Los Angeles Riot of August 1965" Social Problems 15.3 (1968): 322-341.
- Jeffries,Vincent & Ransford, H. Edward. "Interracial Social Contact and Middle-Class White Reaction to the Watts Riot". Social Problems 16.3 (1969): 312-324.
- Tracy Domingo, Miracle at Malibu Materialized, Graphic, November 14, 2002
- Division of Fair Employment Practices, California Department of Industrial Relations (1966). Negroes and Mexican Americans in South and East Los Angeles. San Francisco: State of California, Division of Fair Employment Practices, 2.