In the summer of 1965, a routine traffic stop unleashed a torrent of pent-up anger in the Black community of Watts in Los Angeles. The resulting uprising lasted from Aug. 11-17, took 34 lives and left over a thousand people injured. Fifty-one years later, many of the circumstances and systemic injustices that inspired the Watts Rebellion, and similar instances across the country, in the 1960s are still affecting this community today. Only an honest examination of these issues and commitment to changing them can prevent similar occurrences in the future.
The community of Watts became a largely African-American community during World War II when hundreds of thousands of Black migrants left the South and moved west, hoping to take advantage of jobs in the defense sector. Segregation, discriminatory hiring practices, and lack of public transportation instead caused many of these new migrants to become trapped in a cycle of poverty. And after the war, many of those who were fortunate enough to have found jobs during the boom, were unable to make ends meet when employment opportunities eventually dried up.
Harassment, and even violence, from an overwhelmingly White police force also played a role in raising tensions in the Watts area. But perhaps the final straw that broke the back of many looking to achieve the American dream in the Golden State was repeal of the 1963 California Fair Housing Act. Otherwise known as the Rumford Act after Assemblyman William Byron Rumford, who sponsored the bill, the act called for the end of racial discrimination in both public and private housing. Up until this point racial inequity was rampant in the housing market with African Americans confined to ghettoized neighborhoods by redlining processes, denied access to legitimate loans through the FHA and only able to purchase housing by relying on private lenders who were often only out to make money for themselves. As Ta-Nehesi Coates says in his now famous article in The Atlantic, “A Case for Reparations“: “Whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who [swindled] them for money and for sport.”
Initially the Rumford Act hoped to change these discriminatory practices, but legislators largely gutted the act, insisting that they would only vote for the bill if it applied to public housing and apartment homes, rather than houses. Even with this major concession, it was eventually repealed by the Supreme Court, due largely to a campaign launched by the California Real Estate Association.
With so much stacked against them and so much disappointment South Los Angeles was ripe for unrest and it only took the smallest incident to ignite the frustration and anger simmering below the surface. By all accounts the police had reasonable cause to pull over Marquette Frye on the night the riots began. He was suspected of drunk driving and failed a sobriety test at the scene. It wasn’t until his family appeared that the trouble started, with witnesses claiming that the police unfairly abused and arrested Rena and Ronald Frye, Marquette’s mother and step brother, as well as accounts that they assaulted a pregnant woman who had stopped to witness the arrest. Though the LAPD denied these charges and no pregnant woman ever came forward claiming to be the victim of the alleged abuse (Frye’s mother denied that she had been abused by police, though Marquette himself did suffer a baton blow to the head), the disturbances had already started.
The violence in Watts raged on for nearly a week and the presence of the National Guard, who were called in on the second day to bring order, only seemed to make the situation worse. The majority of the people who died over the next six days were killed by police, a fact which only served to further enrage residents. In the aftermath, the country was left wondering how things had gotten so bad and what needed to be done to prevent similar unrest in the future.
Sadly, many of the injustices that the African-American community faced during the time of the Watts riots still persist to this day. Police violence against African-Americans is still a major issue, with an average of two Black people killed by police every a week according to a seven year study headed by the FBI. Poverty is also still rampant in the community and still due to large part to systemic racism, unfair housing practices and job discrimination, as well as disproportionate arrests and sentencing of people of color.
Watts itself still deals with one of the highest crime rates in the city of Los Angeles, as well as widespread poverty. However, the demographics of the city are changing rapidly, with more Latino and Asian immigrants moving into what was once a majority African-American neighborhood.
These long standing injustices promote a profound distrust in the justice system and the government. Whether these issues are a resurgence of the ingrained racism the past or just the illumination of problems that never really abated, conditions seem ripe for the kind of unrest that was seen during the Watts era.
Yet the majority of the current protests against the rash of police violence and widespread injustice, have remained relatively peaceful. Black Lives Matter protestors across the country have demonstrated peacefully, organizing rallies, public acknowledgments for the dead and traffic stopping sit-ins, but with a few high visibility exceptions, have garnered mostly local media attention and little in the way of positive response from outside of the community. On the other hand, incidents such as the riots in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray or the recent sniper attack in Dallas, seem to garner much more media attention—and calls to action. What’s more incidents like the unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson led to investigations by the Department of Justice which found proof of police violence and discrimination against African-Americans in both cases.
What will be done with these findings remains to be seen, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that in both of these cases, rioting seemed to produce more concrete results. By contrast, the nonviolent protests that have gone on across the country have largely been ignored, criticized or brushed off as public nuisances, even by people within the Black community. It seems that even though everyone agrees that violence is not the answer to issues of systemic injustice, nonviolent protests just don’t lead to the same outcomes as violent ones.
Looking forward to the next 50 years we must ask ourselves not only what future we’d like to see in terms of social justice for all people, but how we would like to get there. Supporting and encouraging young activists and grassroots organizations such as The Movement for Black Lives, as they come up with more creative, and ideally more successful, forms of nonviolent protest seems a much better avenue than a repeat of the events of 1965.