AHoffman.com - We're here to help you find the usual, the  unusual and possibly... the who cares.  

Home     4


Watts Riots

When California Highway Patrol Officer Lee Minikus pulled over Los Angeles transplant Marquette Frye on Wednesday, August 11, 1965, it began as an ordinary traffic stop.  Another motorist had pointed out Frye’s erratic driving, and Minikus confirmed that the young African-American man had been drinking.  A crowd had gathered to watch the proceedings, additional officers had been called in, and Frye’s mood had progressively soured as he realized that his attempts to talk himself out of arrest were becoming increasingly futile.  Ronald Frye, who had been in the car with his older brother, attempted to talk the police out of towing the vehicle.  Further reinforcements arrived to handle an increasingly involved assemblage, and one officer mistook Marquette’s frantic behavior and Ronald’s heated negotiations for attacks on the police.  The incident quickly became violent as Officer Wayne Wilson dispatched both brothers with force.  Word spread through the crowd to the nearby home of the boys’ mother, and Rena Frye arrived just in time to witness the first blows.  All three members of the family were taken away for resisting arrest, but the issue of the now dangerous crowd remained.  Bystanders shouted out about the abuse of blacks at the hands of white cops.  One observer, Gabriel Pope, threw a glass bottle and struck the rear fender of Sergeant Richard Rankin’s patrol car (Conot, 1-29).  The shattering of the glass marked the official beginning of the Watts Riot.


    When the smoke cleared on August 17, 1965, thirty-four people were dead and roughly one thousand buildings had been damaged or looted (Blumberg, 163).  Containing the uprising had required more security personnel than had American military involvement in the Dominican Republic earlier that same year (Horne, 3).  The national guardsmen and police officers involved had ended up sealing off a Curfew Zone one and one-half times the island of Manhattan (Blumberg, 163).  The total damage was figured to have amounted to somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000,000 (Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1).  With such frightening statistics in mind, the rest of America was left to wonder how a routine drunk-driving arrest could have escalated into six days of looting, rioting, sniping, and vandalism.  Even more incongruous with the destruction of those one hundred forty-four hours was the fact that, in the eyes of many, the 1960s had seen great advancements on the behalf of blacks.  A government commission was quickly assembled, chaired by and named for former CIA director John A. McCone.  Even this official report seemed shocked that the denizens of Watts could find anything to riot over, concluding that neighborhood was ‘neither a slum nor an urban gem’ (Governor’s Commission, 83).  While the McCone Commission Report was “a bold departure from the standard government paper on social problems,” it reflected the “errors and misconceptions” of much of middle-class America in its treatment of “the realities of the Watts riots” (Rustin, 149).


    The realities of life in Watts had been very different from life in the white urban metropolises of the United States for decades.  Indeed, even compared to other American ghettos, Watts had a unique history.  Around the time of World War I, Watts was “the home of a few thousand European immigrants” (O’Toole, 48).  These years saw a wave of black migration to the adjoining area of Furlough Track, popularly referred to by the generic name “Mudtown,” a title applied to the collections of lean-tos and shanties erected by black migrants near many Northern cities.  The wartime boom swelled Furlough Track’s population and quality of life.  At the same time as Watts and its neighbor were beginning to merge, growing prosperity allowed Los Angeles to extend to the south and annex the newly unified Watts (O’Toole, 48).  The construction of the Panama Canal, signifying that the United States would come to play a greater role in the affairs of the Pacific, also helped to draw more blacks seeking life in a major Western city to the Los Angeles area (Horne, 26).  World War II drew a still larger wave of blacks to the district; indeed, one hundred thousand came to California seeking positions in aircraft factories and other defense plants (O’Toole, 48).  The end of the war and the advent of the Red Scare were to fundamentally alter this somewhat propitious state of black life, however.

    These postbellum years hurt black progress in Watts greatly.  Nationwide, the unemployment of black youth increased greatly out of proportion with that of white youth between the years of 1954 and 1966 (Blumberg, 162).  In the Watts area specifically, however, black unemployment paralleled the figure for Southern blacks by the early 1950s and lagged behind whites (O’Toole, 48).  Even more damage was still to be done by the domestic workings of the Cold War.  Whereas Los Angeles had once “possessed one of the stronger left and progressive movements in the nation” prior to the struggle against Communism, “the repression of the left created an ideological vacuum that would later be filled by black nationalism” (Horne, 3-4).  The keys to the county’s liberal stance, the working class and the black community, became cut off from a valuable means of political expression once progressive viewpoints were suppressed.  Essentially trapped in Watts, a neighborhood many of the middle-class blacks futilely sought a way out of, the majority of blacks in Los Angeles faced institutions seemingly overrun by an ever-increasing (and increasingly frustrated) population (Horne, 31).  Trade unions and civil rights organizations, two categories of association which would have been especially useful at the time due to the changing circumstances of life in the growing metropolis, were severely limited in their usefulness by the anti-Red stance adopted following World War II.


    The residents of Watts also underwent a transformation during these years.  America’s black population underwent very large demographic changes during the twentieth century, especially following World War I.  One of the largest changes during these years was northernization; by the time of the riot, Southern migrants no longer outnumbered Northern natives in America’s cities (Sears and McConahay, 35-36).  In Watts, the accompanying changes in politicization and urbanization resulted in a generation characterized by some as the “New Urban Blacks” (Sears and McConahay, 34).  “Under 30, native to Los Angeles, and better educated than most blacks,”  the New Urban Blacks were characterized by “more positive black identity…more generalized political disaffection, and more political sophistication than older, southern migrant, rural, or less educated blacks” (Sears and McConahay, 88).  The realities of the life and people of Watts clearly flew in the face of the judgment of the McCone commission, which had emphasized the “riffraff theory.”  This idea sought to construe the Watts incident as “a manifestation of problems of poverty,” rather than of race (Fogelson, 118-119).  Such an interpretation of the riot relied on preconceived notions of ghetto life and a steadfast refusal to deviate from the values of middle-class, white America, values which stressed that violence could never be considered to be a legitimate form of political expression.


    This would come to be the dominant view on the Watts riots.  While the legitimate problems of ghetto life were given lip-service, the racist housing policies of Detroit, Los Angeles, and other major Northern cities were ignored, as were other problems related to a system of institutional racism (Sugrue, 552-553).  Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, significant portions of the white population viewed the riots extremely negatively and suspected outside agitation (Blumberg, 168).  Three hundred race riots would strike America between 1964 and 1968, and the official consensus was that none of them had been the result of conspiracies (Blumberg, 167).  While even the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover at the time, agreed that the riots were not inspired by communists, conservative America quickly began a backlash against the Civil Rights movement (O’Reilly, 96).  More militant leaders who supported the urban uprisings, such as Stokely Carmicheal and H. Rap Brown, were accused of having conspired to bring violence down on America’s cities (Blumberg, 166).  Even the most moderate and accommodating figures in the movement were accused of raising the expectations of blacks to unreasonable levels (Governor’s Commission, 93-94).


    Watts held a very different meaning for blacks, however.  The rioters were hardly the dregs of society gone out of control:  “between 31,000 and 35,000 adults…were active as rioters at some time during the week-long upheaval” (Sears and McConahay, 13).  This fact, coupled with the reality that many blacks hoped that the riots would draw more attention to the racial problems of urban life in America, shows that participant and observer alike viewed the riot as having far more political significance than the status quo was willing to concede (Blumberg, 168).  Indeed, activist Bayard Rustin tells of a youth who told him that Watts meant blacks had won because they had earned attention (Rustin, 150).  This mindset was the result of the very specific metamorphosis which had transpired in America’s cities during the early decades of the twentieth century.  By the 1960s, there existed a generation of blacks willing, due to a combination of circumstance and disaffection, to utilize violence as a means to a political end.  While studying the Watts Riot does not necessarily require the justification of this perspective, understanding the minds of the people involved is essential to making any sense out of the event.  To the members of the McCone Commission and white America as a whole, Watts simply could not be political.  It needed to be viewed as “a formless, quite senseless, all but hopeless violent protest,” because to do otherwise would have implicated Los Angeles in what went on in Watts (Governor’s Commission, 4-5).  Indeed, if Watts is to be considered a political act, than so are all of America’s race riots.  This implicates almost all of America’s major cities in the conditions of their ghettoes and reveals disturbing truths about the reality of life as an urban minority. 

Send mail to webmaster@ahoffman.com with questions or comments about this web site.   
Copyright © 2003 AHoffman.com     `    Last modified: April 11, 2015 T