Dubian Ade

Brief Histories: The Watts Riots

Dubian Ade
Brief Histories: The Watts Riots

"We rioted because the white man was doin the Negros-- they was taking what the Negros had-- all they had just about-- and I had enough of it."

On a hot Wednesday night August 11, 1965 a 21-year-old Black man named Marquette Frye along with his brother Ronald Frye were pulled over at a routine traffic stop by a white police officer. The stop was reportedly for drunk driving.

"It is very hard to try to explain to someone what it feels like to be Black in a white world. The things that happen to you daily and that affect you and that are so much apart of you are very hard sometimes to even remember because they have become so routine."

California Highway Patrol Officer Lee Minikus made Frye walk the line. The officer berated him with questions. Frye was then forcibly arrested on the scene. His mother's 1955 Buick was going to be impounded. Frye's brother Ronald ran to get their mother, who was only two blocks away. By now, a small group of onlookers gathered around the scene.

"There is really nothing that I can tell you here that would fully-- really let you know what it is like because it is too horrible and too deep to communicate to anyone."

When Rena Frye arrived and saw what was unfolding she wasted no time at all. She pushed through the officers to scold her son for drunk driving. Two more officers had arrived on the scene. One of them pulled his mother away from Frye. Another one struck Frye on the side of the head with a baton. Frye's mother jumped on the officer and tore his shirt. Another officer pulled out a shotgun and shoved Frye against the car yelling: "you get your black ass up against the car! If you get off that car I will blow your ass off!"

"I don't like to use the word riot. I say it was a revolt, or a overthrow. It wasn't a riot. That's a bunch of crazy folk going crazy without reason. There was a reason. And I have always wanted to see some changes around here"

A police officer handcuffed Rena Frye. By now the group of onlookers swelled substantially and reached a fever-pitch. The crowd grew openly hostile towards the police officers. Rocks and bottles were hurled at officers and the police car. Marquette, his brother, and Rena Frye were all arrested and thrown into the police car.

"The crowd was pissed when the cops picked on my mama. I got angry. I took a swing at one. They handcuffed my hands and legs, threw me in the car and kicked me. Ronnie was thrown over the top of the car."

The police car drove off. In less than an hour the crowd had transformed into a mob. Enraged by the police brutality and the rumors spreading that Frye's pregnant girlfriend was also brutalized by police, the people rose to their feet. The crowd flooded the streets, pulled white drivers out of their cars and beat them. Stones shattered store windows and people scrambled to take whatever they could get their hands on. Firebombs were thrown into buildings and cop cars were flipped over. The streets of Watts ripped open flesh wounds.

"I threw the firebomb right into the front window; right in the front window. A friend of mine went in the store towards the back and threw a firebomb in the back and the place went up in flames. But it was pretty well uh-- emptied by the looters and so forth."

"Then we would decide to burn and the cry in the streets was 'burn baby, burn!' "

"Our YOUR FRIEND CHARLIE pawnshop/was a glorious blaze/I heard the flames lick/then eat the trays/of zircons mounted/in red gold alloys"- Maya Angelou

"We decided to burn this store because we felt like this man hadn't been doing nothing but gaining on us anyway."

"We scream but we cant be heard. We talk but we cant be heard. It just seem like people don't understand."

It was one of the biggest racial uprisings in United States history. Police came to break up the crowd several times through out the course of the night but were repelled by stones and gun fire. Firemen attempting to put out the fires were shot at and driven out. The rioting continued and intensified into the next night and into the next night and into the next. By the fourth day a curfew had been set and the California Governor had called The National Guard.

By the following Tuesday the rebellion had ended. The uprising lasted for six days and resulted in the deaths of at least 34 people. There were reportedly over 1000 injuries and at least 4,000 arrests. Property damage totaled over $40 million dollars. At least 30,000 people took part in the revolt.

"I didnt know there was a riot. When I got out of jail and turned on the radio, I heard Wolfman Jack play 'Burn, Baby Burn,' and then I heard my name, my brothers name and my mother's, and I heard about the people killed so far. I just cried."- Marquette Frye

"After the revolt, they fed us pacification programs. They put their little police department here for control. They were going to make damn sure this never happened again"

The economic deprivation of Watts, the wide-spread employment discrimination, the anti-black racism and heavy policing all contributed to the powder keg. Residence were sick of poverty and joblessness. They were sick of decrepit living conditions. The State's denial of the rights outlined in Civil Rights Act left many residence indignant.

The insurrection threw Watts into the national spotlight. America asked the stupid question "what does the Negro want?" Reporters pored into the area after the riots to investigate the reasons for why the rebellion occurred, interviewing many of the residence who were apart of the riot. It was then that America suddenly "discovered" the economic conditions that pushed so many people to the breaking point.

"You are gonna make a black monster down here and this monster is gonna get larger and larger and pretty soon its going to eat all of us up."

Then all the cameras left. And most of the buildings destroyed by the riots have never been repaired. Watts has generally been kept in the condition it was in over fifty years ago.

"There was a Japanese restaurant over there, a corner barber and a liquor store. They all burned up. The trees along the streets were bigger. Police cut them back so we couldn't climb up and throw bottles from there. That green complex across the street is where all the people from the hood came out to watch me do my dance for the officers. The trash, well, that's still here from '65 probably."

 

Quotes from the 1966 ABC News special