Watts 50 Years Ago

The reasons, the man, the rage and the memories
August 20, 2015 Updated: November 5, 2016

riot  [rī-ət] noun. A violent public disorder; specifically a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent.

uprising [up′rī′ziŋ] noun. The definition of an uprising is the action of standing up to authority or government. A popular revolt against a government or its policies; a rebellion.

rebellion [ri-bel-yuh n] noun. Open, organized, and armed resistance to one’s government or ruler. Resistance to or defiance of any authority, control, or tradition.

Not in other words, those are the words.

The Watts uprising raged for six days. It was the largest urban rebellion of what was known as the Civil Rights Era. The flash point began on August 11, 1965, when Marquette Frye, a young African-American motorist, was pulled over on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Marquette was driving with his brother Ronald. They were pulled over just outside of Watts by CHP officer Lee Minikus. During a sobriety test, Marquette stumbled while walking the line.

Meanwhile, Ronald had walked the three blocks to the Frye home and returned with their mother. By this time, a crowd of some three hundred onlookers were at the scene. Marquette’s mother scolded him for his drinking while driving, and Marquette, who till then had been cooperative, began to resist arrest.

Rumors spread throughout the crowd that both Frye’s mother and his pregnant girlfriend had been assaulted by the police. The ghetto conditions of Watts, the strained relationship between the police and the African-American community, and the hot weather combined into an explosive situation.

The crowd suddenly erupted in an intense verbal exchange with the police. That led to an outbreak of violence, which immediately touched off a large-scale riot in the commercial section of Watts, an impoverished African-American residential part of South Los Angeles.

For six days, rioters looted, overturned and burned cars, and burned liquor stores, department stores, and grocery stores. Over 14,500 California National Guard troops were brought in and a curfew area of over 50 square miles established to attempt to restore order. The uprising cost the lives of at least 34 people, more than one thousand were injured, and four thousand arrests were made. It resulted in over $42 million in property damage before a sense of order was restored on August 17. The crisis was further provoked by public officials’ ongoing statements that the “riot” was caused by leftist outside agitators.

An official investigation, started by then-Governor Pat Brown, stated that the uprising was a result of the community’s history of ongoing grievances and growing disappointments with very high unemployment rates, substandard housing, and substandard schools. The report of the gubernatorial commission made findings and recommendations to deal with these underlying problems, including educational, healthcare, and transportation programs, as well as improvements to police relations with the community.

Both city and state officials, however, chose not to implement the measures recommended to solve the problems and improve the socio-economic conditions of the Watts neighborhood or its African-American residents. 

Marquette Frye was haunted by these events for the rest of his life. He spoke out at civil rights rallies and other Watts gatherings, but he remained under police and federal authorities’ ongoing surveillance and was repeatedly arrested for a variety of crimes. In an effort to escape his ties to the riots, he used his mother’s maiden name, but for a variety of reasons he was unable to hold a steady job. He had two children. After his 18-month-old son passed away in 1970 from heart and kidney problems, Frye became severely depressed and tried to kill himself. Even so, he remained part of the community and lectured to children on the dangers of drinking, drugs, and gang violence.

Superior Court Judge Stanley Malone, then an attorney, represented Frye and called him both “bright and articulate” and “a perfect example of a young black man who has been done in by society.” Both Malone and Frye claimed that in the years after the rebellion, police would arrest ‪Frye on unlikely charges and, while he was in custody, beat him and spray him with mace. In return, Frye would speak of this at rallies and on radio and television, slowly becoming embittered and isolated. He began living in his own self-imposed ghetto. Frye was arrested more than 28 times. His health deteriorated, and he was forced to go on state disability.

Marquette Frye died of pneumonia on Christmas Eve, 1986. He was 42 years old, made old before his time, and wishing that it had been someone else driving that car on that hot August day. He became the living memory of the “Watts riots.” “It just happened to me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

We are all, to a large degree, prisoners in the cages of our memories; there is an illusion that we are free to come and go. The reality is in knowing we are not in the cage, but that the cage is within us.

But how do you forget to remember that you inadvertently were the match that set in place the fires that set a community, your community, ablaze? How do you get people to forget to remember you are black and what that meant for a life in mid-20th century Los Angeles? And has South Central Los Angeles, Watts, ever been invited into the mid-20th century? Do you remember trying to forget being hungry and knowing that once a person has known hunger, that person will never be the same again?

What toll does it take, this trying not to remember that the vast majority of the residents of your community spend their lives in the service industries, or out of work? And while the community suffers from the sociological quicksand pit of mass unemployment, you are struggling to free yourself by reminding yourself of your inherent right to social and personal dignity. Not as an elusive memory, but as a future reality, not as a gift, but as a right. How do you harvest bountiful crops in scorched fields? How do you make other people forget you were the man who unintentionally caused a community firestorm?

I favor the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it must be enforced at gunpoint if necessary.
— Ronald Reagan

Has the phoenix risen from the ashes? Is it now time to ask: When will that bird of hope and newfound freedoms soar again? When does the next flight leave?

And amid memories of the ravaging fires that left these ashes, maybe it would help to remember: When a community is in violent pain, there are no villains or heroes. Everyone is a victim.

The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

An Interview with Los Angeles Supervisor Ridley-Thomas

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for District 2. He has also served as a California State Senator, representing the 26th district from 2006 to 2008 and was a California State Assemblyman representing the 48th district from 2002 until 2006. Before his time in the Legislature, he was on the Los Angeles City Council from 1991 to 2002.

The Epoch Times had a chance to speak to Supervisor Ridley-Thomas about the re-opening of the MLK Community Hospital, located in Watts.

SBB: Supervisor Thomas, at the recent celebration for the re-opening of MLK Community Hospital, you spoke to the public, and the theme was about being grateful. What spurred you to choose that theme?

MRT: When I came into office in 2008, the old hospital had already been closed. In my inaugural address, I promised that a new hospital would rise. Now, here we are in 2015 and much of that promise has been fulfilled. It is a New Day at MLK and we have much to celebrate.

SBB: There was a huge pool of talent from which to hire—was it 14,000 applications for about 650 positions at the hospital? What do you hope or believe MLK Community Hospital has and will achieve in the context of medical establishments throughout the country?

MRT: The hospital received more than 13,000 applications for 900 positions. The hospital hired doctors who graduated from the country’s finest medical schools. These doctors had their pick of hospitals to work in and they chose MLK because they believe its mission. This combination of talent and dedication means our residents can expect the best care at MLK.

SBB: Frederick Douglass said, “It is better to heal the child than repair the man.” MLK Community has an impressive history of children’s medical care, what new programs do you foresee?

MRT: The state-of-the-art Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Campus is a model for healthcare delivery, one that emphasizes preventive care and holistic healthcare and is also easily accessible to public transportation. It is rare to see the variety of services offered at one place—all of which are designed to meet the needs of residents, first and foremost.

SBB: Thank you Supervisor. 

Shelley B. Blank has worked with major national and international newspapers as a journalist as well as a corporate executive. He has produced programs for Public Radio and lectured on modern multimedia communications and technology.