“They Had It Coming”: Photographs Of The Watts Rebellion Of 1965
What truly triggered six days of rioting and rebellion in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in August 1965 remains somewhat hazy. It depends, largely and predictably, on who you ask.
History has proven that deep-seated racial tensions and a legacy of police brutality were major causal factors. But, unlike the infamous video evidence that initiated the riot that Los Angeles would see 27 years later, what happened during the inciting incident behind the Watts riot isn't entirely clear.
The flashpoint of the unrest was the routine drunk driving stop of 21-year-old African-American Marquette Frye by a highway patrolman on August 11. A sobriety check revealed that Frye had indeed been drinking. Nevertheless, the officer that made the stop claims that the mood was light and that he was even joking around with Frye — until Frye's mother raced to the scene and got involved.
Frye's mother, Lena Price, scolded her son, and, according to the arresting officer, "appeared to incite Marquette to refuse to submit to physical arrest." The officer also claims that Frye swore at him and threatened to kill him — a 180-degree turn from the supposedly jovial mood prior to Price's appearance.
Within minutes, more than 200 onlookers gathered at the scene. Punches were thrown, arrests were made, and accusations were flung far and wide. Rumors about pregnant women getting roughed up — perhaps caused by at least one woman getting arrested while wearing a barber's smock — spread through the city, followed quickly by rioting, looting, and arson, turning the area into a war zone for six days.
Ultimately, more than 1,000 people were wounded — primarily African-Americans in a primarily African-American neighborhood — and 34 people were killed during the riot. The unrest also caused the destruction of more than 600 buildings for a property damage total of nearly $100 million.
And as for the true, underlying causes of all this destruction, they were a mystery to some. On day two of the riot, The New York Timesreported that officials largely overlooked racial factors in their report: "Officials were at a loss to explain the cause of the rioting, which started last night after a routine drunken driving arrest. The unusually hot, smoggy weather was doubtless a contributing factor."
But in the aftermath, the CIA implied what has historically been considered the root cause, without acknowledging it outright: "In examining the sickness in the center of our city, what has depressed and stunned us most is the dull, devastating spiral of failure that awaits the average disadvantaged child in the urban core." The agency also exonerated the police, essentially, crediting "race but not racism" for the violence, according to the Chicago Tribune.
But one witness told the Times that first night that the "devastating spiral of failure" wasn't the only thing that daily awaited inner-city youths: "The cops, they keep coming in here and busting heads," said a neatly dressed young man selling a Black Muslim newspaper. "They had it coming."
The Watts riot gallery above features photographs from reporters on the scene throughout those bloody and brutal six days in August, capturing what was then the most intense unrest in the city's history.