“Six days of rioting in a Negro section of Los Angeles left behind scenes reminiscent of war torn cities, more than a hundred square blocks were decimated by fires and looters and few buildings were left intact.”
That’s how one news broadcast reported the immediate aftermath of the Watts Riots in August of 1965. The unrest was sparked by the stop of a black motorist by a CHP officer, but quickly escalated into a wave of violence, looting and arson that spread across South Los Angeles, claiming 34 lives, injuring more than a thousand, and causing millions of dollars in property damage. Despite the progress of the Civil Rights Movement, the Watts Riots also called the Watts Rebellion) exposed a deep vein of rage in predominately black inner-city communities and foreshadowed social and political turmoil that would affect America in the 1960s.
Walk the streets of Watts today, 50 years after the riots, where the roar of jets approaching Los Angeles International Airport is a common sound, and it’s possible to meet people with vivid memories of the bloodshed, fire and turmoil.
“We watched all of this burn down,” said Watts native Harold Williams as he motioned to Central Avenue and surrounding streets. “We watched the National Guard, headquartered at Ted Watkins Park, formerly known as Will Rogers Park. That was their base: tents, jeeps, bayonets, the whole nine.”
At a lunch gathering at the Watts Senior Center, 94-year-old Odessa Walker remembered being unable to get back to Watts from where she worked because of police roadblocks and a curfew.
“My work was farther over west and I was at work that day when it did happen, but I do know I couldn’t come home. I had to stay over there until a lot of the tragedies were over,” she said.
Walker has thought about what sparked the riots and led so many people, especially young black met to participate. She believes it was a reaction to housing discrimination, institutional racism and police brutality targeting African-Americans.
“I don’t believe it happened just out of the clear blue,” said Walker. “There was something they were trying to accomplish by rioting as they did. And they felt like that was the only way they could get it done. That’s the way I feel about it.”
But other residents, like Harold Williams, question whether the riots accomplished anything. “A riot is a riot. It ain’t fun because when the smoke cleared, we didn’t have nothing,” he said.
In the decades following the riots, Watts faced other challenges, from growing unemployment as factories in South Los Angeles shuttered to the crack cocaine and gang epidemics of the 1980s and 90s.
But in recent years, Watts has also seen much improvement and change. A Blue Line light rail station now connects the community to the rest of Los Angeles, there are better improved parks and community services, and crime has dropped considerably.
On a walk through Ted Watkins Memorial Park, resident John Jackson reflected on the Watts of today. “This has basically calmed down a whole more than what it used to be,” Jackson said, referring to how unsafe the park, now filled with black and Latino families, used to be. “Like this scenario here, you and couldn’t walk like this.”
But Jackson echoes others in Watts when he says the community still needs a lot, especially jobs and educational opportunities for its young people.
And as America is in the midst of a painful national discussion about police abuse of African-Americans and segregation, many in Watts say that the country is still wrestling with many of the same issues that sparked the days of rage half-a-century ago.