Watts: A look back

Written by

CHP officers with shotguns get ready to man the lines at 112th Street and Avalon Boulevard, during the rioting in the Watts area. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library

All week Press Play reflects on the Watts Riots. You can find all of our Watts coverage here. 

It was just after 7 p.m. on Wednesday, August 11th, when a California Highway Patrol car pulled over 21-year-old Marquette Frye, a young, black man suspected of drunk driving. He got out of his car and he failed a sobriety test. A small crowd gathered.

Marquette was calm until his mother showed up. She began to yell at him and at the officers. She jumped on one cop’s back. Marquette was hit in the head with a baton.

People from the neighborhood, who had been sitting out on their porches to keep out of the heat, headed toward the scene. KTLA began broadcasting later in the evening.

The corner of 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard today.
The corner of 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard today.

It wasn’t yet a crisis when Marquette Frye, his brother and mother were taken away in a patrol car, but rumors started to spread that his mom and others who’d been arrested for “inciting violence” had been roughed up by police.

Things started to boil over as an angry crowd – now maybe a thousand strong – took to the streets. They threw stones at the police and pulled white drivers out of their cars.

Dramatic news reel shows what happened over the six days of the riots.

But, by 1 a.m., the police called the situation “under control.”

The next afternoon, the police, the media and community leaders held a meeting at a local recreation center. Marquette Frye’s mother was there asking for peace.

By the early morning hours of Friday, August 13th, the police again reported that the situation was “well in hand.” But the crowds eventually returned to the streets. And by evening, Watts, and some of the areas around it,was on fire. It would be the worst night of the riots.

Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker mops his brow during the Watts riots. August 12, 1965. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker mops his brow during the Watts riots. August 12, 1965. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library

Back at police headquarters, Chief William Parker was taking a hard line; he and Mayor Sam Yorty had requested the National Guard at 11:00 a.m. Friday.

But Governor Pat Brown was vacationing in Greece. It was 5:00 p.m. before Lt. Governor Glenn Anderson officially called in the Guard.

Before troops could arrive, a young black bystander had been killed in a shootout between police and rioters. He was the first of many who would die in the coming days.

By early Saturday morning, more than 3,000 National Guardsmen had rolled into Watts. Southeast Los Angeles had become a combat zone.

That night, a curfew was established over a 46 square-mile area of the city. Nearly 14,000 guardsmen patrolled the streets. On Sunday, the situation finally began to quiet down. And by Monday, the National Guard began to leave.

But by that time, 34 people had died, 23 of them killed by LAPD officers or National Guardsmen. Nearly 3,500 had been arrested. 600 buildings were damaged by fires or looting.

Six months after the riots, a city commission released a report called “Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?”

Newsreel of the aftermath of the riots.

Some months later, ABC went to Watts to talk to the people there.

And a postscript: Marquette Frye, whose arrest sparked the riots, was reportedly harassed, arrested and beaten by the police for years after. He died on Christmas Eve, 1986, after a difficult life. He was 42.