The history of the Watts Riots marks them as an important moment in the American Civil Rights movement. They broke out in the California neighborhood of Watts during the sweltering August of 1965, and rocked the Los Angeles district for six days. Like other race riots in the United States, they represented an unleashing of pent up frustration and a stand against racial injustice. When the smoke cleared, 34 people were dead, and the cost of property damage exceeded $40 million.
The size and ferocity of the Watts Riots helped push the issues of Civil Rights and the oppression of black Americans into the national dialogue. Official government inquiries found that the rioters were motivated by legitimate grievances, including racist and violent treatment by white police officers. Watts Riots facts show how the civil unrest of the 1960s is, in many ways, still present in American society today, and the true stories of this turbulent week are well worth revisiting.
The Riots Began With A Police Stop
On August 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye, who was black, was pulled over by a white California Highway Patrolman, Lee Minikus. According to Minikus, Frye looked as though he was driving drunk. A crowd began to gather, and once Frye's mother, Rena Price, arrived on the scene, tensions exploded. Some witnesses say that the officers used racial slurs. Price ended up in a scuffle with a police officer, and objects were thrown at the police.
Soon, Frye, his brother, and his mother were all in a police car, and the riots had begun.
Rioters Threw Bricks And Molotov Cocktails
The rioters used whatever tools they had at their disposal in their struggle to be heard. The police, and eventually the National Guard, were armed with all sorts of weapons, but the locals improvised their own arsenal to supplement the guns they did have on hand. Objects like bricks were hurled at police, but the New York Times reported that Molotov cocktails were used as well. Along with bricks and stones, these homemade missiles likely contributed heavily to the massive amount of property damage done.
The Violence Sent A Message
Since the Watts Riots were in part about years of oppression and poor living conditions, there were more than a few attempts to get that message out there. Some residents protested in the classic sense by marching with signs, while others made more intimidating and direct communications by looting and destroying white-owned properties. Graffiti was put up to warn whites to stay out of the neighborhoods, and a few who wandered in were taken from their cars and beaten. A particularly grim sign read “Turn left or get shot,” and it wasn’t a bluff.
The Riots Rocked South-Central LA
The riots were contained in a relatively small area, but that helped them burn with an incredible intensity. The violence took place entirely within south-central LA, centered on the Watts neighborhood and some neighboring districts. The chaos was almost non-stop between August 11 and 16, although the action was wildest at night. Rioters and police alike pulled long shifts as they competed for control of the city.