It was a low-key traffic stop around 7 p.m. on a Wednesday evening that ignited what would become known as the Watts Riots.
Stepbrothers Marquette and Ronald Frye were pulled over by a white California Highway Patrol officer while driving their mother’s car near the corner of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Marquette failed a sobriety test and panicked as he was arrested. As Marquette’s anger rose at the thought of going to jail, a scuffle broke out between him and one of the police officers. Ronald joined in, partly to protest the arrest but also to protect his brother.
A crowd began to gather, and back-up police arrived under the assumption that the crowd was hostile, which resulted in a fight between someone in the crowd and an officer. Another newly-arrived officer jabbed Ronald in the stomach with his riot baton and then moved to intervene in the fight between Marquette and that officer.
Marquette was knocked down by the riot baton, handcuffed and taken to the police car. The Frye brothers’ mother, Rena, showed-up on the scene and—believing police were abusing Marquette—rushed to pull the officers off of him, resulting in another fight.
Rena was arrested and forced into the car, followed by Ronald, who was handcuffed after attempting to intervene peacefully in his stepmother’s arrest.
As the crowd got angrier about the scene they had witnessed, more highway patrol officers arrived and used batons and shotguns to keep the crowd back from the police car. Hundreds more people flocked to the scene to investigate the sirens there.
As two motorcycle police attempted to leave, one was spat on. Those police stopped to pursue the woman who they believed did it, the crowd converged around them, sending several other officers into the crowd to assist them. More police cars were called to the scene.
The two police found Joyce Ann Gaines and to arrest her for spitting at them. She resisted and was dragged out of the crowd which, believing she was pregnant, became even angrier.
By 7:45 p.m., the riot was in full force, with rocks, bottles and more being thrown at the buses and cars that had been stalled in traffic because of the escalating incident.
The night after the arrest, crowds attacked motorists with rocks and bricks, and pulled white drivers out of their cars and beat them.
The following morning, there was a community meeting helmed by Watts leaders, including representatives from churches, local government and the NAACP, with police in attendance, designed to bring calm to the situation. Rena also attended, imploring the crowds to calm down. She, Marquette and Ronald had all been released on bail that morning.
The meeting became a barrage of complaints about the police and government treatment of black citizens in recent history. Immediately following the statement by Rena, a teenager grabbed the microphone and proclaimed that rioters planned to move into the white sections of Los Angeles.
Local leaders requested the police dispatch more black police, but this was turned down by the Los Angeles Police Department Chief William H. Parker, who was prepared to call the National Guard. Word of this decision and subsequent news reports about the teenager’s tirade are credited with causing the riots to escalate.
Overnight, violence had engulfed the streets as mobs clashed with police, set buildings and cars on fire and looted area stores. Crowds attacked firefighters and obstructed them from putting out fires.
By the end the third day, rioting covered a 50 square-mile section of Los Angeles and 14,000 National Guard troops were dispatched to the city, erecting barricades. Further clashes included sniper fire at police and Guardsmen, police raids on vehicles and apartments, and Molotov cocktails. Watts resembled a war zone, and the violence continued three more days.
Police Commissioner Parker fanned flames by deriding rioters as “monkeys in a zoo” and implying Muslims were infiltrating and agitating. In the early morning of the final day of the riots, as violence began to subside, police surrounded a mosque, resulting in gunfire and the arrest of people inside.
Police ransacked the building next door and tear-gassed the sewers to prevent anyone from escaping. Two fires broke out and destroyed the mosque. Charges were dropped against arrestees and the Muslim community accused police of using the riots as an excuse to destroy their place of worship.
After the Watts Riots
Most of the 34 dead were black citizens. Two policemen and one firefighter were among the casualties, and 26 deaths, mostly the result of Los Angeles Police Department or National Guard actions, were deemed justifiable homicides.
A commission was set-up to study the causes of the riot, after which several community-improvement suggestions were made that would improve schools, employment, housing, healthcare and relations with the police department.
There was little follow-up, but a new era of DIY local activism blossomed in Watts, including reformed street gang members who joined with the Black Panther Party to rebuild and monitor police excesses.
What Caused the Riots
The riot was not an isolated event, with multiple urban riots across the country taking place in 1964 and 1965 prior to the Watts explosion.
In 1964, there was a three-day riot in Rochester, NY, leaving four dead; in the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, a six-day riot involving as many as 4,000 people following the shooting of a young black man; in Philadelphia, a three-day riot following the arrest of a black couple who had gotten into a scuffle with police; and a three-day riot in Chicago when a black woman attempting to shoplift alcohol was attacked by the store owner and crowds later gathered to protest.
Some blamed the Watts riots on outsider agitators, but most understood it as the result of continuing dissatisfaction about living conditions and opportunities, and long-standing tension between police and residents.
In 1961, the arrest of a black male in Griffith Park for riding a merry-go-round without a ticket resulted in crowds throwing rocks and bottles at police. In 1962, the police raided a Nation of Islam mosque and killed an unarmed man, resulting in massive protests.
Over the two years leading up to the riot, 65 black residents were shot by police, 27 of them in the back and 25 of them unarmed. During that same period, there were 250 demonstrations against the living conditions there.
MORE RIOTS TO COME
Nationwide, the violence would not end. On August 12, the day after tensions erupted in Watts, Chicago’s troubled Garfield Park neighborhood erupted into three days of violence following the death of Dessie May Williams in a fire truck ladder accident.
The following year saw fire bombings, riots, and killing in the same city. And the Detroit Riots began two years later, resulting in 43 deaths. The 1992 Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King beating trial of four police officers led to the deaths of 63 people and were a grim reminder that many issues of racism remained unresolved.