The Watts Rebellion, often referred to as the Watts Riot, began this day in 1965. Until 1992, it was the largest such disturbance the city has ever seen and historians point to a longstanding tension between police and the Black community as the impetus.
Marquette Frye, then 21, and his brother Ronald were driving in their mother’s car when they were pulled over for suspicion of drunk driving. After taking a field sobriety test, the older Frye brother was placed under arrest. The younger Frye brother walked to their nearby home to get their mother, Rena Price.
Price approached the officers and scolded her son. Someone shoved Price, then Frye was hit by an officer. A growing crowd of onlookers angered by past treatment from police began to throw objects and escalated the situation. The entire Frye family was placed under arrest, as the crowd grew.
By that evening, there was widespread looting and arson. When community leaders failed to calm the crowds, Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker instructed his troops to use whatever means necessary to take down the rioters. Gov. Pat Brown made the quip that the crowds the police faced were “guerrillas fighting with gangsters.”
The six-day riot ended on August 17, leaving 34 people dead. According to reports, 31 of the slain were killed by law enforcement bullets. The California National Guard was called in to restore order and a policy of mass arrest was employed. Over 3,400 people were arrested and damages were estimated to be over $40 million.
Watts, like many Black neighborhoods across the nation that saw riots, never fully recovered. Coupled with the fact that the Watts neighborhood was considered a sectioned-off afterthought by most whites in power, the isolation felt by Black residents there also contributed to neighborhood’s decline.
In 1992, the Rodney King trial riots eclipsed the scale of the Watts Rebellion and remains the largest such demonstration the city has ever seen.
The paramilitary response by the LAPD and combined law enforcement forces during the rebellion is eerily reminiscent of recent events such as the largely peaceful Black Lives Matters protests taking place across the country.
(Photo: Public Domain)