Posted on 01/19/2008

Photo taken on January 18, 2008

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Los Angeles
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Watts Riot

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Watts Riot (1965)

Watts Riot (1965)
The riots began on August 11, 1965, in Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles, California when Lee Minikus, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, pulled over Marquette Frye, who Minikus believed was intoxicated because of his observed erratic driving. Frye failed to pass sobriety tests; including walking in a straight line and touching his nose, and was arrested soon after. Minikus refused to let Frye's brother, Ronald, drive the car home, and radioed for it to be impounded. As events escalated, a crowd of onlookers steadily grew from dozens to hundreds. The mob became violent, throwing rocks and other objects while shouting at the police officers. A struggle ensued shortly resulting in the arrest of Frye, Ronald, and their mother.

Though the riots began in August, there had previously been a build up of racial tension in the area. The riots that began on August 11 resulted from an amalgamation of such events in Watts and the arrest of three Frye family members broke the tension as violence spilled onto the streets of Watts for six days.

After the news and emerging rumors spread from the angry mob to other residents, aggressive acts of violence broke out across the city making Watts a serious danger zone. Watts suffered from various forms and degrees of damage from the looting, fighting, and vandalism that seriously threatened the security of the city. Some participants chose to intensify the level of violence by getting in a physical fight with police, blocking the firemen of the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAPD) from their safety duties, or even beating white motorists. Others joined the riot by breaking into stores, stealing whatever they could, and some setting the stores themselves on fire. The majority of the residents simply wandered the streets choosing to encourage the active rioters and give the police a difficult time rather than getting directly involved. A few did not join in the violence at all just choosing to continue their daily routine while observing the chaos. LAPD Police Chief William Parker also fueled the radicalized tension that already threatened to combust, by publicly labeling the people he saw involved in the riots as "monkeys in the zoo". Overall, an estimate of 40 million dollars in damage was caused as almost 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Most of the physical damage was confined to white-owned businesses that were said to have caused resentment in the neighborhood due to perceived unfairness. Homes were not attacked, although some caught fire due to proximity to other fires.

Joe Flowers, Photographer
Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present
by Deborah Willis