KPFK remembers the Watts uprising of 1965

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KPFK News: The Watts community is commemorating the 50th anniversary of a rebellion and riot that radically changed the face of Los Angeles.

Fifty years ago, Marquette Frye – a 21 year-old black man – was pulled over for drunken driving by a white California Highway Patrol officer near 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard in South Los Angeles, setting off a chain of events that led to a six-day uprising.

Angelenos will gather at a variety of events throughout the week to remember that fateful day, which escalated when Frye’s mother arrived at the scene, devolving a so-called routine traffic stop into a melee.

The incident attracted a large crowd fueled by simmering racial tensions punctuated by high unemployment, poverty, and police brutality. Those tensions exploded on that August night.

Six days of fires, clashes with police and violence followed that traffic stop. Thirty-four people died, more than 1,000 were injured and scores of buildings were damaged, looted or destroyed – causing an estimated $40 million in damage.

Religious leaders gathered at 116th and Avalon in remembrance of the events of 50 years ago, praying that the city never re-lives the type of violence of the Watts riots.

Los Angeles author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson said conditions in Watts and South Los Angeles are similar – if not worse – today than they were in 1965. Hutchinson, who recalled the violence and the chaos of the riots, pointed to increased levels of joblessness, poverty and police tensions in the area.

23 of those who died in the riots were killed by Los Angeles police officers or National Guardsmen. Nearly all of the injuries and deaths were civilians.

The Watts disturbance was the deadliest in the history of the city until the uprising and riots that followed the 1992 acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. In that uprising, 55 people died and 10,000 businesses were destroyed by fire.

Groups such as the Youth Justice Coalition will hold teach-ins on the benefits of community policing and the need to address and solve the root causes of economic inequality and poverty.

On Saturday, the all-day “Watts Revolt: 50 Years Later Symposium” will be hosted by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Human Relations Commission at Charles Drew University in Willowbrook. That same day, Grant AME Church will hold a commemorative church service at 9:30 am, with a community fair and block party planned at noon.

KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles / 98.7 FM Santa Barbara's photo.
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  • Sue Cohen Johnson
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  • Rick Alvarez This was probably my first recollection of a historical event. Too young to remember the JFK assassination but I sure remember Watts. Could see and smell the smoke for days!
  • Elaine Carr I attempted to share my experience and this posting and my culturally diverse FB friends ignored it. No likes. No comments.

    So I seek a braver audience: I was 12 when it happened. I sat on my lawn with dad’s Blaupunkt short-wave radio watching tanks roll by & listening to police calls. Illegal? Who knows? I was a skinny little shy 12 year old kid. And I thought it was a cool thing that Marquette & Chuck Frye were always hanging out at our house — until dad banned them.

    That’s it. It’s my story coming of age in south LA that went from LA to Watts to South Central to South LA. Just about as many labels as my ethnicity…and I still prefer to be called American.Peace.

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