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Fanning the Flames of Oppression

It was a sweltering summer evening in 1965, just a few minutes after 7. A 21-year-old African American named Marquette Frye was driving home from a friend's. He'd just slammed down a few vodka and orange juices and it showed-he was swerving through a 35 mph zone at 50 mph. Life had been pretty rough for him (he'd dropped out of school, served time for shoplifting, couldn't hold a job), but that night, he was feeling kind of good.

It wasn't long before an officer from the all-white Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) pulled him over for questioning. Their conversation was light-hearted at first-Marquette cracked a few jokes and tried to convince the officer to let him off the hook. This caught the attention of the mostly black passersby, and a crowd soon formed around the two. Having an audience gave Marquette even more energy.

The officer decided Marquette was drunk and called for back-up. When they tried to put him under arrest, he resisted-jovially at first, then defiantly. As he saw it, the job market, education system, police force and prison system of Los Angeles were all part of the "White Establishment." Marquette believed that this establishment had failed not only him, but also everyone he knew. "You'll have to kill me before you take me to jail," he shouted.

The crowd, which had swelled to dozens, sucked in a collective breath. South Central Los Angeles wasn't exactly the Mississippi Delta (no African American male had ever been hung for winking at a white woman, for instance), but it was still the 1960s. There were certain lines that few blacks dared to cross.

Until now.

Watching their black brother struggle with the white outsiders triggered something inside of each and every member of this crowd. For years-no, for centuries-they had been oppressed by people who looked just like the officers. The Civil Rights Movement was steadily gaining them certain freedoms, but at the end of the day, the bulk of blacks still faced substandard housing, high unemployment, low-income schools and widespread discrimination.

And they were sick and tired of it.


Who needs sleep when you've got Nick?

By this point, the police had gotten Marquette into a squad car. The crowd, which now numbered in the hundreds, started heckling the officers by calling them "blue-eyed devils" and spitting on them. The officers responded with even more arrests-all of which were met with resistance. It took a while, but the police finally managed to shove everyone into squad cars and pull away from the street corner. The crowd screamed out in a fury. It seemed as though all of the anger they had been suppressing inside for years had bubbled to the surface.

Just then, a 19-year-old named Gabriel Pope decided to vent his frustration by breaking an empty soda bottle. The shattering of glass was like a battle cry. Within an instant, every member of that crowd had picked up a bottle, rock or lead pipe of their own.

The Watts Riot of 1965 had begun.

Over the course of the next five days, South Central Los Angeles resembled a war zone. Stores were looted, apartments were ransacked, and buildings set ablaze. Cars were overturned. Windows were smashed. Property was destroyed. When 16,000 National Guardsmen, county deputies and city police were shipped in to quash the uprising, some rioters responded with gunfire. Bullets sailed through the streets, riddling the sides of buildings as wells as arms, legs and torsos. Bleeding bodies piled up in the lobbies of hospitals. It was chaos. It was anarchy. And when it was all over, 34 men, women and children lay dead and 100 were wounded. About 4,000 had been arrested. South Central Los Angeles suffered nearly $200 million in property damages.

It took Sabato Rodia 33 years to build the Watts Towers
The "White Establishment" was stunned. City officials scrambled for someone to blame for the rioting, but the arrows kept pointing straight back at themselves. Nearly all of the violence had been directed toward white-owned businesses and property. Black churches, libraries, businesses and private homes had been left virtually untouched.

"They tried to blame it on different groups of people, but the real cause was the social and economic disenfranchisement of the system," said Gene Jackson, a long-term, African-American resident of Watts. "It had to do with the condition of the community, the education system, the job market, and how it let us down. It had to do with law enforcement, and how it let us down. It had to do with the political process, and how it denied us the right to participate."

The Watts Towers Art Center showcases the talent of the community
Up to that point, the Civil Rights Movement had taken a non-violent approach to creating social change. No African American participating in the Freedom Rides, bus boycotts and marches of the 1950s ever used physical force against their oppressors-even when they were being beaten. But that all changed with the Watts Riots of 1965. That angry week in South Central Los Angeles showed America and the rest of the world that some blacks were tired of turning the other cheek. If struck, they would strike back. Similar riots exploded the following summer in Cleveland and Chicago, further revealing the time-bombs ticking inside the walls of segregated inner-city neighborhoods across the nation.

Murals liven up the community of Watt
Nick and I decided to explore the legacy of the 1960s riots by visiting the community where the time bomb first started ticking. South Central Los Angeles has a reputation for being a pretty rough-and-tumble place: I half expected bullet-riddled slums and helicopters flying overhead. Instead, we discovered a community chock full of soul food restaurants, beauty parlors, churches, libraries and a thriving art center. Murals decorated walls and sides of buildings. Homes had porches and palm trees.

Gene Jackson pays tribute to his mentor, Ted Watkins, founder of the WLCAC
Our primary destination was the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. Founded by a union organizer named Ted Watkins just a few months before the riot, this community center offers everything: at-risk youth programs, housing assistance, job development, child care, workshops, activities for senior citizens, and an art museum. We asked Ijnanya Marigna, a consultant at WLCAC, about the riot and were surprised to hear it was her very reason for moving to Watts in the first place.

Stephanie hangs with Teryl Watkins, daughter of the founder of the WLCAC
"I saw the '65 riot as a source of pride, because we were finally standing up to the system," she said. "When I saw the riots on TV, I decided then and there I wanted to move to Watts. I've been here ever since, and I wouldn't go any place else. This is my queendom."

When I asked about the cause of the riot, she pointed to the same reasons cited back in the 1960s: discrimination, high unemployment, substandard housing and miserable public schools.

Ijnanya Marigna works with kids at the WLCAC
"If you keep on oppressing people, they will explode," Ijnanya said. "It could happen again." Sadly, it already has.

Just nine years ago, racial tensions exploded again. On April 29, 1992, the nation was shocked when an all-white jury acquitted four white LAPD officers accused of beating a black motorist named Rodney King. Everyone had seen the videotape from the night of March 3, 1991. It clearly showed the officers beating King. Fifty-six punches and shocks from a stun gun had many people convinced that King was the victim of assault and excessive force. A lot of them felt it was racially motivated and symbolic of racial oppression. African American communities across the nation were incensed, especially in Watts. Thousands of disgruntled blacks again took to the streets of South Central Los Angeles, as well as San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and Pittsburg. After six days of rioting, 54 people lay dead, thousands were injured, 17,000 were in jail, and nearly one billion dollars had been accrued in damages.

I thought about these riots as Nick and I continued our tour through present-day Watts. Has anything really changed? African Americans still face the same problems they did in the 1960s. What with the introduction of crack cocaine and street gangs, some may argue things have even gotten worse. The Rodney King riot of 1992 revealed that ticking bombs still lay hidden beneath the fragile surface of our inner-city neighborhoods.

Isn't it time we do something about them?


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Conspiracy, garbage and a living wage: The undoing of a hero
Irene - Violence, tension and struggle: A less than civil Rights Movement
Jennifer - X stands for: Fight the powers that be!
Nick - Protecting the Black community Black Panther style