Watts Riots: 45 Years Later

I was not there in the streets of Watts, California 45 years ago when tensions flared between blacks and the LAPD, rolling into days of riots and destruction.

And though events like Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, Woodstock, Vietnam or the assassinations of JFK and MLKjr grab the attention of most media memoirs of the American sixties, the Watts Riots of 1965 represent a still-smoldering hole in the fabric of our country that, in the hot summer heat, ignited into flames that left businesses, neighborhoods and lives lost in its temporary insanity.

My sister’s mother-in-law was there.  In fact, she knew about it before nearly anyone else in Los Angeles because of her job as a dispatcher with the LAPD. And in the irony of it all, as she worked tirelessly to help coordinate efforts among police resources being sent to quell the growing disturbance, she faced the silent horror of realizing her home–her children–were in the middle of it all:

Officer needs help… at 116th Street and Avalon.

Watts. 1965.

My neighborhood. #

A.Z. Smith, a victim of the Los Angeles riots, checks the damage to his barber shop in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Aug. 17, 1965. Business establishments owned by whites were the usual targets of looters and arsonists. Smith was one of the few blacks caught up in the turmoil. (AP Photo)

From her experience living in Watts, she knew that the influx of police resources would only fan the flames in the oppressed neighborhood. She tried to explain, but “No one listened to a 24-year-old girl with two years’ experience.”

For days the violence raged on ending in more than $40 Million in damages to a town that, today, “looks like a small town anywhere in the world that has been through an insurgence, bombings and war. Nothing new has been added — nor the old rebuilt.”

Maybe you were there.

Maybe you weren’t.

But my sister’s mother-in-law was, and she wrote about her experience as an all-too-involved witness of the Watts Riots of 1965 in a moving article posted yesterday by The Root online. You should read it. You should share it.

The reality is that Watts is a part of all of us now in America, even if we choose to ignore the lessons of the past.

What we forget about Watts

The riot was spontaneous, leaderless and fueled by a long-smoldering rage that is still burning.

August 9, 2005

Walter Mosley

WHAT WE remember about Watts and its environs that hot summer is not nearly as important as what we forget. Many of us remember a young man arrested for a crime he may or may not have committed, and the way the streets of Los Angeles became a war zone. Whole blocks went up in flames. Dozens died. The National Guard was called out. Five days of violence blazed and the whole nation, the whole world, took notice.

What we don’t remember, what many of us never really considered, was that this was a mass political action that had no leaders, no apologists, no internal critics. The Watts riot was a spontaneous act of a people who had been oppressed, emasculated and impoverished for too long. It didn’t matter if the man being arrested was guilty or not. It didn’t matter if the police stood out in the street and said to go home. Who cared what they said or what their laws said? Who cared about property that would never be ours? # (link and emphasis added)

Even if you weren’t there, like me, don’t forget Watts. It affects us all. Remember through others’ memories. And tell your children.

And let us hope they make our world better because of it.


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