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The Watts Riots,
Los Angeles, California
August 11, 1965

Last updated: about 1 year ago

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This period of unrest in Los Angeles was preceded by years of racial tension. The city had become a powder keg, and the riot began with a traffic stop on August 11. A 21 year-old black man named Marquette Frye was pulled over for reckless driving and was given a field sobriety test. His brother and passenger, Ronald, walked to their nearby home and brought back their mother, Lena Price, who began to lecture her son for drunk driving. What happened next is unclear, but an altercation began between all three black people and the white police officers, with Price jumping on one of the officers and an officer pulling out a shotgun. No shots were fired, but all three civilians were arrested and a false rumor began that the police had kicked a pregnant woman.

Police were called to this intersection several times throughout the rest of the day to disperse angry crowds, who threw rocks and bottles at them. During the next six days, a 46 square-mile area of central Los Angeles would become a war zone. The police chief immediately called in the California National Guard, and by Saturday 3,900 soldiers patroled the streets alongside the police, but to little avail. Over 30,000 people participated in the rioting, most of them blacks who looted and burned primarily white-owned businesses, got into fistfights with the police, and beat and mugged white motorists. This was seen by the white population as criminals doing themselves more harm than good, and by the blacks as a rebellion against the Jim Crow establishment.

Police chief William Parker openly described the rioters as “monkeys in a zoo,” a statement he never retracted or apologized for. 34 people were killed, 268 buildings were destroyed, some 700 more were damaged, and $40 million worth of damage was done.

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