On the evening of Wednesday, August 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye, an African-American man driving his mother’s 1955 Buick, was pulled over by California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer Lee Minikus for allegedly reckless driving .After administering a field sobriety test, Minikus placed Frye under arrest and radioed for his vehicle to be impounded. Marquette’s brother, Ronald, a passenger in the vehicle, walked to their house nearby, bringing their mother, Rena Price, back with him to the scene of the arrest.
When Rena Price reached the intersection of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street that evening, she scolded Frye about drinking and driving, as he recalled in a 1985 interview with the Orlando Sentinel. But the situation quickly escalated: someone shoved Price, Frye was struck, Price jumped an officer, and another officer pulled out a shotgun. Backup police officers attempted to arrest Frye by using physical force to subdue him. After rumors spread that the police had roughed up Frye and kicked a pregnant woman, angry mobs formed. As the situation intensified, growing crowds of local residents watching the exchange began yelling and throwing objects at the police officers. Frye’s mother and brother fought with the officers and were eventually arrested along with Marquette Frye.
After the arrests of Price and her sons the Frye brothers, the crowd continued to grow along Avalon Boulevard. Police came to the scene to break up the crowd several times that night, but were attacked when people threw rocks and chunks of concrete.A 46-square-mile swath of Los Angeles was transformed into a combat zone during the ensuing six days.
After a night of increasing unrest, police and local black community leaders held a community meeting on Thursday, August 12, to discuss an action plan and to urge calm. The meeting failed. Later that day, Los Angeles police chief William H. Parker called for the assistance of the California Army National Guard. Chief Parker believed the riots resembled an insurgency, compared it to fighting the Viet Cong, and decreed a “paramilitary” response to the disorder. Governor Pat Brown declared that law enforcement was confronting “guerrillas fighting with gangsters”.
The rioting intensified, and on Friday, August 13, about 2,300 National Guardsmen joined the police in trying to maintain order on the streets. Sergeant Ben Dunn said: “The streets of Watts resembled an all-out war zone in some far-off foreign country, it bore no resemblance to the United States of America.” By nightfall on Saturday, 16,000 law enforcement personnel had been mobilized and patrolled the city. Blockades were established, and warning signs were posted throughout the riot zones threatening the use of deadly force (one sign warned residents to “Turn left or get shot”). 23 of the 34 people killed during the riots were shot by law enforcement or National Guardsmen. Angered over the police response, residents of Watts engaged in a full-scale battle against the law enforcement personnel. Rioters tore up sidewalks and bricks to hurl at Guardsmen and police, and to smash their vehicles.
Those actively participating in the riots started physical fights with police, blocked Los Angeles Fire Department personnel from their safety duties, or stopped and beat white motorists entering the area. Arson and looting were largely confined to local white-owned stores and businesses that were said to have caused resentment in the neighborhood due to perceived unfairness such as high prices.
To quell the riots, Chief Parker initiated a policy of mass arrest. Following the deployment of National Guardsmen, a curfew was declared for a vast region of South Central Los Angeles. In addition to the Guardsmen, 934 Los Angeles police officers and 718 officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were deployed during the rioting. Watts and all black-majority areas in Los Angeles were put under the curfew. All residents outside of their homes in the affected areas after 8:00pm were subject to arrest. Eventually nearly 3,500 people were arrested, primarily for curfew violations. By the morning of Sunday, August 15, the riots had largely been quelled. Producer Herbert Franklin Solow recalled that when the rioters were coming close to the Desilu Productions studios in Culver City, California where Star Trek was being filmed (the show did not premiere until a year later), he suggested to series creator Gene Roddenberry that they brandish the show’s phaser rifle prop in an attempt to keep them away from the studio. The riots would not, in actuality, reach the studio.
Over the course of six days, between 31,000 and 35,000 adults participated in the riots. Around 70,000 people were “sympathetic, but not active.”Over the six days, there were 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. Many white Americans were fearful of the breakdown of social order in Watts, especially since white motorists were being pulled over by rioters in nearby areas and assaulted. Many in the black community, however, believed the rioters were taking part in an “uprising against an oppressive system.” In a 1966 essay, black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin wrote:
“The whole point of the outbreak in Watts was that it marked the first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism and was carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life.”
Despite allegations that “criminal elements” were responsible for the riots, the vast majority of those arrested had no prior criminal record.
Parker publicly said that the people he saw rioting were acting like “monkeys in the zoo.”Overall, an estimated $40 million in damage was caused ($320,000,000 in 2018 dollars), with almost 1,000 buildings damaged or destroyed. Homes were not attacked, although some caught fire due to proximity to other fires.
To give you an idea of the atmosphere at the time, here is a 2-hour recap of the situation in Watts, from the night of the arrest and initial disturbance to the arrival of National Guard troops – all via reports from the field by KMPC-AM News reporters.
Raw and unedited, there are stretches of silence and some reports are repeated – but this was the event as it was unfolding. And now you get to hear it.