The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and other city officials could have prevented the Watts Rebellion in August 1965 had they addressed the concerns of Black leadership in the early sixties. When Black people went through the “proper channels” to have their complaints addressed, often, they were dismissed, leaving Black residents with a growing sense of frustration and angst. In addition, the LAPD further criminalized and marginalized Black Los Angeles.
The abuse of Black folks at the hands of the LAPD was commonplace under the leadership of Chief William (Bill) Parker—who led the department from 1950-1966—and it cut across class and gender lines. On January 25 and 26, 1960, the United States Commission on Civil Rights heard testimonies and reports from representatives in Los Angeles. On the 26th, Attorney Loren Miller, a member of the Board of Directors for the NAACP and vice president of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, testified that eighty complaints of police brutality were filed in 1958, and of those complaints, two were determined to be justified. In addition, there were twenty-one complaints of civil rights violations, of which none were viewed as justified. Miller was commenting on the fact that residents do complain to the police about police misconduct, but making false complaints to the police is a misdemeanor, so when internal investigations into police brutality and civil rights violations are deemed unjustified, the complainants are punished through fines or jail time. With the low percentage of police misconduct verified by police investigation, it punished Black residents for going through the proper channels and built resentment and a lack of faith in local law enforcement.
Chief Parker stated later in the hearing that “in the year 1958, there was 1,947 officers injured in the line of duty and 539 of those officers were injured while making arrests. There is no one concerned about the civil rights of the policeman and I am convinced of that, and that is a real problem.” Parker defended himself and his department in his statement to the Commission. To him, the charges against the police were overwhelmingly dismissed, which was a clear indication to Parker that there was no problem in the LAPD. As far as he was concerned, his officers were doing their jobs while Communists and other outside agitators were fanning flames. Parker’s comments not only dismissed the concerns of Black Los Angeles residents but also denied them agency by assuming that their concerns and complaints were “master-minded” by Communists. Regardless of Parker’s perspective, the LAPD remained a major issue for people of African descent in Los Angeles.
From the perspective of Black Los Angeles, LAPD, and city leaders were not listening to the “responsible” and “respected” Black leadership and their concerns.
In the spring of 1961, Democrat Sam Yorty forced a runoff in the Los Angeles mayoral race with Republican incumbent Norris Poulson. Chief Parker, the Police Commission, and policing became Yorty’s campaign targets. On the eve of the Poulson and Yorty runoff, the tension between LAPD and Black residents swelled when thousands gathered at Griffith Park on May 30th to relax in observance of Memorial Day. At the merry-go-round, an altercation occurred as the ride conductor accused a seventeen-year-old Black male youth of not paying before entering. The ride operator, Ross R. Davis, called the police, and four police officers arrived and detained the accused. Upon witnessing the event, approximately 200 Black observers, mostly male youth, engaged the police and removed the accused from police custody, where he subsequently disappeared into the crowd. These members of the Black community advanced with bats, bottles, and rocks, forcing the officers to retreat and call for reinforcements. These concerned and frustrated citizens overturned an unoccupied police car and broke its windshield. Police noted that members of the crowd yelled at them, “this is not Alabama.” Four police officers and a civilian attempting to assist the officers were injured. The police closed Griffith Park and arrested three, charging them with assault and felony lynching, defined as rioters removing a suspect from police custody.1
The willingness of Black community members to fight law enforcement and refuse to be intimidated is part of the Black community’s long history of struggle against police brutality in Los Angeles. The statement “this is not Alabama” clearly showed that the issue was not simply about the merry-go-round, but a broader recognition that this was a national Black freedom struggle. It is important to note that just two weeks earlier, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) dispatched their original Freedom Riders on a journey from Washington D.C. to New Orleans on two buses to peacefully test the US Supreme Court order to desegregate public accommodations and amenities related to interstate travel. The Freedom Riders were met by white mobs who coordinated with local law enforcement to attack and beat the Riders, and the buses were burned in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. Attacking the officers and destroying the squad car at Griffith Park, then, was a statement that Black youth in Los Angeles would defend themselves if provoked, unlike their nonviolent comrades down South. To this end, like the Watts Rebellion, this was not a riot in Griffith Park. It was a rebellion against racial harassment and hyper-policing.
Against the backdrop of the rebellion at Griffith Park, Yorty defeated Paulson on Election Day with the support of Black Los Angeles voters, signaling loud and clear that they demanded positive change with regard to the LAPD. Mayor-elect Yorty signaled change was on the horizon when he stated he would “make a ‘clean sweep’ at City Hall and to put Police Chief Parker through a course of ‘schooling and direction.’”2 Change in leadership, however, would not end the LAPD’s harassment and brutality of Black Los Angeles residents, and the rebellion at Griffith Park would not be the only major violent clash in the early ’60s. For example, the murder of Ronald (X) Stokes and the raid of the Nation of Islam Temple #27 by LAPD on April 27, 1962, received national headlines.
By September of 1962, the California State Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights heard testimony on reports of police misconduct and brutality. Wendell Green of the Citizens Committee against Police Brutality stated that “there is a growing hostility in communities against the present police administration.” He continued, “We don’t encourage persons to report police brutality to the Bureau of Internal Affairs because such reports are often used as evidence against them. We are unable to find any help on the local level.’” Leadership and concerned citizens of Black Los Angeles and their allies continued in vain to seek assistance through the proper channels and yet, many city officials believed that “minority groups have good relations with officers.”3 However, Joe Domanick reports, “In the two year period from 1963-1965, sixty black Angelenos would be killed by the police, twenty-seven of whom were shot in the back. Thousands of other young black men were simultaneously harassed in the street or beaten at the police station houses on Seventy-seventh street, Georgia Street, or Juvenile Hall.” The continued police abuse and lack of sincere concern and investigation suggested to many Black Los Angeles residents that the proper channels were not yielding results.
By late 1962, Mayor Yorty and Chief Parker came together against the Nation of Islam on the matters of policing. Yorty denounced the proposed civilian police review board that the NAACP and ACLU co-sponsored. John Buntin reported that after the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” on August 28, 1963, Chief Parker organized a meeting between LAPD and the National Guard to draft a plan to respond to civil disorder. Parker believed that the March on Washington, and related civil rights activities, was an invitation to revolt. As a result, Buntin stated, “An emergency plan was developed, numbering nearly a hundred pages in length. Later that Fall, LAPD officials wrote a memo on police-guard coordination that included a provision that would permit the use of hand grenades against protesters.” Parker’s department prepared for war, and residents of Black Los Angeles were the enemy combatants. The National Guard was ready to bring military-grade weapons, such as automatic weapons and tanks, into the city.
The fuse of rebellion had been lit. The “proper channels” did not result in tangible change or increased confidence in the LAPD. This, and more, contributed to Black Los Angeles erupting into a fiery inferno called the Watts Rebellion when the proper channels failed.
- “Two Cited Under Lynch Law After Park Riot: Suspects Accused of Assault by Force, Preliminary Hearings set for June 14”, Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1961; “75 Policemen Quell Riot in Griffith Park,” Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1961; “No, This Is Not Alabama,” Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1961. ↩
- Howard Kennedy, “Yorty Pledges Clean Sweep for City Hall”, Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1961. ↩
- “Charges of Racial Discrimination Against Police Hearing,” Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1962. ↩