Remembering, Rethinking, and Renaming the Watts Rebellion

LOS ANGELES – MAY 30, 2020: Participants Of Protest March Against Police Violence Over Death Of George Floyd (Shuttershock)

Stop referring to what happened in Los Angeles from August 11- 16, 1965 as the Watts Riot. Call the events the Los Angeles Rebellion recognizes the voice and agency of the people. Several works chronicle the decades long unequal and oppressive racialized power dynamics and relationships with police and Los Angeles’ non-white residents.1 It is important to note that the revolt did not begin in Watts nor was it limited to Watts. Damage occurred in a 46.5 square mile zone, where Watts is only 2.12 square miles of the total. The rebellion occurred in most of Black Los Angeles.  

The arrests of Marquette, Ronald, and Rena Frye after a routine traffic stop on August 11, 1965 at 116th Street and Avalon Blvd. ignited the revolt, but these arrests were not the cause in, and of, themselves. They were the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Black youth targeted white people as representatives of unequal racial power relationships and law enforcement as agents of the state who maintain the unequal racial power dynamics. The rebellion, then, sought to change the racial structure, power dynamics, and relationships. Initially, those engaging in the rebellion attacked police and whites who were passing by, overturned cars, pelted police cars with rocks, bottles, bricks, and other missiles. Black youth went on the offensive and engaged in urban guerilla warfare. They did not amass in a large group but dispersed throughout the city engaging in “hit and run” tactics. They would antagonize officers instigating a foot chase where Black youth would lead them down allies to be ambushed by an onslaught of bricks and bottles. They would shoot at police helicopters, firefighters, and paramedics as well.  

Beginning on the evening of August 12 and early morning of the 13th, Black youth would target large department stores and destroy credit records. They would also liberate goods they had pawned in pawn shops that were often exploitative in their practices. Black youth were organized in their liberation of goods from stores as one car would drive up and break out the windows and drive away while subsequent cars drove up to seize and load merchandise. Essentially, the burning occurred after the store was emptied. Black youth used citizens band radios and payphones to coordinate efforts. They would watch television and listen to the radio for updates on the rebellion activities occurring in other parts of Black Los Angeles. Even Black residents who were not in favor of the actions of the youth conceded that it was inevitable given the long abuse of force by law enforcement and exploitative business practices in the city. The very actions of the Black youth, then, critiqued police brutality and capitalist exploitation. 

Black youth engaged in urban rebellion to dispense retaliatory violence. One teenage girl was quoted as shouting, “White men, you started all this the day you brought the first slave to this country.” By connecting the enslavement of African people and the continued resistance to racialized oppression by their descendants, the teenage girl gestured towards the inter-generational anti-Black racism experienced by Black people in the United States. The statement places the guilt and responsibility for this urban revolt on white people and their racialized imperialist agenda across generations. Another young girl said, 

“You created this monster and it’s going to consume you. White man, you got a tiger by the tail. You can’t hold it. You can’t let it go. The next time you see us we’ll be carrying guns. It’s too late, white man. You had your chance. Now it’s our turn.”

Although it was largely Black young men who participated in the rebellion, these quotations illustrate that Black women were not only present, but voiced their anger and frustrations about their conditions as well. She essentially stated that “enough was enough” and now Black youth were arming themselves.  

Watani Stiner, Us Organization advocate and COINTELPRO survivor remembers running down the street shouting Remember Emmett Till? the fourteen-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi August 28, 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman in a grocery store. Stiner’s “Remember Emmett Till?” pointed to the fact that the violence and destruction in this rebellion was retributive. Essentially, the revolt was not about the Frye’s alone. It was about the inter-generational violence African people and their descendants endured at the hands of racist white de jure and de facto agents of the state. 

Viewing the police as enemy combatants, Black youth signaled their willingness to go to war with the police. Ultimately, such assertions in the midst of rebellion capture the attitudes, feelings, and emotions of the moment: anger, frustration and disenchantment in the face of racialized oppression and subjugation. LAPD, as agents of the State, became the target of retaliatory violence and retributive justice. Effectively, this rebellion was a revolt against those who would deny human respect and dignity to Black people, while limiting their quality of life and material conditions. Gerald Horne references a CBS radio editorial broadcast, stating: 

“This was not a riot. It was an insurrection against all authority.’ To drive the point home, the words were repeated with emphasis, ‘This was not a riot. If it had gone much further, it would have become civil war.”

A riot is disorderly lawlessness and disturbance of the peace. Order, however, meant keeping Black people in their place. Furthermore, in Black Los Angeles in the early ’60s, high unemployment and hyper-policing with its accompanied brutality did not result in peace for Black Los Angeles residents. It was not a riot that occurred August 11- 16, 1965. It was open rebellion against brutal policing and exploitative merchants alien to Black Los Angeles, and a message to the governing body that Black Los Angeles was demanding change. 

On August 19, however, Eric Malnic and Art Berman of the Los Angeles Times reports that Albert H. Wood, the executive director of Western Insurance Information Service, indicated “that many major insurance companies have agreed not to consider the rioting an insurrection. Damage payments, therefore, should be made according to contracts.” Here, insurance companies sided with business owners agreeing to pay for damages sustained over the seven days by making a calculated decision to refer to the weeklong incident as a riot. The fact that insurance companies, who generally would prefer not to pay out for damages, referring to the seven days of unrest as a riot reduced the resistance of Black youth to mindless, apolitical and delinquent action. Nevertheless, community activist Archie Hardwick asserts, 

“This was a male revolt directed at the white power structure. There is a different type of Negro emerging from the 18-25 year old bracket….they identify with Malcolm X’s philosophy.”

The anger and frustrations of racialized living conditions, limited employment opportunities, and harassment by police resulted in this seven-day rebellion. As Los Angeles historian Mike Davis avers, the Los Angeles “rebellion was, among other things, a protest against the racist ‘Cotton Curtain’ that excluded blacks from the higher-wage jobs in the industrial belt east of Alameda Street, as well as against rampant police brutality, racking renting and petty usury.” The majority of the participants were Black male youth’s and young adults, directing their anger at the symbols of their oppression by attacking the police and the looting and burning of exploitative businesses throughout Los Angeles. Hence, the Los Angeles Rebellion.  

  1. Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Los Angeles, 2005); John Buntin, L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City (New York, 2009); Kelly Lytle Hernandez, City of Inmates: The Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2017); Joe Domanick, To Protect and Serve: LAPD’s Century of War in the City of Dreams (New York, 1994); Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (New York, 2020); Frederick Knight, “Justifiable Homicide, Police Brutality, or Governmental Repression? The 1962 Los Angeles Police Shouting of Seven Members of the Nation of Islam,” in The Journal of Negro History (Spring 1994, Vol. 79, 182-196); Spencer Crump, Black Riot in Los Angeles: The Story of the Watts Tragedy (Los Angeles, 1966); Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present (Los Angeles, 2003).
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M. Keith Claybrook, Jr.

M. Keith Claybrook, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach where he teaches classes on history, the social sciences, and critical thinking. His research interests include the history of Black Los Angeles, the Black Freedom Movement, the Black Student Movement, 21st Century Black student activism, 21st Century Pan Africanism, Reparations, and Hip Hop. He is the author of Building the Basics: A Handbook for Pursuing Academic Excellence in Africana Studies. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Beyond the Spectacle: The Intellectual Work of the Black Power Era in Los Angeles, 1965-1975.