© 2024 KSUT Public Radio
NPR News and Music Discovery for the Four Corners
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Decades After L.A. Riots, Watts Still Suffers

"Sweet Alice" Harris has been living in the Watts neighborhood for 46 years, and sees little improvement since the 1965 riots.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR /
"Sweet Alice" Harris has been living in the Watts neighborhood for 46 years, and sees little improvement since the 1965 riots.

On a red-hot August night in 1965, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles exploded with racial frustration. Six days later, 34 people were dead, hundreds more injured and a wide swath of South-Central L.A. was scarred with burned-out buildings and looted stores.

The unrest began with a routine traffic stop by CHP officer Lee Minikus. He arrested 20-year-old Marquette Fry for suspicion of driving under the influence, and things got out of hand when Fry's mother arrived at the scene and started yelling at the officer. A crowd began to form, and by the time Fry was booked, the riot was under way, sparked by rumors that the officer had beaten an elderly woman.

Forty years later, many area residents still remember those days. Some still term it a rebellion, not a riot. The official government report concluded the riots were rooted in discontent over high unemployment; poor housing and medical care; and bad schools. Relations with the police were at an all-time low.

Alice Harris -- known as "Sweet Alice" to her neighbors -- has lived in Watts for 46 years. She says things haven't changed much at all. "Everybody is tense -- no jobs, zero tolerance in the housing projects... people scared of the police," she says.

Tommy Jaquette, now a community activist and director of the Watts Summer Festival, was 21 years old in 1965, and a friend of Fry's. He says he knows what it was like to be a young black man in 1965, always getting harassed by white police officers.

"I knew the frustration, the hostility, and I knew the attitude of the police -- and it was payback time, for the most part," he says.

Police were ordered to shoot to kill, and 14,000 National Guard troops rolled in, complete with tanks. Businesses went up in smoke; most never returned.

After the riots, Watts finally got a grocery store and a medical center -- but mismanagement at the hospital threatens to close it down. The jobless rate is still high, and schools are still in bad shape.

Harris says if things don't shape up, things could turn violent yet again. "I don't want to be in another riot... I don't want children or grandchildren to be in a riot. It's dangerous."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
Related Stories