On August 11, 1965, more than 30,000 people in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood began rioting after the arrest of a young African American motorist. The Watts Riots, also known as the Watts Rebellion, lasted for six days. The riots resulted in three dozen deaths and more than $40 million worth of property damage. It was one of the largest and costliest riots of the Civil Rights Era.
It started with a traffic stop on a Wednesday evening. Stepbrothers Marquette and Ronald Frye were pulled over by Officer Lee Minikus after Marquette was suspected of driving while intoxicated. He failed a sobriety test as a crowd began to gather around the scene. Police were going to tow Frye’s car, so his older stepbrother, Ronald, brought their mother, Rena, to the scene to claim the vehicle.
A scuffle broke out between Marquette and one of the police officers, which resulted in both Rena and Ronald Frye getting involved and a series of fights. Back-up police officers were called to the scene and arrived under the assumption that the crowd was hostile. Marquette was knocked down by a riot baton, handcuffed and taken to the police car. Rena was also arrested and forced into a police car, followed by Ronald, who was handcuffed after attempting to intervene in his stepmother’s arrest peacefully.
The crowd soon grew to nearly 1,000 people as Marquette, Ronald and Rena Frye were all being taken away in handcuffs. Others were arrested during the first night of the riot and a rumor quickly spread that one of those arrested was a pregnant woman. People began throwing rocks at police cruisers, white motorists were pulled out of cars and beaten and store windows were smashed open. The violence from the first night led county officials to call a meeting in Athens Park the next day. Many officials, including Rena Frye, called for a calm gathering.
Anger and distrust between Watts’ residents, the police and city officials had been simmering for years. By the end of the third day, 14,000 National Guard troops were dispatched to the city. Police Commissioner William Parker heightened the tension by describing rioters as “monkeys in a zoo” and by implying Muslims were infiltrating and agitating the situation. Watts resembled a war zone and the violence continued on for three more days.
The six-day riot resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 4,000 arrests. There were 34,000 rioters and 1,000 buildings were destroyed, totaling $40 million in damages. Most of the victims were African Americans. Two policemen and one firefighter were among the casualties. The other 26 deaths, mostly at the hands of LAPD or The National Guard, were deemed justifiable homicides.