Today in Tragedy History – The Watts Riots

Every now and then on Tragedy Weekly we will take a look at a tragedy that happened in the past. As tragedies become an everyday occurrence it can be easy to forget that tragedies are not a new thing, they have always been a fact of life. This feature will help remind us of the tragic moments time has forgotten.

It was this day in 1965 that riots broke out in the predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. The riots, which lasted for six days, resulted in 34 deaths and millions of dollars worth of damage. The riots were the worst of their kind until the Rodney King riots in 1992Now, we’re going to tell you the story about how the riots got started, but first we need to establish some context. America in 1965 was a vastly different place than it is now. It was a place of great political and racial unrest. Protests were common and it was equally common for them to become violent. The police at the time had a reputation for targeting African Americans and treating them unjustly. Tensions were high between the the African American community and the predominately white police force. Watts was a symbol of the issue, and things were bound to reach a boiling point.

Fortunately things like this don’t happen anymore. As we all know racism and racial inequality were eliminated during the Reagan administration.

Enough context. It was late in the evening when 21 year-old Marquette Frye was pulled over for drunk driving. He was given a sobriety test and failed. During the stop a crowd of onlookers began to form (remember now there was no Netflix or Game of Thrones back then).  during the stop Marquette’s brother, who was the passenger o the car, went to get their mother to drive the car home. Marquette’s mother yelled yelled at him, he yelled back, and then all hell broke loose.


The police started beating Marquette, then they beat his mother, then the whole crowd got involved and before you know it you have a six day shit fest of historical proportions.

In the days that followed there was widespread looting and massive fires. About 600 buildings were set on fire during the riots and some of them were burnt to the ground. From August 11 to August 16, 1965, this little section of Los Angeles was a war zone. The riot peaked on the 13th and the National Guard was called in to help quell the unrest.

It can be hard to imagine in 2016 how a simple traffic stop could escalate into such a massive riot. It’s almost as if the police and this impoverished black neighborhood were looking for an excuse to fight. America was in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in 1965 and maybe this riot was the amalgamation of all of the frustration the black community was feeling at the time.

Sometimes it takes something like this for a country to learn. In 2016 the systematic racism that helped to ensure that African Americans remained impoverished has been identified and completely abolished. Once Americans saw this tragedy on their TV screens they reflected on the way they were looking at their fellow man. They realized the dangers of drawing race lines and separating one-another into categories. The collective American consciousness realized the true meaning of “all people created equal” and started living by that, treating it like a mantra.

Of course you know that’s bullshit. Race relations in the United States are the worst they’ve ever been and many people don’t even know about these riots. So fuck it.

A lot has changed in Watts since 1962 though, it’s mostly Latinos that live there now.

Further Reading: The Seattle Times , The LA Times
Image Credit: New York World-Telegram, August 1965