50 Years Later, the Embers of the Watts Riots Still Glow

August 18, 2015
Watts Towers: Photo Copyright Mark Nye - flic.kr/p/a4MUYV

Photo Copyright Mark Nye – flic.kr/p/a4MUYV

By LaWayne Williams

On August 11, 1965 in Watts, an ember erupted into flames. The routine traffic stop of 21 year old Marquette Frye sparked a series of events that would forever change Los Angeles. 34 people died during the Watts Riots and the community absorbed $40 million in damages. The ember sparked by Frye’s arrest was the result of deep-seated anger, spurred by the culmination of racism, residential segregation, poverty and police brutality.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots, there is an eeriness in the striking similarity that the Watts riots have to contemporary uprisings across the country. Despite the separation of five decades and landmark federal legislation that sought to tear down the walls of racism and segregation, the optics and narratives look and sound the same. The conditions within many communities – joblessness, blight, high incarceration rates, inequitable wages –appear to be the same as well. All this leaves me desperately searching for a way to explain such events to my 11 year-old daughter and 7 year-old son.

She asked me “Why?” If I’m honest, I would admit that I have been at a loss for words over the past year. We’ve been bombarded with footage of police officers inflicting violence on unarmed men, women and children, oftentimes resulting in gun violence and death.

I remember how I felt as a child watching television during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. I turned to my grandmother and asked her “Why?” She simply shook her head and said “they are just fed up.” They felt they had little to lose.

News accounts and the public discourse described the events that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of Michael Brown and even the murder of Eric Garner in Staten Island as isolated incidents. However, in interviews and conversations with people living in those communities, you will hear over and over again that people had gotten weary of strained relationships with law enforcement and conditions that seemed to persist. The frustration, distrust, disparagement and discrimination felt by communities across the country begs the question of how much have things changed since 1965.

Since 2014, I have been honored to help manage BLOOM, which seeks to create positive and productive futures for young Black men in South L.A. who have become enmeshed in the justice system. California Community Foundation’s BLOOM—(Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men) is one among several philanthropic initiatives aiming to building resilience and propel systems change within what is emerging as an era of scrutiny and reform within criminal justice and law enforcement. Still, education achievement gaps, economic inequities and inadequate access to healthcare continue to plague the most vulnerable communities across the country, continue to act as kindling. Almost all the uprisings we have seen over the course of the last 50 years trace back to a single incident, a spark that became a roaring inferno.

The complexities that lead to uprisings such as Watts, South Central L.A., Ferguson and Baltimore force us to consider the notion that inequity and depressed conditions in communities are functions of institutional prejudice rather than individual level involvement and effort.

As a country, we cannot continue to ignore the societal disparities that light these fires or be surprised when communities erupt. I hope that my children’s enduring question of “Why?” persists until we as a nation begin to understand the complexities underlying the Watts rebellion and the steps we must all take to put out the fires of generational poverty, unjust incarceration practices, non-compliant law enforcement and policies that reinforce a status quo.

LaWayne Williams is the program manager for the California Community Foundation’s BLOOM (Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men).

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