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On This Day: Watts Spiraled Into Flames at the Hands of the LAPD as Mayor Yorty Blamed “Communists” for Sowing Black Resentment

55 years ago, Black residents of Watts rose up against institutionalized violence.

uildings burning during the 1965 Watts Rebellion.
A black and white photo of Buildings burning during the 1965 Watts Rebellion.
Buildings burning during the 1965 Watts Rebellion. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

55 years ago, the material gains of a summer celebrated for its record-setting economy led to prosperity for whites; however, these material gains missed Black youth in Watts and South Los Angeles when then-Mayor Yorty went rogue. In violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s “maximum feasible participation” clause, which sought to give local elected working-class community members an active role in community development programs, Mayor Yorty refused to create an official set of anti-poverty programs in areas such as Watts, South Central, or the Chicano Eastside of Los Angeles. At the same time, LAPD officers in 1965 virtually resembled the white Southern segregationists, and in fact many came from the South, as with the 77th Street division of the LAPD. Officers in the de facto segregated south side of Los Angeles regularly harassed Black folks living there with jail, fines, and even worse indignation.

In Set the Night on Fire, Mike Davis and Jon Wiener provide one anecdote of the latter, reporting the story of Beverly Tate, a 22-year-old Black woman and mother who, at some point during the morning of July 1st, 1965, was stopped in her car by police, ordered out of the passenger’s seat, taken to a discreet location, and subsequently raped by LAPD officer W.D. McCloud as another LAPD officer stood watch. Tate’s story was given a brief mention as a “rumor” on the Los Angeles Times on July 31st of that year, and was also reported in Jet magazine on August 12th, 1965.

While McCloud was fired from the LAPD the next day, he was never charged with a crime. There is also no report available regarding whether or not the officer who stood watch over the rape faced any consequences. However, the Black community in Los Angeles at the time was well aware of the assault, and viewed it as yet another example of the LAPD’s blatant disregard for Black life throughout the city. In October of 1965, Tate, who was five months pregnant, died mysteriously of “unknown causes,” survived by her two children.

Together, each of these factors and more converged when a group of 77th Street officers decided to jail an entire Black family following an unnecessary traffic stop outside their home near the Watts area. When a crowd gathered in shock at the LAPD’s manhandling of the family members, the officers responded aggressively in an effort to intimidate the crowd back. But after a few women jeered at the police officers, the officers grabbed several of the women from the crowd in an attempt to drag them into their patrol cars on “battery” charges. That’s when the bystanders erupted, throwing soda cans at the LAPD and chasing them out of the vicinity.

What followed over the next six days was a bloodbath in which law enforcement treated Black Los Angeles like the Viet Cong guerrilla force in South Vietnam. Along with M14-toting National Guard troops, the LAPD, armed with shotguns, shot to kill, and jailed, Black citizens in Watts and in South Central in an effort to subdue the community’s outrage at the inequities of joblessness and over-policed Black bodies. In less than a week, LAPD and National Guard troops would kill 26 civilians, and injure and arrest thousands more, overwhelmingly Black Angelenos, but also Latino Angelenos. All 26 civilian deaths would be deemed by the LAPD and subsequent commissions as justifiable homicides, while Mayor Yorty backed these findings, to the satisfaction of then-police-chief Parker.

For its part, the news media during this period would center and reinforce the narrative of white victimization in predominantly Black Watts, publishing headlines such as, “‘Get Whitey,’ Scream Blood-Hungry Mobs” and “Racial Unrest Laid to Negro Family Failure.” Such coverage, along with media reels of disorder in the community, only stoked further white resentment of Black people all across Los Angeles. Groups of white caravans from places such as the Valley and other white strongholds would arrive to attack Black people in Watts. These groups were turned away by the LAPD, but not arrested.

Fifty five years later, Watts is now 80% Latino, and less than 20% Black, but it remains one of the most impoverished areas in all of Los Angeles. More than a quarter of the population in the Watts area lives below the federal poverty line. The vast majority of the conditions that fueled Black outrage in 1965, including joblessness and scant access to a college education, adequate healthcare, and homeownership, remain stubbornly locked in. Or, as the Reverend Marcus Murchinson tells it:

“Multiple generations of the same families continue to live in public housing projects and only a small percentage get off government assistance and achieve the dream of owning a home.”

It has been said that change is the only constant. Yet in places like Watts, those are but words in contrast to a stark reality on the ground. To turn the unjust conditions of these places around, and to improve the quality of life in this part of Los Angeles, it will take more than activism. It will take a rain of support, in contrast to the rain of fire that engulfed this community fifty-five summers ago. Yorty, for his part, has been dead for more than two decades now, but the federal money he and his political allies held back, to the detriment of Black employment, education, and home ownership, remain missing in action.

Originally published at https://jimbotimes.com on August 11, 2020.

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