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Los Angeles Marks 50th Anniversary of Watts Riots

  • Zlatica Hoke

As Ferguson, Missouri observes the first anniversary of riots sparked by the shooting of a black man by a white policeman, the West Coast city of Los Angeles marks the 50th anniversary of the riots in a poor African-American neighborhood also sparked by a clash between white policemen and black residents. Some protesters from the 1965 Watts riots still have vivid memories of that event.

Masai Minters was 15 years old during the riots.

"You could see the helicopters buzzing around, the fires burning, the plumes of smoke, the people in the streets, the red lights flashing, the noise, the activity… it was electric, it was crazy, it was busy," he recalled.

On August 11, 1965, a routine traffic stop in Watts turned into a scuffle between police officers and the African-American community from that poor neighborhood. The angry protest over rough police treatment of the man who was stopped and his mother escalated into six days of violent riots that shook Los Angeles. Hundreds of buildings were damaged, 34 people were killed and more than a thousand were wounded.

An exhibit at a local college, built soon after the riots, documents the violence.

There was another uprising in the area in 1992 after a videotape surfaced of police brutally beating black taxi driver Rodney King.

"The reason that LA hasn’t exploded again is because we are aware of the past. The police department is aware of the past," said Gregory Williams, director of archives and special collections at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Watts residents say they have learned from experience that violence does not help.

"People in Watts understand that another riot just re-enforces the stigma that is already going on. So to eliminate that, and get rid of this idea that it is such a dangerous place, people are not willing to put themselves in that situation all over again," said Shanice Joseph, 23, a Watts resident.

The Watts neighborhood remains persistently poor, but relations between its residents and a more diverse police force have improved. Residents hope the same will happen in other black neighborhoods in the United States.

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