The Case for Civil Unrest: The Watts Riots and Institutional Racism

On August 11, 1965, a police patrol in the Watts district of Los Angeles, California pulled over Marquette Frye, an African American man, under the suspicion that he was driving while intoxicated. Arresting officer Lee

Marquette Frye’s scuffle with police during his arrest. (Getty Images, 1965.)

W. Minikus administered a field sobriety test and subsequently placed Frye under arrest. Marquette’s brother, Ronald, who had been a passenger in the vehicle, walked home and brought their mother, Rena Price, to the scene of the crime. Price scolded Frye for drinking and driving, but soon a fight broke out between the family and police. A sizable crowd had gathered after rumors circulated that police officers were beating Frye and had kicked a pregnant woman. [1] As the scuffle between the two officers, Frye, and Price continued, the spectators became increasingly agitated. Tension built, and when Minikus drew his gun, the crowd erupted. The five days that followed became known as one of the most destructive demonstrations of civil unrest in the history of the city of Los Angeles, and set the tone for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. [2]

The front page of the Los Angeles Times the day after riots broke out. (The Los Angeles Times, 12 August 1965.)

The Watts Riots, sometimes referred to as the Watts Rebellion, raged on for nearly five days. The angry crowd that had gathered to witness Frye’s arrest near the corner of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street believed they were witnessing an incident of racially charged abuse by the police. The spectators turned into a mob, hurling chunks of concrete and rocks at officers. Rioting moved into the commercial part of the neighborhood soon after, and participants began to loot businesses and set buildings ablaze. The day after the initial riots broke out, black community leaders and local police held a meeting in an attempt to quell the unrest, but to no avail. [3]

One of the many blockades set up by law enforcement in Watts, with a sign threatening deadly force. (Getty Images, 1965.)

With riots escalating, Los Angeles police chief William H. Parker asked for assistance from the California National Guard and compared the situation to fighting the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War. On August 13, about 2,300 National Guardsmen arrived in Watts, and, by nightfall, nearly 16,000 total law enforcement personnel had been deployed to maintain order. Blockades were established within the riot zone, with signage indicating that law enforcement would use deadly force. Sergeant Ben Dunn, one of the National Guardsmen deployed in Watts, said, “The streets of Watts resembled an all-out war zone in some far-off foreign country, it bore no resemblance to the United States of America,” furthering the comparison of the riots to an act of war, which was a common view held by white people at the time, and often how riots like these are remembered in the public collective memory. A curfew was declared for all black-majority neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and a policy of mass arrest was enacted. Nearly 3,500 people were arrested solely for curfew violations. [2]

In addition to looting and arson, participants in the riots engaged in physical confrontations with law enforcement, with some hurling bricks and pieces of pavement at Guardsmen, police, and their vehicles, and others participating as snipers and targeting officers from rooftops. Rioters also beat white bystanders and motorists and prevented firefighters from performing their duties, as well as targeted white-owned businesses for the acts of arson and looting. [4] The riots had died down by August 15. Approximately 35,000 adults had participated in the rioting, while about 70,000 people had been “sympathetic, but not active.” When all was said and done, 34 people had been killed, 1,032 people had been injured, 3,438 people had been arrested and an estimated $40 million in property damage had been sustained. [5]

The McCone Commission

The McCone Commission was created by governor of California Pat Brown and headed by its namesake, former CIA director John A. McCone, to investigate the causes of the rioting in Watts. The Commission released a 101 page report that identified the causes of the unrest as being high unemployment, poor schooling, and the basic inferior living conditions of African Americans. In turn, the Commission proposed “emergency literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing, more job-training projects, upgraded health-care services, more efficient public transportation, and many more [programs]” to help prevent further violence in the district. [6] However, most of the recommendations were not and still have not been acted upon. [7]

Institutional Racism’s Role in the Riots

Marquette Frye’s arrest was not the principal cause of the Watts Riots, but rather the spark that set the fire on already poured gasoline. In addition to previous riots inspiring unrest, such as the Harlem Riots in 1964, the Watts district of Los Angeles was a deeply impoverished predominately black neighborhood. African American citizens were growing embittered due to a lack of opportunity in the job market, substandard and segregated housing [8], inadequate schooling, and the prevalence of police brutality [9], all of which had led to a low standard of living. Impoverished black people felt constant frustration, because they saw the civil rights acts being passed and heard the promises for a good future coming from politicians, but they were still living in inferior conditions when compared to their white counterparts.

A Civil Rights protest, in which black women demanded basic amenities. (Getty Images, exact date unknown.)

The riots also stemmed from the Second Great Migration, in which African Americans from the South moved northward and westward from 1941 to 1970 in an attempt to escape oppressive Jim Crow laws. The influx of African Americans to the cities, such as Los Angeles, pushed whites to the suburbs in what was coined “white flight,” draining cities of vital resources and taxes. Urban areas, such as the Watts district, became nearly the same as the South, as African Americans were being denied jobs by white employers, housing became strictly segregated and scarce, and police brutality skyrocketed out of white fear. African Americans uprooted their lives to escape systemic racism only to fall even deeper into poverty and still experience institutional racism on the same scale as they had in the South. When black people began to speak out about the injustices they faced during the Civil Rights Movement, white Americans living in these areas were horrified by what they thought they saw, and what they saw was the work of a lawless black mob incited to riot by the war on poverty that had been initiated by President Johnson. This mindset gave way to a resurgent politics of race, which pushed the falsehood that most people living in poverty were people of color, as well as the ideology of zero sum gain, which was the belief that when black people gain, everyone loses, especially working class whites. These frustrations culminated in riots, much like the Watts Riots, in predominately black neighborhoods across the country. [10] The resurgent politics of race that emerged from this era has continued today, bringing to light the fact that memories of the past can influence the modern political landscape.

A Modern Connection

Like the Watts Riots, Black Lives Matter protests are fueled by police brutality, but ultimately stem from institutional racism leading to inferior living conditions and white-on-black violence. One journalist even called it the original Black Lives Matter protest. [11] Many Black Lives Matter protesters cite the memory of riots like the Watts Riots as the inspiration for their fight against institutional racism, while opponents of the movement cite the memory of riots like the Watts Riots as being the reason movements like Black Lives Matter are dangerous. Like its predecessor, the Black Lives Matter movement has been criticized as militant and has been referred to in the language of war, emphasizing the fact that black protests are often remembered in terms of its violence rather than its aims. While the Black Lives Matter protests are sparked by instances of police brutality, they draw inspiration for their demands from those of the Watts rioters- freedom from racism and the right to basic and fairly distributed amenities.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles, where the Watts Riots took place. (The Los Angeles Times, Ferrari, E., 2014)


[1] Dawsey, Darrell (August 19, 1990). “To CHP Officer Who Sparked Riots, It Was Just Another Arrest”Los Angeles Times.

[2] Hinton, Elizabeth (2016). From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Harvard University Press. pp. 68–72.

[3] Watts Riots records, Collection no. 0084, Regional History Collection, Special Collections, USC Libraries, University of Southern California.

[4] Oberschall, Anthony (1968). “The Los Angeles Riot of August 1965”. Social Problems. 15 (3): 322–341.

[5] Reitman, Valerie; Landsberg, Mitchell (August 11, 2005). “Watts Riots, 40 Years Later”Los Angeles Times.

[6] Report of the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots. Los Angeles: Kimtex, 1965.

[7] Dawsey, Darrell (July 8, 1990). “25 Years After the Watts Riots : McCone Commission’s Recommendations Have Gone Unheeded”Los Angeles Times.

[8] The Great Migration: Creating a New Black Identity in Los Angeles.

[9] Watts Riots (August 1965) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. The Black Past (August 11, 1965).

[10] Bernstein, Shana (2010). Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Oxford University Press. pp. 107–109.

[11] Hahn, Rep. Janice. “50 Years After the Watts Riots, the Original Black Lives Matter Protest.” The Huffington Post., 11 Aug. 2015.

Related Articles

John Africa and the MOVE Organization

The 1967 Milwaukee Riot through the words of the Milwaukee Star

Black Perspectives on the Contested Use of Violence for Liberation


One thought on “The Case for Civil Unrest: The Watts Riots and Institutional Racism”

  1. Your point that blacks were frustrated due to the effects of institutional racism, such as inadequate housing and schools, lack of jobs, and police brutality, speaks directly to the larger points of my own article on violence. This is so important because many people today think that black violence is unjustified or unwarranted when really it is a result of the direct oppression of blacks by whites and white supremacy. Pushing people far enough and they will (reasonably) break. Many in the Black Power movement recognized that, although this violence could be used against them by whites, that violence was a legitimate community emotional response to oppression.

Leave a Reply