The Watts Riot Reminds That History Is Cyclical

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

The “long hot, summer” of 1965 was a year of violent uprisings across the United States due to strained race relations at the height of the civil rights movement. America was on fire. Black people were tired and took their frustrations to the streets during and following the arrest of a Black motorist in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The history of police brutality tells harsh truths of how hate and racism disproportionately impacts the lives of Black people and other people of color. The Watts riot is just one example of a people exhausted from the unrelenting oppression at the hands of their government and the police force they empower to carry out their dominance. The Watts riot started August 11 and ended August 16, 1965. The arrest of Marquette Frye, his mother Rena and stepbrother Ronald sparked the violence that brought Los Angeles to its knees.

The Watts riot was not an isolated incident. 1964 and 1965 recorded similar events breaking out across the country prior to the Watts explosion. The History channel reports, “In 1964, there was a three-day riot in Rochester, NY, leaving four dead; in the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, a six-day riot involving as many as 4,000 people following the shooting of a young Black man; in Philadelphia, a three-day riot following the arrest of a Black couple who had gotten into a scuffle with police; and a three-day riot in Chicago when a Black woman attempting to shoplift alcohol was attacked by the store owner and crowds later gathered to protest.” 

Other events leading to the Watts riot include, the 1961 arrest of a Black man in Griffith Park for riding a merry-go-round without a ticket. That incident resulted in crowds throwing rocks and bottles at police. And in 1962 there was unrest following the police raid on a Nation of Islam mosque that killed an unarmed man.

Two years leading up to the Watts riot, 65 Black people were shot by police, 27 of them were shot in the back and 25 of them were unarmed. During this period in Los Angeles there were 250 demonstrations against living conditions and police brutality. It’s clear why 1965 was named the “long, hot summer.”

The Watts riot was among the worst uprisings in the U.S. due to already strained race relations. 35 people lost their lives during the 6-day rebellion, and more than 1,000 people were injured. Property damage topped $200 million. Although tempting, we cannot forget that the violence ignited by the brutal murder of George Floyd has been par for the course of Black lives in America. History is cyclical. As long as those in power refuse to recognize and adequately address the contributions of Black people in the making of America, their continued brutalization and mistreatment despite their rightful credit for the glory, status and wealth of our nation, or budge to the will of the people and humanity, these violent events will continue. Author, iconic orator and civil rights activist James Baldwin once asked, “How much time does America need for its progress?” Today, the question remains unanswered. My question is: How much more time does America need to progress towards a new world order that honors humanity, paves the way for equality, and finally usher in true liberty for all her people?

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