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50 years after ‘rebellion,’ Watts still resilient, hopeful

LOS ANGELES — It started with a traffic stop.

On Aug. 11, 1965, a crowd of spectators witnessed white California Highway Patrolman Lee Minkus arresting black motorist Marquette Frye, who was pulled over for suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

Racial tension that had been brewing between white police officers and the predominantly black population of Watts erupted as the crowd grew from a couple dozen to several hundred people.

Whether it was called a revolt, a rebellion or a riot, it was under way, as many longtime Watts residents would say.

In the midst of the civil rights movement, the National Guard was deployed to South Los Angeles and surrounding neighborhoods as rioters burned buildings, looted stores and overturned vehicles for six days.

In 144 hours, nearly 3,500 arrests were made, 34 people were killed, 1,032 people were injured and 600 buildings were damaged with property destruction estimated at more than $40 million.

Historians and eyewitnesses believe the Watts Riots was not a response to the arrest of Frye as much as it was a response to the lack of resources in the community.

“There was riotous behavior during the rebellion,” said Pamela Garret, who today is the executive director of the Watts Summer Festival, which will mark its 49th anniversary Aug. 8 from noon to 9 p.m. at Ted Watkins Park, 1335 E. 103rd St., Watts.

The festival began in 1966, the year after the riots. This year’s theme is “Revolt and Renaissance.” The festival will feature social service agencies, an art exhibit, marketplace, entertainment and a performance from Charles Wright and The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.

“The festival was an act of self-determination and self-defense,” Garret said. “We’re speaking to the fact that there was a revolt and that we had hoped a renaissance of improvement would happen — but that can only happen when the community speaks for itself.”

While the outside world saw Watts and its surrounding neighborhoods in ruins in 1965, Garret, who was 12, saw something different.

“The 1965 revolt led to improvements,” she said. “Many people were able to get jobs, the [King-Drew Medical Center] was built and many self-reliant organizations were formed in the aftermath. It made a difference.”

Cal State Dominguez Hills was another benefit the black community got following the riots of 1965.

At the time, the California State University system was looking to place a campus in the South Bay area.

According to Greg Williams, director of archives and special collections at the university, officials were looking for a location in Dominguez Hills, Torrance or Palos Verdes as the replacement for a temporary campus in Rolling Hills.

“Gov. Pat Brown drove around town and decided Dominguez Hills would be the location in October 1965,” Williams said. “Not only because of its freeway access and high school populations, but also to serve minority communities. It caused quite a bit of controversy.”

Fifty years to the day the riots started, Cal State Dominguez Hills will host “Watts: Then and Now,” an archives and contemporary photography exhibition through Jan. 28, 2016 at the Library Cultural Art Center on the Carson campus.

The “Then” portion will showcase archival material such as newspapers, magazines, books and photos.

“There will be an exhibit case on the McCone report and the response to that report and things that happened immediately after the Watts Riots like the Watts Writers Workshop by Budd Schulberg and Watts Summer Festival,” Williams said.

The exhibition also will display information concerning the rebellion’s impact on the university.

For the “Now” portion of the exhibit, an assistant professor of art and design at the university started visiting Watts in February to shoot photographs that captured different layers of the area.

The 47-photo exhibit is broken into four categories: projects, neighborhood, community and beautiful.

“Everyone has stereotypes,” the photographer, Ellie Zenhari, said. “My intention was to break stereotypes.”

When people look at the photos, Zenhari said she wants them to understand the community and gain awareness on what needs to be changed in Watts.

“When you travel from Compton to Watts, the streets are completely different,” she said. “You don’t see a supermarket. I’m hoping people will take a look and see why one area lacks more than another.”

At the Watts Towers Art Center Campus, 1727 E 107th St., Rosie Lee Hooks said it has been hosting events to commemorate the anniversary since last February.

“We’re fully aware that our young people need to be nurtured,” said Hooks, director of the center. “We were here before the rebellion, during it and still here and we’re continuing to provide unity throughout education.”

At 2 p.m. Aug. 15, the center will partner with the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, 4130 Overland Ave., Culver City, for a film screening and panel discussion of “More Than A Riot: The Joyce Gaines Story,”

The center also will host “Artist Talk: 50 Years and I Still Can’t Breathe” at 1 p.m. Aug. 16 and a bus tour of Watts at 2 p.m. Aug. 25.

“Watts is more than a riot – Watts is a community of families who wants the best for their community,” Hook said. “Stop boxing us into all the negativity that is always said in the media.”

“Watts Re:Imagined,” an initiative led by Grant Housing and Economic Development Corporation and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Urban Solutions Program, will host “Watts’ Story by Watts People” at 6 p.m. Aug. 10 at Grant AME Church, 10435 S. Central Ave., Watts.

On the eve of the anniversary, organizers said current residents and those who lived in the neighborhood during the 1960s will share their stories. The Watts Theater Company also will perform a preview of its new play “Riot/Rebellion,” which tells the story of the uprising.

“We hope attendees take away the rich history of Watts and the strength of a community who has fought back from devastation to see a bright and hopeful future,” said Chris Jordan, executive director of Grant Housing and Economic Development.

“Watts Re:Imagined” also plans to unveil its initiative and action plans on the actual anniversary.

“There have been several existing plans,” Jordan said. “Watts has been studied and planned over and over for several years. We looked at those plans and took some projects we could actually do like green infrastructure and economic development along 103rd Street and Central Avenue, called the Gateway Project.”

Another community event, “Watts Revolt: 50 Years Later Symposium,” will be hosted by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Human Relations Commission from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 15 at Charles R. Drew Univeristy, 1731 E. 120th St., Willowbrook.

A panel discussion at the Leimert Park Book Festival Aug. 1 discusses the Watts Riot. Pictured, from left, are professor Johnie Scott, Dr. Bernard Kinsey, Watts Labor Community Action Center President Tim Watkins, activist Dee Pitcher and attorney J. Stanley Sanders. (Photo courtesy of Fifth Avenue Times)
A panel discussion at the Leimert Park Book Festival Aug. 1 discusses the Watts Riot. Pictured, from left, are professor Johnie Scott, Dr. Bernard Kinsey, Watts Labor Community Action Center President Tim Watkins, activist Dee Pitcher and attorney J. Stanley Sanders. (Photo courtesy of Fifth Avenue Times)

The Watt Riots also was the topic of a panel discussion Aug. 1 at the Leimert Park Village Book Fair at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

During the discussion, attorney J. Stanley Sanders, one of the co-founders of the Watts Summer Festival, described returning to Watts just in time to see it erupt in flames.

Tim Watkins, president and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, recalled a personal memory that opened his eyes to a new reality.

“On the day that the revolt broke out, we did not know what was going on, we just knew we needed to be safe and stay close to home,” Watkins said. “That evening, I was in my front yard with my parents. We heard the tires of a sheriff’s car screeching at the corner and a scream at a guy to put his hands against the wall. They frisked him. The officer took a few steps back, shot the man in the back, jumped in the car and screeched off. When I saw that, it changed my perception forever.

“I had always been taught to respect and trust law enforcement because in elementary school, they told us stories about the police finding lost children and helping people find their way home,” Watkins added.

“I am now 62 years old. … I see this happening over and over again. It is a lesson and a history of broken promises.”

The panel, moderated by Starlette Quarles, host of the local radio talk show “Dialogue,” also included historian, art collector and philanthropist Bernard Kinsey, Cal State Northridge professor Johnie Scott and Watts resident Dee Pitcher, whose father was shot during the riots.

Contributing writer Debra Varnado also contributed to this story.