Watts Riots, 40 Years Later

Times Staff Writers

The divisions are still there, 40 years later.

To many, the events that began in Watts on Aug. 11, 1965, remain a riot, pure and simple — a social breakdown into mob rule and criminality. To others, they were a revolt, a rebellion, an uprising — a violent but justified leap into a future of black self-empowerment.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the riots, The Times asked nine people, all of whom witnessed the events firsthand, to recount their memories of six days that changed their lives and the course of the city. They include a rioter, a business owner, a Highway Patrol officer, a National Guardsman, ordinary residents and a newspaper reporter.

The riots that summer were sparked by the arrest of a black motorist, Marquette Frye, for drunk driving. When Frye’s mother intervened, a crowd gathered and the arrest became a flashpoint for anger against police. The deeper causes, as documented by the McCone Commission, which investigated the riots, were poverty, inequality, racial discrimination and the passage, in November 1964, of Proposition 14 on the California ballot. That initiative had overturned the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which established equality of opportunity for black home buyers.

After nearly a week of rioting, 34 people, 25 of them black, were dead and more than 1,000 were injured. More than 600 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Thriving business districts, their stores mostly white-owned, were burned to the ground. Eventually, the National Guard put a cordon around a vast region of South Los Angeles that ranged as far east as Alameda Street, as far west as Crenshaw Boulevard, and from just south of the Santa Monica Freeway to about Rosecrans Avenue.

The recollections that follow are repeated as they were spoken. However, in the interests of space and readability, they have been condensed, without the usual ellipses to indicate cuts. In a few cases, they have been reorganized or lightly edited for clarity. Subjects were allowed to review the edited interviews.

Lee W. Minikus: ‘I Would Do Exactly What I Did at the Time.’

California Highway Patrolman Lee W. Minikus, then 31, arrested Marquette Frye, along with Frye’s stepbrother and mother about 7:45 p.m. on Aug. 11, 1965. Now retired, Minikus, 71, lives in Bellingham, Wash.

It was hotter than hell, maybe 93 or 94 degrees. When it gets that hot, you can just smell the heat. We’d spent the first four hours of the 12-hour shift patrolling Gardena, Lawndale, Hawthorne, that area. Towards 6 that evening, we started moving toward Watts. It was at Avalon and El Segundo when I saw the suspect make a wide turn. A black gentleman pulled up [to my motorcycle] and said the guy was drunk. So I went after him. I pulled [Marquette Frye] over at 116th and Avalon.

It was his mother who actually caused the problem. She got upset with the son because he was drunk. He blew up. And then we had to take him into custody. After we handcuffed him, his mom jumped on my back, and his brother was hitting me. Of course they were all arrested.

We were gone before the [rioting began]. That’s why I was upset when I was walking out of the substation, and I was asked by an L.A. Times reporter, “How do you feel about starting a riot?” I said, “Say what?”

We were put in 11 cars, three men per car. We had shotguns, one per car, and, of course, batons. At Avalon and Imperial, we pulled one lady out of the car who had her windows smashed. One guy had a terrible neck cut.

At Avalon and Imperial, we had a very large crowd, throwing rocks and big hunks of concrete. Two to three officers were nicked with concrete, so we took out everybody with batons. Those who didn’t clear out, were cleared out. They were not rioters as far as I’m concerned, they were gangsters.

I had a wife and three children. We lived in a brand-new neighborhood built in about 1959, College Estates in Norwalk. It was multiracial. I don’t think there were any black folks, but it did have Latinos and Caucasians. There was a blurb on TV that my life was threatened. But my neighbors were sitting on their front porches with rifles.

My neighbors made sure my family was OK. Some of my fellow officers were posted at my house. There were three militant [groups] in Watts at the time that put out bounties on my head.

I would do exactly what I did at the time [if I had it to do over again]. I’ve been asked that about 10 million times.

My friend Marquette passed away. We kept in touch off and on. Once, they told me he was wanted for hit and run, so I took off and went to his house. His wife answered. She said he wasn’t there. I knew he was. But I gave her my card and said: “Have Marquette come down and take care of this. It’s no big deal.”

The next day he showed up in the morning. It’s a lot easier to do things with conversation than force. He was not a bad guy. He was funny.

Everything was going fine with the arrest until his mama got there. He was saying, “Oh, I’m drunk.” It was like this was an everyday affair. Marquette did an interview once and said they should make me commissioner of the Highway Patrol.

Rena Price: ‘Oh It’s Been Years. I’m Through With It.’

Rena Price, now 89, was arrested with her son Marquette Frye and stepson Ronald. She ultimately entered a plea of nolo contendere, paying a $250 fine and receiving two years’ probation. She still lives in South Los Angeles.

Has it been 40 years? You know, I’d forgotten.

We were arrested together, the three of us. Marquette and Ronnie were coming home from seeing friends. The police pulled them over. One of the neighbors came and got me. I went out to see what was going on. They took us down. They handcuffed us and took us to the station.

I didn’t know about any of the rioting until my daughter came and got me out of jail at 7 the next morning. I was surprised. I had never heard of a riot. There were never any riots before. I went back home to my house. Where else was I going to go?

[The arresting officers] lied. They said he was drunk driving, but he wasn’t drunk driving.

Nobody would hire me after the arrest. Before that I was a domestic. I kept kids and I worked in a lot of homes. But because of the riots, nobody would hire me. We survived because my husband worked at a paper factory. He died about 22 years ago now.

It affected Marquette a lot. It took a lot out of him. He was a nice guy, very smart, good at making things with his hands. I did my best to educate him.

There’s a whole lot of worse things going on now. Like killing kids for no reason. It’s terrible.

There have been two to three riots since the ’65 riots. What was the name of that King guy? Rodney? You hear more about that than the ’65 riots. Oh it’s been years. I’m through with it.

Tommy Jacquette: ‘We Had a Revolt in Our Community.’

Tommy Jacquette was 21 in the summer of 1965. A lifelong resident of South-Central, he says he was simmering with rage that summer against a system that he saw as racist. The Watts riots unleashed that fury, he says, and also changed his life. He became a community organizer and helped found the Watts Summer Festival, which he has guided for 39 years. He is now 61.

I actually participated in the revolt of ‘65, not as an onlooker but as a participant. I grew up with Marquette Frye, and I heard about what happened.

After they took Marquette away, the crowd began to gather and the police came in and tried to disband the crowd. The crowd would retreat, but then when the police left, they could come back again. About the second or third time they came back, bottles and bricks began to fly.

At that point, it sort of like turned into a full-fledged confrontation with the police. A police car was left at Imperial and Avalon, and it was set on fire. The rest was history.

I guess it’s safe to say — you know, I’m not sure of the statute of limitations — but it’s safe to say that I was throwing as many bricks, bottles and rocks as anybody. My focus was not on burning buildings and looting. My focus was on the police.

I was arrested, but I was released the same night with a promise to get off the street. [Instead,] I rejoined the struggle. The Police Department was at that time supposedly considered one of the finest police departments in the world. I know it was one of the most racist and most brutal departments.

People keep calling it a riot, but we call it a revolt because it had a legitimate purpose. It was a response to police brutality and social exploitation of a community and of a people, and we would no more call this a riot than Jewish people would call the extermination of the Jewish people ‘relocation.’ A riot is a drunken brawl at USC because they lost a football game.

People said that we burned down our community. No, we didn’t. We had a revolt in our community against those people who were in here trying to exploit and oppress us.

We did not own this community. We did not own the businesses in this community. We did not own the majority of the housing in this community.

Some people want to know if I think it was really worth it. I think any time people stand up for their rights, it’s worth it.

Lacine Holland: ‘It Looked Like a War Zone.’

Lacine Holland, now 78, witnessed the start of the riots as she went to pick her children up from her mother’s house on 116th Place after work as a clerical supervisor at the county Department of Health Services. She now lives in Fontana.

I went to the corner to see what was going on and saw a large crowd.

The police were there. They were making an arrest of a young man. I remember that they took him and threw him in the car like a bag of laundry and kicked his feet in and slammed the door.

We have a lot of officers in my family. I’m not against [police], but at that time I thought it could have been handled better than it was.

We were standing there, and a policeman walked by and someone spit at him. The crowd got very upset. When the person spat, the policeman grabbed a woman so strong that her hair rollers fell out. She looked pregnant because of the smock, but I think she was actually a barber. She wasn’t the one who spit on them. I got in my car and left the scene. [Soon after,] the rioting started.

At Shoprite, where my husband used to work, they burned the market. You could hear people shooting, you’d witness people running with furniture, food, liquor, anything they could grab. It was just horrific.

One of my neighbor’s friends was killed. They had the Guards up, and blocked off streets. They told her to halt, and they opened fire and she was killed.

My children were frightened. They were 7, 10 and 12 then. Of course, we had to explain what was going on. We watched the news. After it was all over, it looked like a war zone.

I didn’t feel oppressed [before the riots.] I had a good job with the county. My husband had a good job. But there were those who were in need. I can’t answer for the people who did what they did. I think they were thinking it was a good idea. It was anger. This was showing their anger.

Betty Pleasant: ‘I Hated [the National Guard] Like Dogs.’

In 1965, Betty Pleasant was a student at Fremont High School who worked part-time and summers as youth editor of the Los Angeles Sentinel, then the major paper serving the city’s black community. After the riots, she went on to a long career at the Sentinel, eventually becoming managing editor. She now works as a columnist for the Wave newspaper group.

I was in the newsroom when people began calling us. We were the voice of the black community, and if anything happened, people would call us. Most of the editorial staff was at the print shop because we came out the next day. So Brad [Pye Jr., the sports editor,] decided that he was going to go check it out, and I said, I’m going with you.

We drove down Central Avenue. At some point a bottle was thrown at us, and it sailed across the hood of the car. It didn’t strike us, but it woke us up to the fact that something was happening.

The farther south we got, the more people we saw massing on the street and throwing things at white motorists. Some black people got caught in the crossfire.

At 103rd Street, we came upon a real bad situation involving Nat Diamond’s furniture store, which was being attacked. A guy walked out with a sofa on his shoulder. They ultimately burned it, with screams of “Burn, Baby, Burn!” Then they progressed east on 103rd Street and burned everything in their wake.

The crowd got bigger and more frenzied as it progressed, until it got to the department store. You know, in those days there were a lot of stores. The problem, as far as the residents were concerned, is that they were white-owned stores, selling substandard stuff for high prices.

The mob progressed to about Compton Avenue, [to] the one department store in the neighborhood, and they attacked it. They busted out all the windows and walked in and started throwing merchandise out of the broken windows.

A guy threw me a blouse. He said, “Here, little sister, this is for you.” I was just standing there with my mouth open. So he threw me this really cute, peach colored blouse, which I looked at and immediately dropped to the ground, because I couldn’t very well cover the story and follow the group while holding loot in my hand. Then they threw a Molotov cocktail and burned it to the ground. I asked one of the guys who was throwing the Molotov cocktails why he was doing it, and he said it was to get back at whitey. And I said, “I can dig it.”

They moved to the big supermarket on 103rd street that was notorious for selling awful food. Several months before, I covered a demonstration there where people were trying to get them to sell better meat, better baked goods, better produce. They burned it to a fare-thee-well. Burned it down. I don’t think they even bothered to loot that sucker.

On the corner of 92nd and Wilmington, was a very small, tiny grocery store owned by an elderly black couple. Their store was untouched, because word went around not to touch this one because it was black-owned.

There were no cops on Day 1. I don’t think there were many on Day 2. It was unbelievable. There was nothing to restrain anybody. No attempts to quell anything. Nobody to put the fires out, so it was just raging.

On what must have been Day 3, because everything was in ruins by now, I understood that they were getting ready to do something else on 103rd, so I went over there to check it out — and got caught in the middle of a shootout between the residents and the cops.

That was the first and only time I was afraid. I was caught behind a boulder, which had been a building, but had been reduced to a piece of [rubble]. There was a cop a few yards away from me. He started moving toward me. I said, “Get away from me! Don’t come near me! They’re shooting at you, and I don’t want them to miss you and shoot me.”

He told me I had to get down on my hands and knees and scoot along the ground behind what was left of this building. He said he’d cover me. But I was too scared to move. I started crying. I just lost it. He was trying to get me to pay attention. Finally he screamed at me, “Go! Go! Go!” And I did what he said. I got away. I cried for the rest of the day. After that, the bullets didn’t scare me.

I hated [the National Guard] like dogs, and I still do. I wanted to interview them, so a photographer and I came upon this massive barricade. I felt something whiz past my ear, and I said to the photographer, “What was that?” It was a bullet. By this time I’m used to it, I said, “Oh, that old thing.”

We walked on up to the guy who was shooting at us, and I asked him if it was his policy to shoot first and ask questions later. And he said, “Yeah,” and for us to get our black asses away from there. I said, “But we’re with the press.” And he said, “I don’t give a damn if you’re press or no press.” So I’ve hated the National Guard ever since.

I didn’t like the cops either, because being a child of the ‘60s, you don’t like the cops. But I didn’t hate them. They didn’t call me names. They didn’t shoot at me. And one of them did save my life. But the National Guard were surly, nasty, ugly and mean, and I was surly, nasty, ugly and mean right back.

Joe Rouzan: ‘There Were Maybe 300 Black Officers.’

Joe Rouzan, now 73, was a 33-year-old police sergeant working in South-Central at the time of the riots. After retiring from the force in 1973, he served as police chief and later city manager of Compton. He became chief of police in Inglewood. He later served as chief of staff to Councilman Bernard C. Parks.

We were working in plainclothes at the time, [so] we were supposed to go out to the community and find out what was going on. All of the officers in my unit were black so the assumption was that we could go and infiltrate into the community and see what was really going on.

We spent a considerable amount of time at Avalon and Imperial and all those areas the first night and most of the second day and evening. Just trying to get some intelligence on how the thing started, who started it, and how it was going.

When we went out there, we saw that it was total chaos. It was just indiscriminate grabbing people and beating them up. People would see some people doing something and they would all join in. The Fire Department would come in and they’d have to leave because they’d be attacked.

There was a real concern about unemployment, jobs, people feeling that they weren’t getting their share. In summertime, there was no employment for the youth. And there was a lot of anti-police feelings at the time. The LAPD was not in the best graces at the time.

It was a California Highway Patrol officer who stopped the guy and got into a confrontation with the individual. LAPD just came to support. [But] because there were more of us, we became the focus of the attention.

We just tried to mingle in there and talk to some people, but it was kind of fruitless. And those black leaders, even some of the religious leaders who came out and tried to calm the situation for the first two to three days, did not get a good reception.

If you spoke and said “knock it off, you’re only ruining your own community, you’re destroying your own opportunities” and that type of thing, it did not resonate. And nobody really had a platform. It was not just localized on one street corner.

In those days, [the LAPD was] in the neighborhood of 5,000 officers strong. There were maybe 300 black officers. We had no black command officers in those days. Nobody in a position to influence policy.

One of the assignments I received after that was to get involved in recruitment. Bernie Parks and I would travel throughout the country to recruit black officers, going to various colleges and universities.

In that era, many of the officers who came on the job were ex-military officers. You got extra points on exams if you’d been in the military, so many were veterans, as I was. The attitude was that they needed tough guys who knew how to take care of themselves and didn’t take any crap. At the academy, we drilled like soldiers. Community relations, as we talk about it today, was a terrible word. Chief Parker died at around that time. When the new chiefs came in, they all gave a push to community relations. It became one of those things that was talked about openly, whereas before if you said, “We’ve got to be concerned about the community,” you never heard anything about it.

Bob Hipolito: ‘We Didn’t Do Anything Wrong.’

Several National Guardsmen will be forever juxtaposed against a dark, riot-torn street in one iconic photo that came to symbolize the Watts riots. Bob Hipolito, then 23, was one of those Guardsmen. They had just secured one of the hardest-hit areas of Watts, a stretch of 103rd Street that had been dubbed “Charcoal Alley.” Now 63, Bob Hipolito still lives in the Los Angeles area.

I’m the one in the photo on the left-hand side. The good-looking one.

The picture was shot at 103rd and Compton. It looked like that picture. It was real smoky. And obviously dark. I was in the Glendale infantry unit. They sent us in first ‘cause we were the only all-white unit. There were other units closer but they decided they didn’t know what the reaction would be to interracial troops — at least that was what we heard. So we got sent.

I grew up in Glendale. I’d never been to South L.A. [It wasn’t like] the slums and ghettos of New York. Instead, the houses were all nice and tidy. It looked pretty affluent to me. Parts of the San Fernando Valley seemed worse.

We got activated on Friday the 13th. The governor in his infinite wisdom activated us at 5 p.m., which means they had to feed us, ‘cause we officially started at 6 p.m. But they didn’t have any food, so they commandeered several restaurants in Glendale. We went to Bob’s.

There was nobody on the freeway, it was shut down. They stopped our convoy near the Convention Center. A convoy of Marines going the other way had trucks of mortar ammunition. They handed the crates over the center divide.

There was a park at about Manchester. They told us to dig foxholes. They quickly transferred us to Will Rogers Park.

I was at the tail end of our infantry company, and that guy [Times photographer John Malmin] came up with an entourage of officers. He snapped a picture, and it flashed. Flashes weren’t what they wanted to have for fear they’d be shot at.

I saw that picture years ago, and thought, gee, it looks familiar. And then I saw the photographer’s obituary that said where it was taken. So I asked my wife if that looks like me, and she said, yeah, that’s your posture. It was taken on Friday the 13th, probably at 11:30 or 12 at night.

We were only trained for combat, not civil disobedience. The National Guard trained us how to handle civil disobedience after that. People that we talked to were innocent civilians that were just terrified. They were happy we were there.

The riots only lasted five hours after we got there. They had been going for three days. We snuffed it real quick. It was just guard duty after that.

We were trained to do something and we did it and went on about our lives. As far as I’m concerned, we didn’t do anything wrong. It was by the book.

Stan Diamond: ‘We Didn’t Deserve What We Got’

Stan Diamond, 27, was working in his father’s furniture store, Nat Diamond Empire Furniture on Central Avenue and 43rd Street, when he saw TV reports about the rioting. Today, Diamond, 67, is the second-generation proprietor of Nat Diamond Empire Furniture, now in Inglewood.

I was there the day [the rioting started]. We saw on television that it was going on. People were turning cars over, they were doing a lot of vandalism. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were getting out of the store, and somebody threw a Molotov cocktail and it landed right on the curb, right before our front door. Luckily, we got out safely.

It was like a nightmare. On television we were seeing pictures of our store and people walking out with ranges and sofas and TVs. We called the police and they said, “Well, if you value your life, you’ll stay away.”

The front part of the store was saved. The fire door automatically closed after there was so much heat. We had maybe 10,000 square feet left in that store.

We went back in ‘67, and we reopened that store. And it was open until around ’84. We had another store on Adams near Crenshaw. That store was completely burnt in the ’92 riot. After that, we moved to Inglewood.

Years ago, my dad was one of the few people that would give credit to a lot of the black people in the area. And they remembered that.

My dad was actually very popular in our community. He was on the local black radio station, KGFJ, and he did a lot of community support. He even sang in the churches. He had a very good voice. And he was very popular with the political people. They knew my dad very well, and they bought furniture from us. Mayor Bradley, we furnished his house when he became mayor.

We were appreciated in the community for so many years. We didn’t deserve what we got.

Victoria Brown Davis: In One Sense Progress, in Another, None

Victoria Brown Davis, 18, was living on 108th Street with her father, a brakeman for the railroad, her mother and her four siblings. Now 58, she lives in the Crenshaw district and works as a home healthcare aide.

The National Guard were in our yard. They were very nice. But they were doing their job. I guess the reason why they got along with my mom, is that she made sweet potato pies. She was out there feeding them.

It was very hot, and my mom didn’t want us to go out. There were a lot of fires, a lot of broken glass, a lot of misunderstandings. A lot of hurt, pain, disgust, anger, frustration, vexation.

I was scared. There was a lot of shooting even while the National Guard were there. The stores were closed. The lights went out. The buildings were burning. We had to put the windows down because we couldn’t breathe that well. We were afraid that the house was going to burn down; there were embers in the sky.

The house wasn’t damaged at all. But the stores were burned. Today, they have a shopping center there, but it’s nothing like having those individual stores. It was a family thing. You could get credit from those little stores.

There were a lot of mom-and-pop stores, five-and-dime stores and furniture stores. The furniture was good. But we had a lot of problems with the food. The food was rotten. To get better prices and better food, we had to travel to other parts of L.A.

The mood of the people after the riots? Some of them were still angry, wondering what was it all for. Because now they didn’t have the stores they had frequented or the facilities they needed. The government was slow in providing the different things they needed.

We didn’t have bars on the doors or windows at the time. There is a lot of gang activity now, where there wasn’t then.

Voting is another issue. We don’t have as many people who are inspired to get out to vote like before. I don’t know whether the riots contributed to that.

Our youth today need to understand more about how we have progressed, and about Martin Luther King and the riots. It was a reality for us. It was frightening. There were a lot of innocent people arrested. I wouldn’t want to live through anything like that again.

In one sense, we made some progress but in another sense we haven’t.

Times researcher John Jackson contributed to this report.