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Rage and Reason in Watts

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On the sweltering evening of Aug. 11, 1965, in the Watts district of Los Angeles, two white California Highway Patrolmen stopped a 21-year-old black man, Marquette Frye, for reckless driving. It seemed like a routine arrest—until the young man balked. A crowd of angry onlookers gathered; the mood turned ugly; the officers radioed for help. Shouted epithets led to rock throwing, and soon the fight was on. Watts exploded.

The initial fracas escalated into six frightful days of racial violence, burning and looting that left 34 people—mostly civilians—dead and 1,000 injured. All told, more than 4,000 suspects were arrested on charges ranging from curfew violation to arson, and hundreds of buildings over a 20-square-mile area were reduced to ash and rubble. Watts confirmed the emergence of an ugly phenomenon—the long hot summer. In the following years similar riots struck cities across the country. Twenty-five years later, Watts remains a historic symbol of violent confrontation between the frustrated poor of America’s urban black ghetto and the mostly white, uniformed guardians of law and order.

Today, except for empty lots here and there, much of Watts (pop. 30,500) looks deceptively like any other working-class L.A. area. The streets are lined with palm trees; parks, shops and apartment buildings dot the neighborhood. But Watts is still plagued by poverty, joblessness and, more recently, rampant drug abuse and gang shoot-outs. Here, 10 people touched by Watts speak of the community—then and now.

Regina Jones, 48, the Watts police dispatcher who took the first call from the street, is a self-employed public relations consultant: I got the call at 7:20 P.M. “Officer needs help! Officer needs help!” I heard scuffling, and I asked him to identify himself and give his location. My hands were shaking, and after what seemed like an eternity, he answered; I put out the call for help, and that’s when it all started.

By the time I finished my shift at 11, the incidents had spread—firebombs and all the rest. I’d never seen bullets fly before-right out my living room window I could see the red streaks. And looters, like the elderly lady dragging a big bag of dog food, or the schoolteacher who used to yell at my kids for playing on his lawn. I saw him pulling a load of canned hams and packages of meat.

Bob Richardson, 49, paper-goods truck driver. Briefly a Los Angeles Times reporter, he covered the riots and is the subject of the movie Heat Wave, which will air on TNT Aug. 13, 14, Wand 19: It was like a carnival, an eerie sight, with the smoke and flames and people dancing in the streets. Remember, Malcolm X had already been shot. Folks were angry. The thinking was, if we burn down some of these old, decaying stores, maybe Whitey would come back and rebuild, and we’d have gleaming glass and steel like in the suburbs. Of course that didn’t happen. I think of the stores I went to as a kid—watching them burn made me realize I was losing my childhood.

About eight months after the riot, I quit reporting and hit the road, hitchhiking around the country. My drinking problem also started about then. But I had a lot of jobs, from dishwasher to radio announcer. And three marriages. The Salvation Army helped me lick the drinking. Now I’d just like to reconnect with my son [from his first marriage], Bob Jr., who I haven’t seen in 20 years. He’s somewhere in L.A., so I hope he sees the movie and calls up his old man. I’d love it.

Leo Kidd, 37, unemployed, was recently hospitalized with broken legs after a hit-and-run accident: I was 12 when my brother Randy and I were arrested for looting. Actually, we were on our way to buy some Alka-Seltzer for my aunt, and when we saw the store being looted, we just helped ourselves. That’s when we got caught. Since then, the chaos hasn’t stopped. Last year, Randy was killed by some gang guys—who knows why?—who thought he was someone else. Then these other guys saw me on the street and burned my hair off with gasoline. Said they didn’t like my dreadlocks. I did three years of college at Loyola in an outward-bound program, read Hesse and Jung, and I play the alto sax. Been married twice and had some good jobs—in banks and with insurance. Now I just need a break—like money to pay the rent and buy me some groceries.

Ted Watkins Jr., 67, president of Watts Labor Community Action Committee, founded by union leaders several months before the riots and today a major force in rebuilding: Around the time of the riot, I was a union rep with Ford Motor Company. Just before things busted out, we started our group with $5. We were volunteer workers using local labor and resources. After the riots we took off, building hundreds of low-cost houses and apartments and helping to put up a hospital and two shopping centers. We trained folks and started all kinds of social programs. Today we’ve got a $12 million budget and a lot of victories. But we’re still fighting because, overall, conditions for black people are as bad or worse than ever.

William Rathburn, 49, was a rookie cop during the riots. Today he’s the deputy police chief for operations in South Central L.A.: By the time I started working the riots, the fires were all over, and there were so many looters we gave up making arrests. The violence started to ebb on the third day, once the National Guard came. What’s odd is that with all the shooting going on, I never fired a single shot—and no one fired at me.

I went back to Watts a few years ago, and I felt things had deteriorated. More money was being spent on putting people in jail than on prevention—like with the gangs. The problem is these kids have nothing to do. No movie theaters, no baseball diamonds. Why is that?

“Sweet” Alice Harris, 56, director of Parents of Watts, a nonprofit group that runs a variety of social and educational projects: The riots brought us a lot of attention. For a while money came in, but the same old human problems remained, like lots of children from broken homes. I gave birth to 14 kids, nine lived, and I raised about 50 others who were somebody else’s. My kids are all grown, working and some in college. See, all children are bright. Just gotta have faith in them, make ’em feel good about themselves, give ’em discipline, care about ’em. We gotta work with young mothers—get grandmothers and anyone else to help out. The place is runnin’ over with babies, and like it or not, they’re the future.

Fred Williams, 31, was convicted in 1973 at age 14 of killing a rival gang member. He’s now director of a youth outreach program funded by a $40,000 summer grant from Anheuser-Busch: When the riot broke, I was living across town. But conditions were the same. Now I’m sick of seeing the brothers fall, so I’m working the projects, trying to save the baddest, rawest little dudes you ever want to meet. While the cops are busting them, I’m out here mediating the hassles that lead to the gangbanging [street slang for gang activity]. I pay them to clean up alleys and lots, I give lots of baby showers for the [pregnant] girls, help them in the courts, keep them in school because that’s the real solution—literacy, man, education. I know, I was one of these kids myself. I did time, but none of it had to happen if there’d been someone to step in, to show us another way. See, gangs is just the end result of providing nothing.

Johnnie Tillmon, 64, director of Aid to Needy Children-Mothers Anonymous, is also founder of the first modern child-care center in Watts: I remember trying to get to my dentist during the riot. But I had to take cover behind a car. Next to me a kid was sticking a rag into a bottle, which must’ve been filled with gasoline, ’cause when he lit it and threw it, the whole thing exploded in fire. You don’t forget things like that.

Been a bad year for me, what with my diabetes and open-heart surgery. But I’m setting up a fund for diabetic detection. Black folks need to know more about this. Riots is one thing, but we’ve got to get the word out about health problems among our people.

Russell Rhodeman, 48, a physician’s associate, founded Cen-Care Medical, a storefront clinic: At the time of the riots, I was leaving Kansas City for a tour as a medic in Vietnam, and I stopped over to visit my mom and sisters in Watts. I guess it prepared me for a lot worse violence I would see in ‘Nam. I’ve been here 20 years, built this clinic myself, some winos helping me lay the concrete. Sure, our youngsters got health problems, but they probably won’t live to worry about it. With the gangs and drugs, no one’s safe. But you help out because in the end we’re family, and these kids are hurting. You save one and you’re winning. Hey, not all of us are gangbangers and drug addicts. A lot of us have decent jobs and homes, and we’re trying to make it work.

Libby Tracy, 17, a high school senior: In the 10th grade I was still hanging out, ditching school, fighting, drinking and messing up. I was lucky I was still alive. Then Fred Williams got a hold of me, and I just decided I got to be ready for school. My grades came up, I was running track and playing some good basketball. I’m a point guard and captain this year. I still don’t like school, but I figure the way the world’s going, I need it so I can get a job. I told my mom to push me because no one in the family ever graduated. A few colleges sent me letters, and if I don’t go that route, I might join the Army. Then I can come back and help my people, help my mom because she’s all I got. The thing is, I’m just tired of us always being down. I’m ready for us to live up to what we’re capable of. All we need is a chance.

—Additional reporting by Lois Armstrong and Patrick Cole in Watts