Reflection, Celebration Mark 50th Anniversary of Watts Unrest
Los Angeles R&B legend Charles Wright at the annual Watts Summer Festival started in 1966 in response to the 1965 Watts riots. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)
On August 11, 1965, in South Los Angeles, the neighborhood of Watts exploded into six days of rioting fueled by years of police misconduct, diminishing economic opportunity and flat-out racism.
By the end, 34 people were dead and dozens of blocks of the community burned to the ground.
This year's 50th anniversary of the revolt, as many locals prefer to call it, was marked with a solemn remembrance and a joyful celebration at the annual Watts Summer Festival.
The event arose from the destruction of 1965 and kicked off the following year with the hope of channeling the community's anger into music, the arts and activism.
Ted Watkins Memorial Park had its own role during those tumultuous days in the summer of ’65.
“I was here, I was 5-years-old when it happened,” says Dee Dee Pitcher Henderson. She grew up and still lives across from the park on 103rd Street.
“This park you’re standing in right now was the base for the National Guard, and we couldn’t come out after a certain time because we had a curfew,” she says.
Before the riots, 103rd Street was a vibrant commercial hub. Henderson’s mother had a shop there.
“So her store was the only one that didn’t get burned," she recalls. "My dad got shot in the riots. There used to be a grocery store that sits on the corner. And I remember that store exploding while we were standing in the front yard.”
It’s been a struggle to keep the annual festival going, Henderson says.
While the park could easily accommodate several thousand people, only a few hundred mill around on a picture postcard sunny Southern California afternoon.
It’s also an older crowd, filled with people who share vivid memories of '65.
“Hell, I got arrested,” Amen Rahh tells the crowd from the festival stage.
“You understand, I was a political prisoner in juvenile hall for 45 days,” says Rahh, a retired black studies professor.
Rahh also grew up in Watts and as a young man took part in what he prefers to call the rebellion.
I ask Rahh how he would he advise his much younger self if he could go back in time. Would he try to persuade that kid to stay inside, to pull his friends away from the violence?
“I’d do the same thing," he answers.
“It had to be done to develop a better-respecting relationship with law enforcement. It just didn’t go far enough to the total criminal justice system,” says Rahh, referring to both past and very recent high-profile police-involved shootings.
Rahh says while the destruction and loss of life 50 years ago was regrettable, it also inspired activism that led to the creation of a community hospital, youth centers, health clinics and more.
“And there was a love and respect for each other after the rebellion,” says Rahh.
Then he adds, “But you got to understand, the Watts that used to be has changed and it’s mostly an immigrant city now.”
Many black residents moved out after the riots. Thousands more left in the following decades as gang violence surged and crack cocaine flooded neighborhoods. Affordable housing was built north of L.A. in the Antelope Valley and east in the blue-collar suburbs of the Inland Empire.
Over the decades, there has been some change for the better in Watts.
Just 10 years ago, in 2005, there were 20 murders in Watts. There have been none so far this year. Police foot patrols have increased in troubled parts of the community.
Funding for public projects continues to be plowed into the community, including a new children’s center designed by famed architect Frank Gehry.
But Dee Dee Pitcher Henderson says the economy has never fully rebounded. There are few retail businesses and just one independently owned non fast-food restaurant.
“If you want to go shopping you got to go outside the area,” says Henderson. “Everywhere around Watts has been built up, Huntington Park, Lynwood, Compton, everywhere has built up around us and we’re still kind of like stagnated.”
And other problems also persist: gang violence, high unemployment and a quiet tension between many black and newer Latino residents.
“A real-life urban superhero,” says the man who calls himself Dangerman.
Dressed head to toe in a sky blue superhero outfit and matching face mask, actor-comedian Roger Tinsley created Dangerman about 20 years ago to promote literacy, safety and good nutrition among youth in low-income minority neighborhoods.
“I’m much busier than ever because now we have kids every day dying,” says Tinsley.
“We talk about Black Lives Matter. Well, not only do black lives matter when police are involved but black lives matter in our cities every day,” says Tinsley. “It’s a struggle every day for our young people in this country”
Near a playground at the edge of the festival a group of kids gather around a charismatic young poet named Robert Williams. He was born a good 25 years after the Watts riots.
While he understands the circumstances that sparked the unrest 50 years ago, he has a tough time making sense of the violence.
“Don’t burn down your own community. If you love your community then clean it up, stand up for it,” says Williams.
“Hopefully the generation has changed where a lot of people can understand to take care instead of destroy. Let’s stick together and create something, let’s not just get together and destroy,” says Williams.
On the festival stage, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band tear through songs that made them local legends back in the mid-1960s.
Wright jumps into the crowd for a sing-along on one of his biggest hits (later sampled by South L.A. rappers N.W.A) “Express Yourself.”
It’s a celebratory moment on an otherwise grim anniversary. One that 50 years on reminds people how much has been accomplished -- and how much more remains to be done.