Tuesday, September 17, 2019
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The Watts Uprising after 50 years
By Thandisizwe Chimurenga, Contributing Writer
Published August 12, 2015
13-year old Bilal Ali, center in white shirt, is hoisted above the crowd by his uncle so he can see the unrest, at 103rd Streets and Central Avenue in Watts. (File photo)

13-year old Bilal Ali, center in white shirt, is hoisted above the crowd by his uncle so he can see the unrest, at 103rd Streets and Central Avenue in Watts. (File photo)

He had been using his step-father’s name when he died. That’s why no one knew who he was. When Marquette Price passed away at the age of 42 on December 20, 1986, it took four days for the coroner’s office to positively identify him. “Positive” may not be the right choice of words.

Marquette Frye had been known as the young man who sparked the Watts Uprising on the evening of August 11, 1965, after being stopped by a police officer for suspicion of drunk driving. It was the infamy of that event that led Frye to use the name Price for the ensuing 20-plus years.

Frye had been driving with his brother Ronald on Avalon near 116th Street when he was stopped by motorcycle officer Lee Minikus. Minikus said Frye had been driving erratically and had Frye perform a field sobriety test, which he failed. The reports of what happened next vary: some say that Ronald walked to the family’s home not far away and got their mother Rena Price; others say friends alerted Mrs. Price that her son was being arrested. By the time Mrs. Price arrived on the scene a small crowd had gathered around her son in the hot afternoon sun.

Whether the police were brutalizing Frye and Mrs. Price or Frye resisted arrest, egged on by his mother, are the two competing stories of what happened that day. What we do know is that rumors spread and the crowd began to increase from approximately 50 people to more than 300.

Officer Minikus had radioed for a patrol car to take Frye into custody. Accounts of that evening state that Mrs. Price assaulted one of the officers who was handling her son, which in turn caused her to be arrested. By the time additional officers arrived, the angry crowd was estimated to be at around one thousand persons.

The rest, as they say is history. One of the problems, however, is whose history it is.

When Frye died in 1986 the L.A. Times headline stated “Marquette Frye, Whose Arrest Ignited the Watts Riots in 1965, Dies at Age 42.”

Similarly, when Frye’s mother passed away in June of 2013, the New York Times headline said “Rena Price Is Dead at 97; Catalyst for the Watts Riots.”

And a 1990 L.A. Times piece on “Watts: Then and Now” that spoke with a retired Lee Minikus, was headlined “To CHP Officer Who Sparked Riots, It Was Just Another Arrest”

While media places the blame for the uprising on individuals, others will tell you the cause was systemic.

“Nothing much has changed as far as the relationship between the Black community and the police,” said Bilal Ali. As a teenager, Ali was an eyewitness to the six days of anger that left 34 people dead, staying close to his uncle. As a young adult he worked as a project director for the Coalition Against Police Abuse, co-founded by Michael Zinzun, to address the need for community control of police in the Black community.

“There are more Black police officers now; that hasn’t changed anything [in regard to how Blacks are treated],” Ali continued. “The relationship with the police is still one of a ‘siege mentality,’ one of ‘Us against Them.’ The entire Black community is seen as a ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the police, and this is an entrenched culture with the Los Angeles Police Department which has been pointed out time and time again,” Ali said.

University of Houston professor Gerald Horne agrees. “Unfortunately, despite some progress over the last half century, the conditions that sparked people to come to the streets in 1965 are still with us: particularly police brutality,” Horne said.

Author of “The Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s,” Horne spoke at Holman United Methodist Church on Aug. 8, along with Melina Abdullah of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, in a program marking the anniversary of the uprising.

“But also, homelessness, rising rents, diminished life expectancy, unemployment; the list is long,” said Horne, in terms of the other causes of urban unrest.

Horne noted that the Watts Uprising also provides ‘perpetual lessons’ for us today. Those lessons include “the need for enhanced organization and militancy, and the need for international outreach” for the Black community.

Police brutality is the most well known cause of the Watts Uprising but the anger and despair of the residents was longstanding and linked to numerous other symptoms.

Quality healthcare, education, and employment (as well as a lack of it) have been recurring issues for Watts and South Los Angeles. Loretta Jones hints that part of the problem may be one of mislabeling.

“They talk about giving [to] us equally, and I’m saying that ‘equality’ and ‘equity’ are two different things. Our community needs ‘equity,’ said Jones.

The Chief Executive Officer of Healthy African American Families elaborated that “equity means that I am going to have what I need. 50 years later we’re still waiting for the right amount of funding to be put into our schools. We’re still waiting for decent jobs with an unemployment rate hovering at around 32% while nationally its about 12%. We’re still waiting when African Americans are dying of diseases first, before anybody else, because of a lack of health care.”

Efforts to address the various symptoms have taken a variety of forms over the years, the most notable being the establishment of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, where Jones also serves on the faculty. The other notable addition is Martin Luther King Hospital.

“The civil unrest we saw in 1965 came from residents’ needs and demands for better healthcare, housing, education and constitutional policing. In the aftermath, a brand new hospital rose to provide this community access to healthcare,” stated Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

In an e-mail to the Sentinel, Ridley-Thomas cautioned that while progress had been achieved, more needed to be done. “ … To be sure, many inequities remain including health indicators that show residents in South LA suffer disproportionately from medical maladies like high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease. So, our work is not finished. We will continue to push for more resources for this community and to ensure health and wellness for all.”

The Watts Labor Community Action Coalition (WLCAC) also arose from the ashes of the Uprising. Founded by Ted Watkins, the organization has become a staple institution providing much needed resources to area residents, including Headstart, Senior Citizens nutrition and day care, after school programs for at risk youth, handyworker and weatherization, mental health care, and numerous other critical services.

“… the evidence of poor public policy points to the trail of broken promises experienced by the people of Watts. The people of Watts are generally resilient, considering all that has happened to the place they live in, the schools they attend, the injustices that are routinely perpetrated against them and the geo-political isolation that Watts finds itself stuck in,” according to Tim Watkins, son of WLCAC’s founder.

“There has never been a Watts area representative elected onto the Los Angeles City Council and it’s not likely that there ever will be one as long as voter apathy and general frustration diminishes hope for that kind of powerful change. Even so, the people of Watts are remarkably hopeful for a better way of life and trudge on despite looming conversations about development and who’s coming next to call Watts home,” Watkins said.

Economic development, though far from ideal, has not been absent. Marva Smith Battle-Bey, director of the Vermont-Slauson Economic Development Corporation, declared that although seven shopping centers have been built since the Uprising throughout Watts, Willowbrook and other areas of South Los Angeles, it is not enough.

“We have a community of more than half a million people [in these areas and] those centers cannot service all of the community. It is an improvement, but it is not enough. We still have far too many corridors of retail that are marginal, and businesses that are fledgling and we’ve lost a lot of our manufacturing industries.”

Like everyone else the Sentinel spoke with, Battle-Bey includes the areas outside of/surrounding Watts in her analysis. Her analysis is centered more on the people than the place. “In ’65, everywhere that Black people lived in Los Angeles was Watts,” said Kamau Daood. “When they put the curfew on, they put the curfew on every place that Black people lived … I was on the west side, near Crenshaw and Slauson, and we had shotguns [from National Guardsmen] pointed in our faces, and I saw the tanks rolling down Slauson. I was 15 then,” Daood said.

Daood remembers the Uprising as being a symbol for most urban Black communities in the United States because of the similarities and patterns at that time. He also noted that the event represented a break from the non-violent Civil Rights energy of the time and the ushering in of a new movement. “SNCC, the Panthers, and all those Children of Malcolm came to the front,” said Daood.

The poet and co-founder of the Leimert Park-based World Stage Performance Theater said that while the Watts Uprising is pivotal for those reasons and symbolic, many overlook the personal element.

“34 people died during that rebellion, and there are still those holes in the lives of those peoples’ families. Those were mothers and fathers and brothers and uncles, sisters. A lot of times we don’t remember that part of it, but for those families, its something real. A lot of times, we deal with things as symbols, in terms of peoples’ lives, it’s more than symbols, Daood said.

“We’re going to have to get to the point that we see each other as human beings on this planet, together, and find a way to live on this planet together and find some peace in it.”

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