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Watts Riots, 40 Years Later

Nine people who were in the midst of the turmoil recall how six days of violence changed lives -- and L.A. itself.

August 11, 2005|By Valerie Reitman and Mitchell Landsberg | 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.

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