Watts Still Struggles 50 Years After Riot

This article originally appeared in Urban News Service member publications in August.

Fifty years ago, Watts was ablaze. The citizens of this all-black Los Angeles neighborhood had grown exasperated with that era’s racial inequities, and some lashed out with matches and gasoline. A half-century later, the once-thriving district exhibits little of the revitalization that had been promised and expected.

The people and leaders of Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore — cities that burned after the police-involved deaths of black men — should take note. They also must rebuild after the incendiary reactions to Michael Brown’s and Freddie Gray’s controversial fatalities.

Can Ferguson and Baltimore learn from Watts’ disheartening legacy? The 1965 episode commonly called the “Watts riots” is, instead, dubbed an “uprising” or “rebellion” — anything but a “riot” — by those closely associated with redevelopment efforts.

Violence ignited in Watts that Aug. 11, after police officers tangled with a crowd that had gathered around a black motorist named Marquette Frye, suspected of drunk driving. The ensuing six-day conflagration was fueled largely by the community’s insufferable pain over the bigotry that plagued America, including that two-mile-wide sector of south Los Angeles.

“Watts was the cultural center of L.A.,” Minister Mac Shorty, a seasoned community leader told Urban News Service. “There were more than 30 or 40 black-owned businesses in Watts. Now, you can count the black-owned businesses here on one hand. It’s shameful.”

Since ’65, multiple commissions have pledged reconstruction funds, including $1.3 billion for housing redevelopment. Watts still waits. And Shorty, among others, is irate.

“After 50 years, has Watts recovered? No,” Shorty said. “People have been perpetuating a fraud for years, and it’s hurting the community. There’s very little to show in the way of development. There should be more than the Watts Towers and the 103rd Street Park. There’s no major trauma center. Schools continue to suffer. … This is something Ferguson and Baltimore and other cities have to look at.”

Chris Jordan, executive director of Grant Housing and Economic Development, moved to Watts in 1965, at age 2. His grandmother was the first black woman to own multiple properties in Watts — a house and an apartment building.

Jordan insists that the improvements that Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities hope to achieve with police already have happened in Watts. “Relations with the LAPD are much better,” he said, “which is totally opposite what it was like in the sixties. Then, police agitated things. Now, it’s a much more amicable relationship.”

But not much else in Watts has appreciated in 50 years. Most businesses that were torched never were replaced. Jobs went up in smoke, literally. Today, public housing projects dominate. Businesses seem uninterested in moving in.

Jordan co-chairs the Watts Reimagined Organization, which attracts resources to Watts. “We’re seeing bricks and mortar happening, and that’s encouraging for everyone," Jordan said.

LAPD officer Mark Durell told the Los Angeles Times: “We can’t do it all. Everybody thinks: ‘Ah, the cops got to fix.’ [But] it’s the community. It’s everybody.”

Shorty of the Watts Neighborhood Council said a significant local fix, even after 50 years, “would take another 50 years. I won’t see the kind of change this place deserves. I hope my kids see it.”

Jordan disagreed. “I’m very encouraged,” he said. “In six to eight months, you’ll see more progress and programs. A lot of plans sat on shelves. We’ve taken the plans and studied them to execute actionable change. It’s not easy. But we’re determined.”

- Urban News Service