Watts riots eerily echo racial tensions 50 years later
It all began with an incident that has become eerily familiar to modern Americans — a traffic stop that may have been routine, but many believed was racially motivated.
When two white police officers confronted a black driver who was allegedly drunk on August 11, 1965, near Watts, a predominately African-American section of Los Angeles, they probably could have never imagined their actions would spark a chain of events that led to six days of rioting, more than $40 million dollars in property damage, nearly 4,000 arrests and, most importantly, the loss of 34 lives.
Liberal white America — still patting itself on the back for the triumphant passage of the historic Voting Rights Act just days earlier — experienced a rude awakening when confronted with the searing intensity of the Watts riots. The anger and resentment boiling under the surface in many communities of color came spilling out onto the streets in the form of looting, violent resistance, and raging fires. The nation didn’t know what to make of the chaos at the time but, 50 years later, it’s become more apparent that Watts represented another breaking point for black Americans who had lived hundreds of years under relentless oppression.
The end of the ‘60s would come to be defined in part by uprisings in major cities, but Watts would leave an indelible mark. To this day, the city is still stigmatized because of the unforgettable images of anger and rebellion that were broadcast on television directly into Americans’ living rooms.
Today, the same grievances about racially biased police practices, housing discrimination and economic inequality serve as a prime motivator for activists expressing their frustration in impoverished communities today. The legacy of Watts is still alive on street corners in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and even New York City.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Watts “the beginning of a stirring of those people in our society who have been passed by the progress of the past decade,” but even he could not have predicted that the fuse lit 50 years ago would still be burning in the hearts of men and women who feel unjustly maligned by the powers that be in their own backyard.