55 years after riots, Watts neighbourhood still bears scars

Brian Melley

LOS ANGELES (AP) — There were no fires this time in Watts. There was no looting, no shooting and no National Guard troops patrolling.

Protesters filled the streets around the country in late May and June following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, demanding an end to police brutality. There was violence and looting in some places, including Los Angeles (LA), but not in LA’s Watts neighbourhood, forever linked to an uprising that broke out in the segregated community 55 years ago and became known as the Watts riots.

Demonstrators made a point not to go into Watts or other poor neighbourhoods this time.

Watts has never fully recovered from fires that levelled hundreds of buildings or the violence that killed 34 people — two-thirds of whom were shot by police or National Guard troops. Those who lived through those frightening days and those who grew up in its aftermath are keenly aware of that past and the lessons it taught.

“People have learned from the history to say we’re not going to burn our community,” said state Assemblyman Mike Gipson, who was born in Watts a year after the turmoil. “We realise our community is not going to be built again.”

Watts has changed from an exclusively Black neighbourhood in the 1960s to one that’s majority Latino. It remains poor, with high unemployment.

The uprising started August 11, 1965, in a nearby neighbourhood after the drunken driving arrest of a young Black man by a white California Highway Patrol officer. The violence reflected pent-up anger over an abusive police force, a problem that has ebbed but not entirely faded, according to those who live here.

File photo shows firefighters battle a blaze set in a shoe store that collapses in flames during rioting in the Los Angeles community of Watts. PHOTO: AP

Improvements over the years include a more diverse Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) that better reflects the city’s population. One of Watts’ major public housing developments, Jordan Downs, is being rebuilt with a nearby retail shopping complex.

A government commission that studied the cause of the rebellion called for better police-community relations and more low-income housing, along with better schools, more job training, more efficient public transportation and better health care. While some gains have been made, those who live here say the area has a long way to go to overcome decades of neglect.

Black residents, people born here and those who work to make life better in Watts spoke to The Associated Press about the challenges they faced and those that remain.

Donny Joubert remembers the chaos of 1965 through the eyes of a five-year-old.

Smoke filled the air and adults wept in front of a black-and-white TV tuned to images of their community burning and widespread looting.

When he saw National Guard troops walking outside, Joubert thought his plastic toy soldiers had come to life.

“What really shocked me was I look up and I see the same guys I was holding were walking through the development with guns on their shoulders,” Joubert said.

Like some young men in the area, Joubert joined a gang and ended up in jail.

But at 20, and with a young daughter, he got a second chance. Through a programme founded by US Representative Maxine Waters of California he eventually got a job at the Los Angeles Housing Authority, where he’s now a grounds supervisor.

He’s also vice president of the Watts Gang Task Force, which meets weekly with police. If there are reports of an abusive officer — someone roughing people up or prone to stopping cars without cause — they tell the captain. The officer may get transferred, though Joubert is concerned that just moves the problem to another neighbourhood.

He wants to see more done to prosecute police for brutality and fatal shootings. Only two officers in Los Angeles County have been prosecuted for on-duty killings in the past 20 years, a period in which close to 900 people, mostly Black and Latino, have been killed by law enforcement.

“It’s been a crooked system when it came to us. They always had a system to keep us locked up, to keep a knee in our neck,” Joubert said. “Every dirty cop that took a Black life, that took a Latino life without cause, we want them in prison because that’s what they did to us.”

Residents of Watts are still living with collateral damage from 1965, said the Reverend Marcus Murchinson, who preaches at the Tree of Life Missionary Baptist Church and also runs a charter high school, drug rehab clinics and offers health care.

Many of the businesses that burned were never rebuilt. A corridor of Black-owned restaurants, clothing stores and bars never rebounded.

The area has long been termed a “food desert” because of a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables and a plethora of fast food restaurants and convenience stores stocked with drinks, junk food and cigarettes. It took 20 years for a supermarket to be built after the uprising.

“It was almost an act of punishment when they burned down the grocery store,” Murchinson said of the time it took to get a new one.

Murchinson, 36, who didn’t grow up in Watts, said the community has survived uprisings in 1965 and 1992 following the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King. But surviving is not enough.

“The spirit of the people of Watts has not changed. They are still resilient. They are still vibrant,” he said. “They have the root of survival. That is a good and bad thing. When you have the testimony of surviving, you sometimes think that is success and think surviving equates to thriving, and it doesn’t.”

He said residents still suffer from years of systemic racism in policing, banking and housing. Multiple generations of the same families continue to live in public housing projects and only a small percentage get off government assistance and achieve the dream of owning a home.

“What project is going on there?” he asked. “The project seems to be to warehouse people and make them comfortable, not competent.”

Lavarn Young, 81, who moved to Watts from Texas in 1946, said she’s seen a lot of good change since the uprising.

Freeways built nearby make it easier to get around, there’s a light rail stop in the heart of Watts and shopping centres eventually replaced businesses that burned down in 1965.

But she said gangs have made the neighbourhood more dangerous than it was a half-century ago, even if crime is not as bad as during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early ‘90s.

Young, who worked in special education in schools, lives in her parents’ house, which is lined with family photos.

One of her sons lives in the house behind her. He gets by on disability pay after a bullet lodged in his brain when he was shot in the eye. He survived two other shootings, as well.

Young has 15 grandchildren and lots of nephews and nieces who are in and out of the house. She doesn’t ask if they are in gangs.

“You don’t have to be in a gang, but you’re associated with it,” she said. “If you’re in a Blood hood, you’re a Blood. If you’re in a Crip hood, you’re a Crip. It depends where you were born.”

Fences now separate homes on the streets where children once played on one another’s lawns, and bars cover many windows.

“Now, you hardly know your neighbours,” she said.

Former gang member Eric Frierson, 37, lives in Imperial Courts, one of the housing projects he refers to as “tribal institutions” because of the rivalries that divide residents despite sharing “the same struggle.”

Frierson laments losing focus on becoming a good athlete and falling prey to the “distractions.”

“You come outside and see the sidewalk stained with blood. It doesn’t go anywhere. Every time you go by it, you see it,” he said.

His father was in prison, and Frierson served time for robbery, a felony conviction that prevents him from getting work.

“I went behind that wall. I continued the trend,” Frierson said.

He said he’s not optimistic the current activism will lead to big improvements. But he’s planning to set up some type of club that will provide sorely lacking activities for kids.

Frierson still sees a lot of good within the walls of the housing projects.

“There’s a lot more love in those bricks than they give us credit for,” he said.

Hank Henderson, 62, and his family arrived in Watts from Indianapolis the year before the uprising and has seen the bad and good of the neighbourhood. He remembers the fires, shattered windows, burned-out cars and soldiers in the streets.

He saw the businesses that never returned: Banks, doctor’s offices, a gas station, pharmacies, a dental office, barbershops, a grocery store and cleaners.

The neighbourhood was rough, but Henderson stayed out of trouble — his father wouldn’t tolerate it and he played sports. He was a local Golden Gloves champ and trains young boxers today.

The Black Lives Matter movement and Floyd’s death have brought attention to abuses Black people have witnessed and suffered for years, though Henderson said that situation has improved since LAPD started listening to their complaints.

“The police car says, ‘To protect and to serve’ but ‘seek and destroy’ is what they were doing,” Henderson said. “People are listening now. They’re realising what’s been going on all these years.”

Henderson moved out of Watts about two years after a son, Rayshawn Boyce, was gunned down in 2009. The suspected killer was caught but never charged because witnesses feared for their safety.

“Here, they got this code. You don’t say nothing,” Henderson said. “They had witnesses at first but then they backed off. They would have had to move, and where were they going to go?”

Henderson left the Nickerson Gardens housing project after nearly 50 years, moving to the suburbs about 50 kilometres inland.

“I didn’t want to get out of here for years. I just wasn’t ready. A lot of people moved out, but they weren’t ready for the real world,” he said.

The divisions in Watts — the gangs, the different housing projects — trickle down to children, who grow up aware of the feuds.

“Our park is surrounded by three different areas,” Benjamin Jackson Jr said. “Certain kids from our community of Watts can’t get together. We don’t even have a neutral meeting place.”

Jackson grew up in Jordan Downs public housing, a weather-beaten collection of two-storey apartment buildings originally built to house steelworkers after World War II. The complex is undergoing a major makeover that will include much-needed retail.

He still lives in the project.

“It’s easy to get in one, harder to get out because we’re born in it,” Jackson said. “The only time seeing anything different from the projects was me being incarcerated.”

Jackson got in trouble at age 10 and was in an out of lockups much of his life. He was a member of the Grape Street Crips, but now, at 44, he’s older, wiser and “no longer a gangbanger.”

He said police used to pick up him and others ostensibly for questioning. On the way to the station, they’d say they had to respond to another call and would drop him in rival turf, all alone.

They no longer do that, but he said he’s still harassed despite being a carpenter who hasn’t been on parole or probation in 10 years.

“They put me up against a wall. ‘Let’s jack him up and see if he got any warrants,’” Jackson said. “They’ll say the music was too loud when I don’t have music playing or spot me with people in the car and will just pull me over.”

He said the main goal is to get out of the projects, to give his children a better life with a house and a yard. The oldest of his seven kids, a 24-year-old daughter, has realised that dream and lives in central California.

“She ain’t never coming back,” Jackson said.