On this day in 1965, according to the Governor of California’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots,
California Highway Patrolman Lee W. Minikus, a Caucasian, was riding his motorcycle along 122nd street, just south of the Los Angeles City boundary, when a passing Negro motorist told him he had just seen a car that was being driven recklessly. Minikus gave chase and pulled the car over at 116th and Avalon, in a predominantly Negro neighborhood, near but not in Watts. It was 7: 00 p.m.
The driver was Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old Negro, and his older brother, Ronald, 22, was a passenger. Minikus asked Marquette to get out and take the standard Highway Patrol sobriety test. Frye failed the test, and at 7:05 p.m., Minikus told him he was under arrest. He radioed for his motorcycle partner, for a car to take Marquette to jail, and a tow truck to take the car away.
They were two blocks from the Frye home, in an area of two-story apartment buildings and numerous small family residences. Because it was a very warm evening, many of the residents were outside.
Minikus later recollected,
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?”
Marquette Frye’s mother had a different recollection of the arrest:
The police pulled them over. One of the neighbors came and got me. I went out to see what was going on. They took us down. They handcuffed us and took us to the station…
[The arresting officers] lied. They said he was drunk driving, but he wasn’t drunk driving.
Tommy Jacquette recalled what happened next:
After they took Marquette away, the crowd began to gather and the police came in and tried to disband the crowd. The crowd would retreat, but then when the police left, they could come back again. About the second or third time they came back, bottles and bricks began to fly.
At that point, it sort of like turned into a full-fledged confrontation with the police. A police car was left at Imperial and Avalon, and it was set on fire. The rest was history.
I guess it’s safe to say — you know, I’m not sure of the statute of limitations — but it’s safe to say that I was throwing as many bricks, bottles and rocks as anybody. My focus was not on burning buildings and looting. My focus was on the police.
I was arrested, but I was released the same night with a promise to get off the street. [Instead,] I rejoined the struggle. The Police Department was at that time supposedly considered one of the finest police departments in the world. I know it was one of the most racist and most brutal departments.
People keep calling it a riot, but we call it a revolt because it had a legitimate purpose. It was a response to police brutality and social exploitation of a community and of a people, and we would no more call this a riot than Jewish people would call the extermination of the Jewish people ‘relocation.’ A riot is a drunken brawl at USC because they lost a football game.
With Governor Pat Brown overseas, Lieutenant Governor Glenn Anderson went to Los Angeles on the evening of August 12. Seeing relative calm, he flew the next day to a UC Regents’ meeting in Berkeley. Early in the afternoon, having learned of further outbreaks, he ordered out the National Guard. Eventually around 14,000 guardsmen arrived to occupy the neighborhood. On August 17, Governor Brown judged the area once more under law enforcement’s control.
The meaning of the episode remains contested, from the question of what to call it—riot, uprising, revolt—through the actual details of occurrences to its effects.
One of my favorite, because wildly idiosyncratic, essays on the subject is Thomas Pynchon’s “Journey into the Mind of Watts,” published in the New York Times the next spring. Pynchon begins with a story that suggests little has improved, at least in relations between police and citizens:
The night of May 7, after a chase that began in Watts and ended some 50 blocks farther north, two Los Angeles policemen, Caucasians, succeeded in halting a car driven by Leonard Deadwyler, a Negro. With him were his pregnant wife and a friend. The younger cop (who’d once had a complaint brought against him for rousting some Negro kids around in a more than usually abusive way) went over and stuck his head and gun in the car window to talk to Deadwyler. A moment later there was a shot; the young Negro fell sideways in the seat, and died. The last thing he said, according to the other cop, was, “She’s going to have a baby.”
Throughout the essay, Pynchon refers to Watts as “a pocket of reality” smack in the middle of the desert of the unreal that is Los Angeles.
For Los Angeles, more than any other city, belongs to the mass media. What is known around the nation as the L.A. Scene exists chiefly as images on a screen or TV tube, as four-color magazine photos, as old radio jokes, as new songs that survive only a matter of weeks. It is basically a white Scene, and illusion is everywhere in it, from the giant aerospace firms that flourish or retrench at the whims of Robert McNamara, to the “action” everybody mills along the Strip on weekends looking for, unaware that they and their search which will end, usually, unfulfilled, are the only action in town.
Watts lies impacted in the heart of this white fantasy. It is, by contrast, a pocket of bitter reality.
Pynchon closes with an image suggesting what a pocket of reality embedded in the midst of fictitious LA might mean, describing a work of art shown in an exhibition called “Renaissance of the Arts”:
Along with theatrical and symphonic events, the festival also featured a roomful of sculptures fashioned entirely from found objects — found, symbolically enough, and in the Simon Rodia tradition, among the wreckage the rioting had left. Exploiting textures of charred wood, twisted metal, fused glass, many of the works were fine, honest rebirths.
In one corner was this old, busted, hollow TV set with a rabbit-ears antenna on top. Inside, where its picture tube should have been, gaping out with scorched wiring threaded like electronic ivy among its crevices and sockets, was a human skull. The name of the piece was “The Late, Late, Late Show.”