The Watts Rebellion of 1965: Lessons for the Fight against Capitalism and Racism

In August 1965, a social volcano erupted in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Watts. For several days and nights, thousands of Black working-class youth fought with their bare hands, rocks, bricks, and whatever guns they could find against the heavily armed, well-trained, and militarized forces of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD), California Highway Patrol (CHP), and eventually, the National Guard.

This constituted a full-blown rebellion that electrified the country and polarized public opinion. By the time the movement ebbed, 34 people were dead, including 29 Watts residents. Over a thousand were injured, three thousand were arrested, and millions of dollars of property were destroyed. This episode of insurrectionary anger signaled the birth of a period now known as the Black Power movement, inspiring similar uprisings in cities across the nation, with echoes that can still be heard today.

In August 1965, a social volcano erupted in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Watts. / Image: Library of Congress

A social explosion decades in the making

Like all social explosions, the rebellion in Watts did not simply fall from the sky. It resulted from an accumulation of simmering anger against decades of racial segregation, inequality, and exploitation, combined with a daily police regime of intimidation, disrespect, and violence. These are all inherent features of American capitalism for millions of Black Americans—a direct consequence of the legacy of slavery, which is interwoven with the history of capitalism in this country.

The defeat of Reconstruction heralded the Jim Crow counterrevolution in the South. In an attempt to escape the tightening stranglehold of systemic oppression and racial violence, the first “Great Migration” saw many Black Americans move out of the South, seeking economic opportunities in the industrial centers of the North and West of the country. Los Angeles was one such destination for migrants, with the Black population of Los Angeles rising from 15,579 in 1920 to 63,744 in 1940.

But upon settling in Los Angeles, it became clear to many that while they may have escaped Jim Crow, they had not escaped capitalism and the structural racism that permeates American capitalist society. One of the most blatant forms of Southern California’s inequities was so-called “redlining,” especially in the form of racial covenants banning Black and other nonwhite people from buying homes in “white” neighborhoods or developments. Both the Kerner Commission, convened by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, and the McCone Report from the Los Angeles city government in 1965, recognized that redlining led most Black residents to live in South Central neighborhoods, where housing was substandard.

Police in Watts 1965. / Image: LA Public Library

While the US Supreme Court eventually struck down racial covenants in the 1940s, colossal wealth disparities remained between neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and realtors employed other methods to maintain the racial segregation introduced into the city. In Watts, 24% of residents depended on social welfare programs, compared to a 5% average across Los Angeles County. There wasn’t a single public hospital within six miles of Watts, and efforts to provide public funds for the construction of one had failed on the ballot in 1964, rejected by a majority of white voters.

And if economics wasn’t enough, the LAPD provided the brute force necessary to ensure de facto segregation. Police officers routinely harassed and assaulted Black residents, especially youth who were caught outside of “their” neighborhoods. At the time of the rebellion, the mayor of Los Angeles was Democrat Sam Yorty. In an electoral appeal to Black voters, he had promised to defang the LAPD’s openly white supremacist chief, William H. Parker. Once in City Hall, however, Yorty doubled Parker’s pay and endorsed police actions.

An egregious example of racism in Los Angeles policing came in April of 1962, when the LAPD opened fire on unarmed worshippers at a Nation of Islam mosque, killing Ronald Stokes and leaving another seven injured (one of whom, William Rogers, would be paralyzed). An enraged Malcolm X condemned the violence:

You’ve got some Gestapo tactics being practiced by the police department in this country against 20 million Black people, second-class citizens, day in and day out—not only down South but up North. Los Angeles isn’t down South. Los Angeles isn’t in Mississippi. Los Angeles is in the state of California, which produced Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—and Richard Nixon.

The aggressive actions of local law enforcement took a massive psychological toll on young Black and Latino workers, who felt under siege and constantly surveilled by police. One participant in the Watts Rebellion later recalled that “Every day [LAPD officers] fed me a spoonful of hatred … it [was] just a question of when this was going to erupt.” He felt that he and the other Watts youth were “walking time bombs” ready to explode. On the evening of Wednesday, August 11, 1965, the California Highway Patrol finally lit the fuse.

“One racist traffic stop too many”

At around 7 PM, at the corner of 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard, Marquette Frye, a Black man, was pulled over by the CHP and accused of driving under the influence. Frye’s mother, neighbors, and other bystanders assembled to watch what was happening, growing angry that the CHP wanted to impound Frye’s vehicle just two blocks from his home. One participant said, “this was one racist traffic stop too many.” Frye and his mother were arrested, outraging the growing crowd, which rained rocks and bottles on LAPD backup cars. Even after the police had left, more and more Watts residents joined an impromptu demonstration on Avalon Boulevard, growing into a crowd of thousands.

The LAPD arrested 29 that evening, flooding the streets with officers armed with shotguns, revolvers, and batons. Despite some vandalism, there was comparatively less violence that evening than in the days that followed. The following afternoon, at a recreation center, the petty-bourgeois leadership of various civil rights organizations, elected officials, clergy, and LAPD representatives held a press conference telling Watts residents to stay home.

A young man in the audience was allowed to speak, and he frankly told them their meeting meant nothing: “I was at Avalon last night … there is gonna be another [riot] tonight whether you like it or not.” Thousands more assembled on Avalon that evening in an even more militant mood than the night before. Two hundred LAPD officers and LASD deputies fired live ammunition into the crowd and beat people with batons. This only led to more bricks being thrown back at them.

For the next four days and nights, Watts’s youth battled in the streets against law enforcement. Despite the bourgeois media’s focus on looting and burning, many Watts residents did not see their actions as part of a chaotic riot but as organized resistance. Dilapidated buildings were torn down for bricks to throw, gun stores looted to acquire arms, and businesses were robbed for supplies and torched. What was supposed to be an easily controllable routine affair became an almost six-day explosion against the social conditions forced upon Black Angelenos. It took the arrival of 16,000 National Guard troops and the setting up of “free-fire zones” to quell the rebellion. This particularly abhorrent police tactic meant that anyone who approached the roadblocks could be fired upon at will. Over the course of the uprising, dozens of people were killed in this manner, with many unarmed Watts residents shot in the back by National Guard and law enforcement officers.

Police and National Guard set up “free fire zones” in the area. / Image public domain

Martin Luther King, Jr., who visited Watts and discussed with residents in the days that followed, returned home shaken. They had angrily explained to him they didn’t feel represented by the mainstream civil rights organizations. In fact, the Watts Rebellion was one of the events that dramatically shifted King’s perspective on how to defeat racism, influencing his increasingly radical stance against capitalism and imperialism in the years that followed.

A year later, piles of rubble still lay where houses had once stood. But far from feeling defeated by police repression, Watts residents felt emboldened, and a radical mood took hold across Los Angeles. Organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and above all, the Black Panther Party (BPP) recruited hundreds of Black Angeleno youth and held the respect of tens of thousands more.

Echoing the 1964 Harlem riots in New York City, the Watts Rebellion signified a shift in the Black struggle in this country, with similar uprisings igniting in cities like Newark and Detroit. Militant movements arose, drawing in youth across all social divisions. In June 1967, the first major protest against the Vietnam War was organized in Los Angeles, with the LA Times reporting a crowd of 10,000. Five hundred LAPD officers attacked the peaceful protesters with batons in scenes akin to what had happened in Watts two years earlier. On March 6, 1968, Chicano high schoolers in East Los Angeles walked out of class en masse, protesting the systemic racism and poverty they faced. Many joined defiant, radical groups like the Brown Berets.

The ruling class and its political establishment feared the rebellion brewing across the country. Seeking to cut across mass struggles, the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign, in conjunction with local law enforcement, waged war against the BPP, instigating the brutal murders of several of their leaders. Political confusion and state repression eventually led to the decline of the Black Power and other radical movements in Los Angeles and across the nation. Criminal, lumpenproletariat groups like the Crips and the Bloods filled the void, leading to decades of gang warfare that has killed more than 15,000, providing an excuse for further state crackdowns and racist policing.

Lessons for the struggle today

Marxists study history to generalize its lessons and apply them to the struggle to transform society today. What lessons can we learn from the experience of 1965?

A key element was its entirely spontaneous, uncoordinated nature. While this initially knocked the state apparatus off balance, the forces of repression eventually regained the upper hand and brought overwhelming force to bear. The leadership of the civil rights movement at the time was not only unprepared to lead the uprising, they actively collaborated with law enforcement to divert the masses’ anger into safe channels. It was precisely the complacency of the civil rights and labor leaderships that led thousands of Watts residents to take to the streets in the first place, ready to fight by any means necessary against the racist police. But without organization and revolutionary leadership prepared in advance, even the most heroic actions will eventually run out of steam.

The leadership of the civil rights movement at the time was unprepared to lead the uprising. / Image: American Jewish Historical Society, Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the rebellion, it became apparent that the mass anger in Watts was relatively isolated, not just from the rest of the country but even from other poor working-class neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The intense anger dissipated as repression intensified, and eventually, residents were forced to return home. This was a major weakness for the movement. It is impossible to fight capitalism and the capitalist state on such a small scale. Only by linking up with the rest of the working class throughout the city and the country could the movement have secured tangible victories.

There is also the question of tactics. The bourgeois media portrays such events merely as “riots,” thereby denigrating the participants and concealing the element of class struggle present in any “riot” of the oppressed. Marxists understand that social explosions of this sort are outbursts of justified class anger. We do not morally condemn them in the manner of the ruling class.

However, we must also understand that the tactics of arson, property damage, and looting cannot escalate the movement effectively and are, in fact, counterproductive. To succeed and expand, such movements must take on a clear proletarian class character, and use working-class tactics such as mass strikes and occupations, thereby halting production, the movement of goods, and the accumulation of profits. By extension, it is also necessary to advance clear demands, slogans, and a program explaining the need for a workers’ government and socialist revolution.

In other words, the question of leadership was, and is, decisive. Despite the growth of organizations associated with the New Left at the time, no genuine Marxist organization was active in the US during the 1960s. Had there been a Marxist leadership with cadres in Watts and other working-class neighborhoods in Los Angeles and around the country, the movement could have taken on a different character.

Such a leadership could have given the justified class anger clear demands and a more effective outlet and arena for struggle: towards solidarity strike action, organized demonstrations, and workplace occupations. While the convergence of factors needed for the successful overthrow of American capitalism may not have existed in August 1965, a Marxist leadership could have nevertheless helped to generalize the movement as far as possible, using it as an opportunity to educate the working class and build the forces of Marxism in advance of future struggles.

The Watts Rebellion also reveals another important lesson: the need for working-class unity to fight against racism. Facing a lack of class-struggle leadership, and with the mass media and police consciously sowing confusion and painting the rebellion as a “race riot,” it’s little wonder that wider layers of the working class failed to fully understand the significance of young Black workers rising up in a militant fightback.

In general, the relative prosperity of the postwar boom gave more significant benefits to white workers than Black workers due to systemic racism in capitalist institutions. For example, better housing, and therefore higher-quality public schooling, was and still is more available to whites than Blacks. These conditions exist as part of a conscious policy to keep the working class divided, diverting attention away from the fact that the profit system can’t guarantee everyone a high quality of life.

During the 2020 George Floyd uprising, millions of youth and workers from all backgrounds marched against the racist violence of the police. / Image: Lorie Shaull, Flickr

But after decades of factory closures, austerity, and stagnant wages, even the relatively larger crumbs given to white workers have been considerably diminished. And while racism has not been and cannot be destroyed while capitalism remains intact, it was indeed weakened by the partial victories of the civil rights movement. And as was evident during the 2020 George Floyd uprising, millions of youth and workers from all backgrounds marched and echoed support for their class siblings against the racist violence of the police. This shows the way forward: we must not allow the capitalists to use a racist game of carrots and sticks to divide the working class against itself. The specific oppression that Black and Latino workers suffer must be linked to the broader oppression and exploitation that all workers are subjected to under capitalism.

To this end, the labor leaders must break with the Democratic Party and form a party of, by, and for the working class. Had efforts to build a labor party in the 1930s not been scuttled by class-collaborationist liberal and Stalinist labor leaders, the residents of Watts might have had a party capable of providing the necessary leadership for that situation. The police could have been defeated in the streets and concessions wrenched from City Hall, which would have further inspired workers throughout the US and internationally.

The cancer of racism is alive and well. But so, too, is the burning desire of millions to fight and end it. Despite its shortcomings, which flowed from the general weaknesses of the socialist movement at the time, the Watts Rebellion is an inspiring chapter in the long history of class struggle and the fight against oppression in the United States. It lives on today, in the collective memory of those who fight for socialism in our lifetime.

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