Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

46 years after the riots in Watts, the smoke clears in London

A scene from the riots in Watts, August 1965
A scene from the riots in Watts, August 1965
Photo by Johnny Rorschach/Flickr (Creative Commons)

As London recovers from several days of the worst rioting in recent memory, the 46th anniversary of the 1965 riots in Watts passed relatively quietly, its only local observance a small gathering yesterday at the Watts Towers.

There are the obvious similarities: Like the London riots, which began with the fatal police shooting of a black man, 29-year-old Mark Duggan, the Watts riots were sparked when police stopped Marquette Frye on August 11, 1965 on suspicion of drunk driving, eventually arresting him, his mother and stepbrother after a confrontation.

The Watts riots lasted nearly a week and left at least 34 dead and 1,000 injured. A state investigation later concluded that they were driven by long-simmering racial tension and socioeconomic disparity in the segregated city, problems that were still there when South Los Angeles erupted in flames again on April 29, 1992.

In London, where five people are dead and the smoke is still clearing, political leaders are debating the causes. The riots began in the low-income community of Tottenham, where Duggan was shot and a related protest is said to have initiated the violence. As violence spread, though, reports indicated that police were arresting young people from throughout the social strata for looting and other offenses, including kids from nice neighborhoods. Some political leaders have placed less emphasis on racial and socioeconomic tension, while others fear more unrest along these lines.

For some, what happened was not unexpected. ColorLines featured a video clip yesterday from a BBC interview with Darcus Howe, a British columnist and broadcaster born in the West Indies. Howe, speaking from a ransacked street, said that "political leaders had no idea what was coming but if they had taken a moment to 'look at young blacks and young whites with a discerning eye and careful hearing' they would of heard messages of what to do to prevent this."

The analysis of what drove the violence in London is just beginning. We'll be reading much more about it in the weeks and months to come, perhaps even accounts from those involved. Forty years after the Watts riots, Tommy Jacquette, a community organizer who participated in the unrest as a young man, remembered it this way in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:

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.

People said that we burned down our community. No, we didn't. We had a revolt in our community against those people who were in here trying to exploit and oppress us.

We did not own this community. We did not own the businesses in this community. We did not own the majority of the housing in this community.