On Aug. 11, 1965, the people of Watts, Calif. took their frustrations with police and the overall conditions in the city straight to the streets. At an estimated $50 to $100 million in property damage, the Watts Riots was L.A.’s most expensive rebellion, prior to the L.A. Riots.
The Watts Riots were triggered by the arrest of Marquette Frye. The then 21-year-old was raised in Wyoming and moved to L.A. at age 13, with his family in 1957. It wasn’t easy for Frye to settle in, he was picked on, and got in trouble as a teenager. He later dropped out of high school, and had been arrested over his gang involvement before the historic run-in with police.
Frye was driving his stepbrother, Ronald Frye, home that August day, when he was pulled over for reckless driving and suspected drunk driving. While he was being questioned by Highway Patrol Officer Lee Minikus, his brother walked two blocks home to get their mother, Rena Price, as a crowd of up to 300 swelled around the scene at 116th street and Avalon Ave. Price scolded her son for being drunk (he failed a field sobriety test), despite his insisting that he was sober.
Things between Frye and Minikus –who claims he had been joking with the young man before Price came around –took a turn. His mother “appeared to incite Marquette Frye to refuse to submit to physical arrest,” Minikus was quoted as saying. According to a pair of Los Angeles Times reporters, Frye punched the officer, who hit him back. His brother also reportedly jumped in, as did his mother. The crowd got agitated. Someone spit on a police officer, another arrested woman, was rumored to be pregnant because of her baggy clothing, although she was not with child.
Price was arrested that night too, and later found guilty to interfering with a police officer. She was fined $250 to be paid in $10 monthly installments. Frye pleaded guilty to a few charges, including drunk driving and battery. His brother pleaded guilty to interfering with a police officer. Both got three years’ probation.
The people of Watts were already fed up when Frye was arrested. The Civil Rights era spawned riots and protests all over the country, and for many the arrest of Frye, his mother, and brother was a the tipping point for a neighborhood clashing with police. Over the span of the six day-riot, 34 people died, close to 1,000 were injured, and more than 3,000 were arrested.
Frye passed away of pneumonia in 1986, his mother died last year. She was 97.
See photos of the Watts Riot in the gallery below.