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Remembering the Watts riots

40 years later, activists fight to keep lessons alive

LOS ANGELES -- The arrest 40 years ago of 21-year-old Marquette Frye, a black motorist suspected of drunken driving, quickly drew a crowd in South Los Angeles. A scuffle broke out and someone threw a rock, then another.

For the next six days, urban black frustration boiled over. Buildings burned across Watts and neighboring communities. Thirty-four people were killed, looters emptied stores, and the National Guard patrolled the streets.

Today, on the corner where it began, there are no signs of the uprising that helped transform the civil rights movement from peaceful protests in the South to violent clashes in the nation's major cities. Teens who skateboard past abandoned couches and fading apartments say they have heard of ''the riots," but they mean the 1992 violence sparked by the acquittal of officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King.

Those who lived through the Watts riots that began Aug. 11, 1965, are struggling to pass along their story.

''I have a feeling that we are losing something," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, 56, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. ''It's almost impossible to bridge that time gap to impress upon them the significance of the racial conflict that was there 40 years ago."

Hutchinson says he still remembers the fear of being shot by the police or National Guard, and the smell of the neighborhood burning. ''Wherever you went, there was this black pall of smoke hanging over," he said. ''You could hear gunfire everywhere, and that went on day and night. It was a war zone."

But activists want to share more than vivid recollections -- they want younger generations to understand the effect of the riots on Watts and the nation. Activists say they have found some ways to share the lessons of the past by connecting them to the present.

This week, in honor of the 40th anniversary, local leaders announced the Watts Renaissance Planning Initiative to push for more economic development. There is also the Watts Festival, which includes art exhibits, public forums, carnival rides, and music.

Watts was a tinderbox in 1965, one of the few Los Angeles neighborhoods where blacks were allowed to live. It had high unemployment, no local hospital, and the heavy presence of a mostly white police force.

For Ayuko Babu, founder of the Pan African Film and Arts Festival, based in Los Angeles, the riots were a call to activism.

''It was a tremendous sense of empowerment -- how we the people could affect lives -- and if they wouldn't listen to our voices, they listened to our actions," he said.

President Lyndon Johnson signed his War on Poverty program a month later. The county opened Martin Luther King Jr./ Drew Medical Center in South Los Angeles and activists founded the Watts Festival, drawing politicians and celebrities such as James Brown and Stevie Wonder.

But the violence also destroyed community ties, expediting the flight of businesses and the black middle class.

Justin Pitts, 15, who works at a Watts youth program, said he has heard of the 1965 uprising but does not see the connection to his daily struggles to avoid gang violence.

But mention the Watts Festival and Justin's face lights up. He and his rap group are hoping to perform.

''I don't rap about what happened back then," he said. ''I rap about stuff that's going on today. . . . I'm just trying to tell the homies what's going on."

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