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(pictured: me at the Watts Towers)

Community members recall the turmoil 40 years ago that echoed across the country.

By Jessica Gresko
Times Staff Writer

August 6, 2005

California Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally brought a brick Friday to a gathering just steps away from where the Watts riots began nearly 40 years ago.

Back then, Dymally, who has represented the area since 1962, arrived on the second day of the riots and was handed the brick by a teenager and told to throw it if he was "with the people," he said.

"What did I do with it? I will never tell," he said.

The brick was thrown, he acknowledged Friday, but not by him.

Dymally was one of about a dozen people — including riot participants, eyewitnesses, current residents and community activists — who held a news conference Friday adjacent to where the Watts riots began Aug. 11, 1965.

That was the day white California Highway Patrol motorcycle Officer Lee Minikus pulled over 21-year-old Marquette Frye, who was black, at Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street on suspicion of drunk driving. They scuffled and a large crowd gathered.

The ensuing confrontation between police and residents expanded into six days of rioting that resulted in 34 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries and $40 million in property damage.

Friday’s event was part of a series planned in commemoration of the riots.

Those at the gathering — some of whom prefer to call that summer’s events a "revolt" or a "rebellion" to emphasize that it was not motivated by delinquency — said that four decades later, many of Watts’ problems remain.

"The change has been microscopic," said Tommy Jacquette, 61, a participant in the riots and a friend of Frye, who died in 1986 of pneumonia.

Poverty and joblessness remain major concerns in the community, participants said. Two recent incidents — the police shootings of toddler Suzie Peña and her father last month and of 13-year-old Devin Brown in February — underscore the fact that Watts still has problems with crime and tensions with the police, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, which organized the event.

But, participants said, the riots did provoke change, both here and across the country.

Watts itself also has seen changes. The community now includes a large Latino population, a change some participants attributed to "black flight," the movement of middle-class African American families out of the area. The police force, almost exclusively white in 1965, now looks more like the community. The Watts Labor Community Center and Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center were built in response to the riots.

But residents also say the sense of community present 40 years ago has diminished.

"In ’65 we lived in a village," said Lita Herron, a "young woman" at the time who now works with Mothers On the March. "We looked out for people’s children."

Hutchinson, who was 16 at the time of the riots, said it’s important to revisit the incident and ask what has happened in the intervening years.

"We have to ask: Have we gone forward or have we gone backward?" he said. "In some ways, we’ve done both."