These Devastating Photographs of the Watts Riots and Their Aftermath May Shock You

Los Angeles, California, in the mid-1960s was a place of racial tension. Since the Second Great Migration in the early 1940s, African-American families had settled on the west coast of the United States. They had moved there originally due to the influx of industrial and factory jobs available during World War II, but they also moved to escape the racial segregation and the bigotry they were experiencing in the Southern United States. They thought life there would be better.

This wasn’t the case. In the city of Los Angeles, many laws kept minorities from owning their own property or renting homes and apartments in certain areas, affecting the African-American and Mexican immigrant populations in the area. They were only allowed to rent or buy homes in certain areas of the city, severely restricting their access to good jobs and schools. By the 1960s, Los Angeles was racially segregated, with minorities living in particular areas of the city, like the Watts district.

The Los Angeles Police Department was also notorious for their discrimination and harsh treatment of minorities. On August 11, 1965, a traffic stop involving an African-American driver led to a fight between the man and his family with the police, who used physical force to arrest them. Word spread throughout the neighborhood, resulting in a large-scale five-day riot that required the presence of extra police and the National Guard. Fed up with the brutality and prejudice that they received from the Los Angeles Police Department every day, crowds assembled in the streets and began attacking officers, throwing rocks and concrete at them and their cars. Buildings were looted, whole city blocks went up in smoke, and the demonstrators attacked police and stopped the fire department from extinguishing the flames. By the end of the riots five days later, over 1,000 buildings were destroyed, and 34 people were dead.

The press heavily covered the Watts riots. These photographs may be difficult to look at, but the camera doesn’t lie. The images are shocking: they show members of the Watts community being arrested, police and National guard with guns, and smoking and burning buildings. The photographs document the worst case of unrest in Los Angeles until the Rodney King riots, almost thirty years later. These images are harrowing in that they bring recent events to mind: Ferguson, Baltimore, and St. Louis. When looking at the photographs, the one question we need to ask ourselves is, has anything really changed?

Demonstrators push over a police car, Watts riots, August 1965. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.
A sign on a street in Watts reads, “Turn Left or Get Shot.” Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.
A group of men walking down the street are confronted by state troopers with bayonets, August 1965. Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images.
Police search motorists for weapons during the Watts riot, August 1965. Los Angeles Public Library.
A man being searched by police during the riots, August 1965. Photo by Harry Benson/Getty Images.
Heavyweight boxer Big Train (Amos Lincoln) guards his family’s drug store with a .22 hunting rifle, August 1965. Photograph by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images.
Police arresting a man on the second night of the riots, August 13, 1965. Photo by AP.
A policeman speaks to women who lost their homes in the Watts riots. While homes were not specifically targeted, many homes were close to buildings that were set on fire and were destroyed when the fires spread. Photo by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images.
National Guardsmen force men to stand against the side of a building, August 1965. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Police arrest during the Watts riots, August 12, 1965. Courtesy of New York World-Telegram. Library of Congress. Wikipedia.
An armed policeman walks past a victim laying on the ground during the Watts Riots. August 1965.
A police officer looks down at Bruce Williams, who was shot during the riots, August 1965. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.
An armed policeman and a man injured during the riots. August 1965. Photograph by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images.
A policeman searches a car during the Watts riots, August 1965. The owner of the car is handcuffed and looks on. Photo by Bettman/Getty Images.
Armed police force rioters to lay face down on the street, August 1965. Photo by Archive/Getty Images.
Police drag a man out of a looted store during the riots, August 11, 1965. Photo by UPI.
Armed members of the National Guard marching toward burning buildings, August 1965. Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
A member of the National Guard stands among the rubble after the Watts riots, leaning against a street sign, smoking a cigarette, August 1965. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Two young men run from a looted store, carrying lamps. Photograph by AP, August 13, 1965.
Exhausted National Guardsmen fall asleep under the “battery quick charge” sign at a Watts gas station, August 1965. Photo by Bettman/Getty Images.