LA riots in full

Letter from British Consul in Los Angeles to Sir Patrick Dean, British Ambassador in Washington describing the course of the LA riots, 31st August 1965 (FO 371/179611)


3324 Wilshire Boulevard,
Los Angeles,
California. 90005


31 August, 1965


The sequence of events in the riots in the Watts district of Los Angeles, which began in the evening of the 11th of August and continued for the following four days, is clear and can be briefly stated. The underlying causes are much more complex.

2. The trouble began with what, in other circumstances, would have been a minor traffic incident. Two California Highway Patrolmen operating in the largely Negro area of Watts, in the south-eastern section of the City, stopped a car containing two Negro youths who appeared to be, and at their subsequent trial admitted to being, drunk. While the patrolmen were questioning the youths, the latter’s mother appeared and an altercation ensued. It was a hot night, there were many people in the streets, and a crowd, hostile to the patrolmen, quickly gathered. The latter drew their guns and, through their radio, called for help. By the time police reinforcements arrived, a sizeable disturbance had developed. Matters then got increasingly out of hand, the disturbance grew to a riot, and for the ensuing 48 hours the forces of law and order virtually lost control of the situation: gangs of young Negroes roamed the area, looting and burning the local shops and at attacking with stones, “Molotov cocktails” and gun fire any police or firemen entering the area. Following an appeal for help from the City authorities to the Lt. Governor of the State (the Governor himself being absent in Europe at the time), the National Guard were brought in during the evening of the 13th of August and reinforced during the following two days to a number of about 15,000. The Governor, returning hastily from Europe, declared a curfew in the riot area and the situation began slowly to come under control. By the 16th of August the worst was over, the curfew was lifted and the National Guard gradually withdrawn. The casualty figures are put at 35 dead, some 800 wounded and some 3,000 arrested, with damage estimated, variously, at between $50 million and $175 million. The business of cleaning up the mess is now in hand, City, County and Federal agencies are planning relief and rehabilitation, and the Governor has appointed a Commission of eight, headed by Mr. John A. McCone, lately Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to enquire into the causes of the trouble and to make recommendations. The Commission has been asked to expedite its work and is expected to report at the beginning of December.

3. To the majority of Los Angelenos the riots came as a rude shock. It is an article of local faith that Southern California, and Los Angeles in particular (“this other Eden, demi-Paradise”), is “different”. How could it have happened here? In some groups the immediate reaction was to look for scapegoats or easy explanations: it was a communist plot, it just showed that Negros were no good anyway, it was all caused by a bunch of criminal “hoodlums” newly arrived from the Southern States. Negro apologists, on the other hand, blamed the long delay (though not in Los Angeles) in the granting of civil rights, the treatment of Negroes generally as second-class citizens and “police brutality”. In general, however, no one of these easy explanations is accepted as the root cause, and most thinking people agree that the outbreak was a manifestation of many complex factors. Some of these are examined below.

4. It is only now becoming generally realized how impoverished and degraded, in this city of luxury, was the area in question. It is an area covering some 20 sq. miles containing, according to the 1960 census, some 300,000 people, of whom about 80% were Negro. Two-thirds of the adult residents have less than High School education and one in eight is illiterate. 90% of the houses date from before the war and 20% are described as “dilapidated”. The area has the lowest income in the County, apart from the “skid-row” district of downtown Los Angeles. The unemployment figure is put, variously, at between 30% and 60%, 30% of the children have broken homes (in the sense that their parents are divorced or they were born illegitimate), the area contains more than 500 parolees from the California Youth Authority and in one three-month period earlier this year the police reported more than 1,000 crimes, including 196 murders, rapes and felonies. It is, therefore, no matter for surprise that, if there was going to be trouble, it should have broken out here. But why, one then asks, should there be this pocket of explosive material in the heart of this city?

5. The answer seems to be that civil rights, in themselves, do not produce a contented community.

8. In sum, I do not see the riots as being “racial” in the sense that the rioters were fighting for civil rights in a political sense. They were not fighting “for” anything, except, vaguely, themselves, and their targets were indiscriminately any manifestation of authority. It was, as I see it, a spontaneous outburst, arising, of course, from deeper causes, against the Establishment in any form; a protest by the “have-nots” against the “haves”.

9. The claim of Southern California to be “different” has taken a hard knock. Its twin claim, to be the leader and model for the future United States, is, perhaps, truer than it knew, since the problem which has exploded with such violence in Los Angeles may well, as the President himself foresees, become, before long, a major domestic problem of the United States, and the way in which Los Angeles sets about dealing with it may well have implications for the rest of the country.

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