Fifty years after riots, Watts builds a bridge for minorities, police

The Los Angeles community has spent a decade forging trust between residents and law enforcement. Here’s what it has learned.

Published Sept. 12, 2016

On an August day in 1965, five-year-old Donny Joubert sat playing with toy soldiers on his mother’s porch. He was too young to understand why the neighbors were huddled around their television sets or why smoke clouded the air above Nickerson Gardens, the public housing project where he and his family lived.

But when real-life versions of his model army men came marching past his house, even he knew something was wrong.

“I’m looking at them in my hand and then I’m looking at them right in front of me,” Mr. Joubert, now in his 50s, recalls. “I knew something had happened in our community.”

What happened was the Watts riots, a six-day uprising sparked by the arrest of a black man, Marquette Frye, during a traffic stop on Aug. 11, 1965. The riots resulted in 34 deaths, and the city called in the National Guard to quell the violence. It was the worst urban uprising the nation had seen in 20 years.

Today echoes of that violence – and sense of oppression – reverberate in places like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Ferguson, Mo. Protests over police killing black men have sparked a new civil rights movement, one that has once more brought black lives to the fore of national consciousness.

In Watts, however, a different kind of change is taking place.

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