55 years after riots, Watts section of LA still bears scars

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Lorinda Lacy, 45, stands outside her party store painted with a mural depicting Martin Luther King Jr. in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. Lacy moved out of Watts 20 years ago because she didn't want her daughters to grow up with the trauma she experienced as a girl. She said she eventually became "immune" to the violence after stepping over bodies on the way to school and finding out who had been killed the night before or who had their house shot up. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

LOS ANGELES – There were no fires this time in Watts. There was no looting, no shooting and no National Guard troops patrolling.

Protesters filled the streets around the country in late May and June following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, demanding an end to police brutality. There was violence and looting in some places, including Los Angeles, but not in LA’s Watts neighborhood, forever linked to an uprising that broke out in the segregated community 55 years ago and became known as the Watts riots.

Demonstrators made a point not to go into Watts or other poor neighborhoods this time.

Watts has never fully recovered from fires that leveled hundreds of buildings or the violence that killed 34 people — two-thirds of whom were shot by police or National Guard troops. Those who lived through those frightening days and those who grew up in its aftermath are keenly aware of that past and the lessons it taught.

“People have learned from the history to say we’re not going to burn our community,” said state Assemblyman Mike Gipson, who was born in Watts a year after the turmoil. “We realize our community is not going to be built again.”

Watts has changed from an exclusively Black neighborhood in the 1960s to one that’s majority Latino. It remains poor, with high unemployment.

The uprising started Aug. 11, 1965, in a nearby neighborhood after the drunken driving arrest of a young Black man by a white California Highway Patrol officer. The violence reflected pent-up anger over an abusive police force, a problem that has ebbed but not entirely faded, according to those who live here.

Improvements over the years include a more diverse Los Angeles Police Department that better reflects the city's population. One of Watts' major public housing developments, Jordan Downs, is being rebuilt with a nearby retail shopping complex.