On August 11, 1965, a 21-year-old black man named Marquette Frye was pulled over in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. A crowd gathered. Frye's mother showed up. A fight broke out. A bigger crowd gathered. People started throwing things. Things spun out of control. On August 12, 1965, the first headlines hit newsstands and journalists began to write the first draft of the history of the Watts Riots. The writers—almost all white men—seemed mostly baffled: their stories share a refrain of "we didn't think it could happen here." But black residents and activists weren't shocked at all, as political science professor Jeanne Theoharis wrote in the New York Times earlier this week: "For decades, civil rights activists had challenged Los Angeles's pervasive racial injustice, even as the news media failed to call city leaders to account for unequal schools, police brutality and housing and job discrimination."
In the days of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Freddie Gray, McKinney, Ferguson, and a new civil rights movement, it all feels uncomfortably familiar. As told by the newspaper headlines, the narrative differs in tone and language, but is easily recognizable: there's the certainty that black civil rights have already been secured (the hard-won Voting Rights Act had passed just the week before; its teeth were pulled out in 2013), the handwringing and confusion over the causes for black anger, the notion that the riots were driven by bored kids egged on by trouble-sowing political agitators, the humanizing of the National Guard and dehumanizing of the black residents (almost always referred to collectively, unless they're denouncing the rioters), the scoldings that the residents were only hurting themselves, the social scientists brought in to give their diagnoses, the sternly bland LA Times editorials, the government panels convened to manufacture a report to explain it all. And the filing away into the past, for a while.