Back to the 77th Street Station, 40 Years Later

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The Watts Riots began in Los Angeles 40 years ago Thursday, a six-day eruption of racial frustration that left 34 people dead, hundreds more injured and scores of buildings damaged, looted or destroyed. Karen Grigsby Bates visits the 77th Street police station in the heart of Watts with writer Karl Fleming, who witnessed the riots as a reporter for Newsweek magazine.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, how to write for the soaps in Spanish.

First this. Forty years ago today, the Los Angeles neighborhood known as Watts erupted in flames as years of civil discontent exploded into violence. These riots sounded an alarm for the entire nation about the unhappiness of urban blacks. Anger over police abuse sparked those riots in 1965. Recently, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited the 77th Street Police Station, which patrols Watts, with writer Karl Fleming. He covered the riots as a reporter for Newsweek. Karen has this report. And a warning: The segment contains language that may offend some listeners.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

Riding in a car down the Harbor Freeway towards Watts, Karl Fleming remembers coming from the Deep South where he covered the civil rights movement to deep South Central Los Angeles. He recalls the time in the neighborhood well; he was almost killed covering it. Watts, Fleming says, was an area completely isolated from the rest of the city.

Mr. KARL FLEMING (Writer): Watts, when I was there first in 1965 and 1966, might have been some foreign African country for all the rest of LA knew about it.

BATES: Back then, Watts was still mostly black, as were the neighborhoods surrounding it. The region's chronic underemployment, residential segregation, poor schools and non-existent health care all contributed to long-simmering anger. Fleming says an arrogant and hostile police force was the spark that finally ignited the Watts riots.

Mr. FLEMING: These guys, these cops rode around in these cars with the windows rolled up looking nothing less than kind of an occupying army in a hostile and foreign country and had a long track record of humiliating people--black people--pulling them over, doing what they call `proning' them on the ground. I had a black guy tell me, `How do you think it feels? You're driving along with your wife and children and a cop gets you over and suddenly you're spread-eagle. You haven't done anything, and this cop's got you spread-eagled or handcuffed on the hood of your car. And you're sitting there with your wife and children watching.'

BATES: On August 11th, a young man suspected of drunk driving was pulled from his car a few blocks from home. He resisted arrest and was roughed up. When his mother intervened, she was arrested, too. Residents were outraged. Soon after, rocks were thrown at police cars and the Watts riots had begun.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...You guys gonna come down here and drag no more people out of the car and five cops jump on 'em. None of that's gonna happen no more.

Unidentified Man #1: That's right.

Unidentified Man #2: That's right.

Unidentified Woman #2: Right!

Unidentified Woman #1: The man came down and he called one of the fellas, while he was getting out of the car, he called it drunk driving. Now five police against one boy.

BATES: Many of the police who inspired that community resentment came from the 77th Street station near Watts. Fleming says in 1966, a group protesting police brutality was met by police on the station's roof with semiautomatic weapons aimed down at the crowd. He hadn't been back since then, so we decided to drop in to the 77th for a moment.

Unidentified Man #3: So we're going to go in there?

BATES: This day, we walked into the new 77th built 10 years ago about a block away from the original. Fleming found the architecture unsettling. The high walls and narrow windows seemed to him to be symbolic of a police force still uneasy with the community that surrounds it.

Mr. FLEMING: And, look, it's a two-and-a-half-story-high, impregnable fortress built to withstand the black hordes.

BATES: Actually, it looks more like a Mayan temple, a nod to the Latino residents who now make up more than half of the area's population. Bright mythological figures float on the station's sand-colored exterior. Inside, painted sculptures referencing black and Latino culture hang on the walls along with paintings by neighborhood children. Fleming is intrigued.

Mr. FLEMING: It does look like this police station, anyways, making some kind of attempt to reach out to the neighborhood. What they had in the 77th Street precinct at the time of the Watts riots was a picture of Eleanor Roosevelt that said under it `Nigger Lover.'

BATES: The Roosevelt portrait with this derogatory caption is gone. There are black and Latino officers staffing the desk in the soaring lobby. Fleming is pleasantly surprised at the difference in atmosphere.

Mr. FLEMING: I don't feel any hostility walking in here today, as I certainly would have back in 1965 or 1966.

BATES: Some things haven't changed since the mid-'60s. Watts residents are still more likely to be killed in LAPD altercations than people in whiter, more affluent parts of town. But this new visit to the 77th Street station, 40 years after his last one, has made Karl Fleming cautiously optimistic that at least symbolically the police may be finally moving in the right direction.

Mr. FLEMING: So things have changed. Maybe there's hope. Who knows?

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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An Uncivil Memoir

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