ARUN RATH, HOST:
In August of 1965, one of the deadliest race riots of the '60s raged just a short distance from where I'm sitting right now at NPR West. Perry Crouch was 16 the day the violence started.
PERRY CROUCH: I was on Central walking down to Avalon because my cousin and them stayed over there.
RATH: Fifty years later, he stands next to the bus stop at 103rd and Wilmington in the Watts' neighborhood of South LA. I asked him to remember the day when another Watts resident, Marquette Frye, had been pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer for drunk driving.
CROUCH: It hadn't really got heated yet. When I crossed the street, that's when all the name calling, see, and that's when it got stupid.
RATH: You were right there when it escalated.
CROUCH: I was right there when - I was right there when he started calling [expletive] boys and all the stuff I'd hear. And then his mother say, his name is Marquette, you don't have to call him like that. He told her shut up, you black [expletive]. Stay in your place. And then, people was, like, I know he didn't say that.
RATH: A later investigation by a state commission said that the officer's actions were justified. But at the time, the commotion attracted a crowd, curious about what was going on between the officers, Frye and his mother.
CROUCH: Officer told her get your black [expletive] out the way. Don't be interfering and pushed her. When he pushed Ms. Frye, then him and Marquette got to tussling. Then she jumped on his back. And by that time, the crowd then swelled to about 150, maybe 200. And then, a bottle sailed over the thing, bam, and it was on.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: California Highway Patrol officers encountered a rock barrage from a number of citizens in the housing projects.
RATH: The violence that started that evening 50 years ago lasted six days and came to be known as the Watts riots. There had been and would be other race riots in the '60s, but Watts was especially destructive and deadly.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Six days of rioting in a Negro section of Los Angeles left behind scenes reminiscent of war-torn cities.
RATH: Over a thousand people were injured, over a hundred shot. Thirty-four people died, twenty-three killed by the police and National Guard. Two law enforcement officers and a fireman were also killed.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It took the appearance of 14,000 troops to bring an end to what both Negro and white leaders called insurrection by hoodlums.
RATH: Perry Crouch takes issue with the language typically used to describe what happened.
CROUCH: People were angry, and that was the way to relieve the anger.
RATH: And then, you know, you see this referred to frequently as the Watts riots. But I've heard you talk about it as a rebellion...
CROUCH: It was a rebellion.
RATH: ...And uprising.
CROUCH: It's uprising. You see, a riot has no purpose. This was that spark everybody needed.
RATH: There were many reasons for anger in Watts. In addition to long-running tensions with the police, a legacy of housing discrimination, unemployment, poor education opportunities. Crouch says if it hadn't been that traffic stop that night, something else would've sparked the uprising.
CROUCH: Right here, this was called Charcoal Alley.
RATH: Perry Crouch stands in the area hardest hit by the destruction.
CROUCH: They were just letting people loot stores, throwing the Molotov cocktails and all that stuff in the stores. And Los Angeles police didn't really do anything until the National Guards came in, I believe, that Saturday.
RATH: In the end, hundreds of buildings burned to the ground. Looking across the intersection to where the National Guard's barricade once stood, Crouch and I are joined by another community organizer from Watts, Chris Jordan. He was only two years old when the riots broke, but he still sees the scars it left on his community.
CHRIS JORDAN: So all the major stores and vendors were here on 103rd. Well, when all of that was burned out, you could tell that that did not come back.
RATH: We all take a break from the sun and pop into one of the structures nearby, a community center and home to one of the few sit down restaurants in Watts. Owner Desiree Edwards says it may not be Charcoal Alley anymore, but Watts still has a long way to go.
DESIREE EDWARDS: You know, there needs to be another grocery store over here, a gas station closer, you know, little things like that, just more service.
RATH: And there have been other setbacks since 1965 - the crack epidemic, the 1992 L.A. riots, gang violence across the years. But, Crouch says there's no escaping the ways the community has changed.
CROUCH: Look, see how friendly kids are just riding they bikes, how freely people are just walking to and from. Back in the days, that would've never happened.
RATH: Everyone here seems to know Crouch. In the middle of our conversation, he gets a shout-out from a young man driving by.
CROUCH: That's the way it was.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We need more people like you, sir.
RATH: You get that a lot?
CROUCH: Yeah, but they know I was here, so they already know I'm going to tell the truth.
RATH: He's earned the respect of the neighborhood by brokering a peace treaty between rival gangs and working to get guns out of Watts. Chris Jordan says the community has also transformed the relationship with the police.
JORDAN: One of the major changes that happened from '65 in the police relationship is that now they have great respect for community leaders. And so when Dr. Perry comes on the scene, there is no, hey, you get out of here. You - you know, there's no disrespect.
CROUCH: We got them to see us as a partner, and they got to seeing us doing certain things that make they job easier. Like community leaders, our job is crowd control.
RATH: Crouch thinks that makes it much less likely that a police conflict today could spiral into the kind of violence Watts saw 50 years ago.
CROUCH: Everything that's been thrown at us has been thrown at us, so we know how to navigate effectively now. It was a training experience for us, and we learned.
RATH: Perry Crouch says that while things are by no means perfect in Watts, there may be lessons here for Ferguson and other communities across America facing racial tension with law enforcement. But he hopes those lessons don't take 50 years to learn.
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