She Played a Key Role in the Police Response to the Watts Riots. The Memory Still Haunts Her—But Black History Is Full of Haunting MemoriesRoundup
tags: racism, Los Angeles, 1960s, riots, policing
Adapted from Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots by Morgan Jerkins, available Aug. 4 from Harper/HarperCollins
This article is based on oral history of the Watts community and Los Angeles in the 1960s, which includes the recollection of racial slurs--ed.
The thing about protests against police brutality on American soil is that they are cyclical. History is full of attempts by white people to curtail Black mobility—slave patrols, redlining and residential segregation, police surveillance. Black people are tired of it. We been tired. And what happens when you squeeze an already disenfranchised population into a figurative corner? After a while, they explode. The protests that have followed George Floyd’s death in May are one example of such an explosion, but they are not the first.
On Aug. 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye was pulled over on 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, for reckless driving. A crowd of 50 people watched as Frye failed sobriety tests. As the police were about to tow Marquette’s car, his older brother Ronald brought their mother, Rena, to the scene. According to police reports, Marquette was compliant at first, but as soon as his mother and brother showed up, he turned spiteful, saying that they had to kill him to take him to jail. When the officers tried to arrest him, he resisted, and Rena jumped onto an officer’s back. An officer hit Marquette in the head with his baton, drawing blood. The crowd now swelled to almost a thousand people as Marquette, Ronald and Rena were hauled off to jail. The chaos that ensued left 34 people dead, including 23 killed by Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers or National Guard troops, as well as 1,032 injured, at least 600 buildings damaged from fires or looting, another 200 buildings completely destroyed, and around 3,500 people arrested. The event is now a specter that hovers over Black Angelenos, the memory still vivid.
Depending on whom you ask, the Watts riots may or may not be called an uprising or rebellion. The pain had been bubbling for far too long. Those who’d seen it were migrants, or their parents had migrated to give them a better life. And yet the problems they fled greeted them in a new area code. Rachelle James, a woman I met when I was researching Black migration to California, told me that Black people were just sick and tired of being sick and tired. By the time they reached Los Angeles, they’d just about had it with racism, and the city served as a pressure cooker for Black rage.
Rachelle wanted me to meet the woman who picked up the first call into the police station when Marquette Frye was being arrested; she has been dealing with the fallout ever since.
Regina is a first-generation Californian, born in 1942 and raised near Watts. Regina’s grandfather, as she succinctly put it, was “an uppity nigga.” He owned an insurance company and made so much money that whites considered him a threat. Fleeing a lynch mob, he gathered his wife and their eight children and moved to California. When Regina’s parents married, her father, whom she described as “damaged by the war,” worked as an elevator starter at the Southern California Edison company, and her mother became a beautician after working as a maid.
By 15, Regina was married, and she had four children by the time she was 19. She became a police dispatcher because her husband had been employed in the same office previously. After applying, taking a test, and being hired in 1962, she worked at the Central Division, which is now the Parker Center, LAPD headquarters. During her probational period, she worked three months on the day shift, one month on night shift and the last month on the graveyard shift. The hours took a toll on her, but not so much as the work culture. She would be put on disciplinary probation for letting her hair hang over one eye or wearing a sleeveless top, and co-workers would shut the door on her as she came through the entrance right behind them. The episode she recalls most vividly involves a dog. “At a different position, answering phones, this little old white lady … was sitting next to me, and she reached in her purse, and she said, ‘Have you ever seen my dog?’ I said no, and she pulled out a little picture of a little dog and showed it and asked, ‘Do you know what his name is?’ And I said ‘No, ma’am,’ and she said, ‘Nigger—he’s black.’”
There were only six Black employees out of 150, she recalled. Her job was to answer phones for the 77th Street Division, responsible for a predominantly Black neighborhood. The district required diligent multitasking to alert police of crimes in the area.