Watts in Retrospect

Forty-five years later, an eyewitness looks back at the uprising that ignited South Los Angeles. The more things change, the more they stay the same.


"Officer needs help," an urgent whisper came through my headset. I stopped breathing and tilted my head to listen. There it was again: "Officer needs help."

"Officer requesting help, please give your location and identify yourself." My voice was well-modulated -- after all, it was part of my job as a LAPD radio dispatcher to sound calm. But I was terrified. An "officer needs help" call means imminent danger. The lives of two men were in my hands. I was their lifeline. It was the kind of moment that sometimes gave me bad dreams.

I yelled out so that everyone in communications could hear me -- "Officer needs help! I don't have the unit or location" -- while hitting the switch that turned the emergency red light atop my workstation. An operator with an emergency had to be easily identifiable above the buzzing of the precinct.

After what felt like an eternity, the officer identified himself: "This is 12A3." He sounded out of breath; I could hear scuffling in the background. "We need assistance at 116th Street and Avalon."

Watts. 1965.

My neighborhood.

A short while before, a white officer had pulled over a black man on suspicion of DUI. The man's mother got involved; words were exchanged. A crowd gathered. Someone from the crowd spat on one of the police officers. Two people were cuffed and arrested. Rocks were thrown at the police car. People poured out into the street from surrounding houses and apartment buildings, the crowd growing to 1,000 in minutes.

All of this was happening six blocks from my home while I was stuck at work. I knew instinctively that things were quickly growing out of control.

My mind immediately went to the safety of my children and whether they were inside or still out playing in the last minutes of daylight on a hot summer evening. More police were dispatched to my neighborhood. I told Curly, the police officer in charge, that things were happening in the neighborhood where I'd grown up and where I still lived. I told him that things would quiet down if they would pull the police out. No one listened to a 24-year-old girl with two years' experience. Firetrucks with hoses and attack dogs were dispatched to disperse the crowd.

When I finally got a break, I called my husband, Ken, who hadn't heard a thing. He was a production assistant for the Huntley-Brinkley news report and moonlighted as an overnight newscaster on KRLA radio. He called my mother, who lived across the street, and asked her to watch our five children, and then he rushed out to see what was happening.