"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."
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.
Later, the children slept while Mama and I sat up all night listening to the chanting, sirens, alarms and other sounds that told us that a great many people were moving about the streets and were getting closer. Tensions had been growing for years between the LAPD and the black community; on that hot, smoggy Wednesday evening, tempers ignited.
Around 4 a.m., the chanting grew louder and there was an explosion and more shouting, and the words "Burn, baby, burn," could just be heard above the din. I learned later that a motorist had been stopped, pulled from his car, the car turned over and set on fire on Imperial Highway, two blocks from where we were.
Ken came home soon after the sun rose, bringing with him Lew Irwin, a white colleague who needed a safe place to catch a few hours of sleep while things were quiet. NBC didn't have any black reporters, so Ken was thrust into the position of a reporter for KNBC News, adding his voice to the film the camera crews were shooting. He was also calling in reports to KRLA.
That afternoon, when it was time to go back to work, I was tired and nervous to leave my children. I covered my bleached blond hair with a scarf; with my fair skin and light eyes, I was afraid of being mistaken for white in my own neighborhood. Later that night, heading home from work in my 1954 Ford, my hair still covered, I was pulled over at a roadblock. Two National Guardsmen approached my car with their rifles pointed directly at me. They asked me what I was doing out so late at night.
Once home, I told my mother that I was not going to work the next day.
Just before dawn, Ken came home, ashen, dirty and tired. He fell asleep telling me about what he had seen. He handed me his notes scratched on the back of a used manila envelope.
"I'm located in the heart of Watts observing the looters at work in what is left of the Watts area," he had written. "I think it advisable to give you these facts. First, although the rioters today are moving westward towards the LaBrea, Rodeo area, I've learned that tonight the City of Compton is the next target. … The pattern of the rioters seems fully concentrated against Jewish owned businesses …"
He closed that report with, " … the rioters continue to shout the same hysterical chant, 'Burn, baby, burn,' which is used by a Negro disc jockey on a Los Angeles radio station. And the City of Angels is doing just that."
The third night of the riots, I was home when the violence came as close as one block away. ShopRite, the neighborhood grocery store that I walked to with my children every day, went up in flames. My neighbors and I hosed down our roofs, hoping that none of the sparks would land and set our small World War II-era tract houses on fire.
I stood outside and watched as neighbors ran down the street carrying groceries, one old woman dragging a large bag of dog food. It was hotter than hell with the blaze so close, and I had to scream at the children to stay inside. No sooner had I gone back inside than I heard popping sounds. I looked out the window and saw two men on the sidewalk in front of my house running and pointing guns. Police yelled back, "Halt!" I dropped to the floor, more frightened than I had been up to that point.
The Watts riots lasted six days, 34 lives were lost, and close to 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed at an estimated loss of $40 million. Gang turf wars followed the riots, and the police reported more than 500 homicides between 1989 and 2005. Watts is a small corner of South Los Angeles, and all of it has continued to decay over the past 45 years.
Two years after the riots, there was a ground-breaking ceremony for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital. When it opened nearly 40 years ago, it brought hope to the neighborhood and provided greatly needed medical services. Once a teaching hospital, it closed three years ago and is a symbol of the political neglect that continues in South Los Angeles.
My old neighborhood is much the same, except it was split in half 10 years after the riots by the 105 Freeway paralleling Imperial Highway. Nickerson Gardens, named after my paternal grandfather, and the largest public housing development west of the Mississippi, was the backdrop to the violence that broke out. Today it looks the same, but even more run-down.
Some things have changed there, though: On an empty plot of land that my grandfather once owned is a giant cement fortress, the Lynwood Regional Justice Center, a 1,100-bed detention center. The shopping area where I used to go to movies, buy See's Candy and clothes and frequent with my girlfriends is like a ghost town. The empty lots where businesses once stood next to the one-story hodgepodge of buildings looks like a small town anywhere in the world that has been through an insurgence, bombings and war. Nothing new has been added — nor the old rebuilt.
Regina Jones, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, published SOUL Newspaper from 1965 to 1982. Today she is working on the SOUL Legacy Collection, which has been donated to UCLA.