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Walter Mosley Remembers The Watts Riots: You Could Feel The Rage


And in this season of anger, with African-American communities reacting to police brutality, we're remembering the largest urban riot of the civil rights era. Fifty years ago this week, in Los Angeles, the African-American neighborhood of Watts exploded after a young black man was arrested for drunk driving. His mother scuffled with officers and was also arrested, all of which drew an increasingly hostile crowd. Novelist Walter Mosley was a boy at the time, raised in Watts.

WALTER MOSLEY: It's a hot summer's day, you know, in 1965, and people are fed up for the last 500 hundred years of oppression. And so there was a riot. You couldn't have predicted it. It was just - people said OK, today, I've had enough.

MONTAGNE: Walter Mosley went on to create the classic character Detective Easy Rawlins in a series of noir novels set in Watts. In 1965, Mosley was 12 years old and a member of an acting troupe that performed plays about civil rights, which is how he found himself in the middle of what some called an uprising.

MOSLEY: The main night of that riot, the apex of the riot, we went down to the little theater on Santa Barbara, now called Martin Luther King, to do our play. But nobody came because, you know, people were rioting. So either they were rioting or they were in their houses hiding from rioting. And we had to drive out. And driving out, we drove through the riots.

MONTAGNE: Do you remember what you saw? I mean, were you scared?

MOSLEY: I was scared, you know, because, number one, it was an interracial group, so, you know, there were a couple of white people in the car. And they were, like, on the floor. And - you know, and then you would see things - you know, people jumping out of windows, you know, like - you know, they were looting. I saw one guy just lying out on the street. I don't know what happened to him. The police were driving by, four deep in a car with their shotguns held up, but they weren't shooting. They were just passing through.

You could feel the rage. You know, you could feel that civilization, at that moment, was in tatters. And when I got home, my father was sitting in a chair in the living room, which he never did, drinking vodka and just staring. And I said, Dad, what's wrong? He says, you know, Walter, I want be out there. I want to be out there rioting and shooting, he says, but I know it's wrong. I want to do it, but I can't do it. He was - it tore him up, the emotions that were brought out in him.

MONTAGNE: And even your father - you know, he's a grown man, kids - even your father.

MOSLEY: I don't think that there was a black man or woman in America who didn't understand why it was happening. Everybody understood the anger and the rage, you know, that the police could clamp down on you at any moment. It doesn't matter if you're innocent or guilty. You know, what matters is - you know, if you were a white guy over in Beverly Hills, they wouldn't be clamping down on you like that. And this is the same thing that happens today. It's just that we have social media.

So, you know, a woman gets killed in Texas. And we say, well, why was she arrested? Why was she in jail? How did she die? You know, these are questions we didn't - only people in the black community asked a long time ago because we knew it and nobody else knew it because nobody covered it. And as much as black people understood it, the white community was completely ignorant of anything going on in the black community. And it was, like, such a shock. It scared them for the next five years.

MONTAGNE: How much did it destroy that world?

MOSLEY: It hurt the community in some way. But, you know, when all the stores in your community are owned by white people and you burn down those stores, even though you're hurt in a way, you've made a statement. Those people paved the way for a lot of change in the rest of America. And so whatever was lost, I believe a lot more was gained.

MONTAGNE: That's novelist Walter Mosley, remembering the Watts riots of 1965. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.