LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — In 55 years, much has changed, but many things have remained the same, according to Michael Lawson, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League.

1965: Protestors on the burned out streets of the Watts District after the race riots in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Tuesday marks the 55th anniversary of the Watts riots, which broke out on Aug. 11, 1965 and lasted for five days.

“Multiply what we’re going through now by 100, and you’ll get a small understanding of how bad it was back then,” Lawson said. “I was 12 years old during the ’65 riots, and I will tell you even then, even at this age, I understood why it was important for our community to fight back.”

Conditions in 1965 were horrible, Lawson said.

“Mayor Yorty would not even accept federal money for job programs that would help the Black community,” he said. “The schools were segregated, the police department was as racist as it could possibly be under Chief Parker. He was calling people in the riots monkeys in a zoo.”

Civil unrest would break out twice more in Los Angeles – in 1992 in response to the Rodney King verdict and in 2020, as part of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd.

“Things have improved incredibly, but there is still much to do. A lot came out of the Rodney King consent decree,” Lawson said. “We integrated the department significantly, but we are sliding back. Fifty percent of the African American officers in the LAPD are due to retire over the next four years. We have to redouble our efforts to make sure that our police department reflects the community.”

Armed National Guardsmen force a line of Black men to stand against the wall of a building during the Watts race riots, Los Angeles, California, August 1965. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Communication and understanding have also improved in 2020, but Lawson says he still sees echoes of the past in the deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers this year, with “police acting, frankly, following the model that the LAPD designed under Chief Parker, making it a militaristic organization that was really an occupying force within the Black community.”

Lawson says he says one especially promising partnership between the community and the LAPD – the expansion of the community safety program.

“LAPD’s Community safety program a model should be looked at across this country,” he said. The model assigns officers to a community for a significant period of time so they can get to know the community and get to know them as people they are serving, rather than people they are policing.

“I have seen significant results in that capacity. Chief Moore has increased program and made it a full bureau,” he said. “We are making progress, but we are not there yet.”


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