Following the riots in South Los Angeles in the summer of '65 LIFE Magazine went out to the feared neighborhoods of LA in attempts to capture the notorious street gangs. However, the shoot unexpectedly ended up looking like a fashion editorial, as despite their oppressive environment these young people were looking dapper and vibrant.
The riot broke out in the Watts neighborhood and saw 34 deaths, over 1,000 injured and almost 3,500 arrested. Anger and resentment had been brewing for decades due to police discrimination, residential segregation and exclusion from the most lucrative professional positions. Due to racially restrictive agreements, 95% of Los Angeles real estate was basically off-limits to the minority communities, which significantly limited economic and educational opportunities. In the few suburban areas where African Americans could purchase homes racial violence ensued. White gangs terrorized families and neighborhoods. This lead to the formation of many black mutual protection clubs, laying the foundation for many of the street gangs to come.
On the night of August 11th the Watts community reached a boiling point when a young African American was pulled over by officers for suspicion of D.U.I.. He was arrested and so were many of his family members when they tried to get involved. Other local residents gathered and began to defy the officers by hurling whatever they could at them. By the next day Watts had erupted in riots.
Unfortunately, this riot sounds like it could have taken place yesterday. Fifty years later we are still dealing with racial profiling and police brutally. Regardless of how stylish these young people were, it’s important to remember that many of these youths later joined black activists groups. We ought to appreciate what they were standing up against, not just their dapper aesthetic.
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