The Dapper Rebels of Los Angeles, 1966

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3rd Jan, 2013

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In the summer of 1965, riots broke out in the Watts neighborhood of southern Los Angeles. Over a six-day period, 34 people were killed, 1,032 injured and over 3,438 arrests were made. In 1966, LIFE magazine revisited the site of the worst riots America had ever seen in its history. The photo essay depicting the region’s ‘fearsome street gangs’ however, turned out more like a fashion shoot for dapper style…

Click on the images to enlarge.

Decked out in preppy cardigans, high-waisted rolled up trousers and Wayfarers to boot, these young men of South Central Los Angeles were an unmistakably dandy bunch in contrast to the considerably oppressive environment they were living in.

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The African-American community in Watts came to its boiling pointing in August 1965 after years of police discrimination, exclusion from high-paying jobs and residential segregation. Racially restrictive covenants had kept 95 percent of Los Angeles real estate off-limits to the black and Asian communities which severely restricted education and economic opportunities for them.

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Where the black community could buy homes in American suburbia and live out the middle-class dream, significant racial violence escalated. White gangs bombed homes and burnt crosses on the lawns. In response to the assaults, black mutual protection clubs formed and became the basis of the region’s fearsome street gangs.

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In the 1960s, the LAPD was especially known for its police brutality against the city’s Latino and black residents. The police chief, William Parker actually made it a policy for officers to ‘establish dominance’ over young black and Latino teens and pre-teens as a way of showing who was boss. Frequent beatings, wrongful arrests, assaults on women became the norm for the African American community. On the night of August 11th, the intimidation and racial injustices backfired and the Watts’ African American population reached breaking point.

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The riot started after a young African American was pulled over by police officers for suspicion of driving under the influence. When the driver’s family got involved, they were arrested too, including his mother. Local residents gathered and the situation intensified.  What starting with yelling escalated to hurling rocks, bricks and whatever they could find at the police. Twenty-nine people were arrested but it did not end there. By the following night Watts was in flames.

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Rioters armed themselves and passionately shouted, “Burn baby burn” and “Long live Malcolm X.” Fires raged for four more days. A civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin wrote, “the whole point of the outbreak in Watts was that it marked the first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism and was carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life.”

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Images found on this interesting Brazilian blog (written in Portuguese), Ubora, about urban retro style.

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