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Two Riots, One Cause, a Half-Century Apart


One year ago this week, riots began in Ferguson, Missouri after an unarmed black teenager was killed by a white police officer.

Earlier this week, officials declared a state of emergency in the city after people who had gathered to mark the anniversary became violent.

Monday night, police arrested more than 20 protestors after being hit by rocks and bottles.

But within a few days, tensions between protestors and police had eased.

Although there have been clashes, some people in the city are trying to show that there is much to like about Ferguson. They are angry that reporters have not shown that much of their community is peaceful.

“They make it seem like everybody out here is just throwin chaos, acting like maniacs. They talk about people shooting, but they don’t talk about the positive things that's out here goin on.”

Kenneth Wheat lives in Ferguson. He volunteers at the “I Love Ferguson” store. It is near the Ferguson Police Department. He says others are also beginning to become involved in efforts to improve the image of the city, including Jacqueline Dehmer. She also works at the store.

“I volunteer because I want people to know about Ferguson, and that we're a friendly, loving community -- not at all what was portrayed.”

Ms. Dehmer, Mr. Wheat and 22 others volunteer at the store. Profits are used to help the community. Ms. Dehmer says the store has given a total of more than $100,000 to businesses affected by the rioting.

On the one-year anniversary of the riots, reporters from other states have traveled to the city to write stories. People in Ferguson are worried that some of those reports will say that the city is a dangerous place where riots can begin at any time. They say that is not the truth about Ferguson.

Fifty Years Ago in Watts

While Ferguson marks the one-year anniversary of rioting, Los Angeles, California is observing the 50-year anniversary of the Watts riots.

Watts was -- and still is -- a poor neighborhood. Just as in Ferguson, riots began there when blacks clashed with white police officers who they believed were mistreating them.

Some people who were involved in the clashes in 1965 remember them clearly. Masai Minters was 15 years old when the rioting began.

“You could see the helicopters buzzing around, the fires burning, the plumes of smoke, the people in the streets, the red lights flashing, the noise, the activity. It was electric, it was crazy, it was busy.”

On August 11, 1965, white police officers stopped a black man and his mother who were riding in their car. The officers were accused of abusing them. Protests began quickly. They lasted for six days. Hundreds of buildings were damaged, 34 people were killed and more than a thousand people were injured.

An exhibit at a local college shows pictures of the violence. Gregory Williams is the director of the archives and special collections at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

“This is a photograph of Marquette Frye and Ronald Frye. Marquette was the gentleman who was pulled over by the police that sort of started the rebellion.”

In 1992, there were more clashes in the area when a video was shown of police officers beating black taxi driver Rodney King.

Mr. Williams says people in Watts and the Los Angeles police department have learned lessons from the clashes.

“The reason that LA hasn’t exploded again is because we are aware of the past. The police department's aware of the past.”

People in the area say they have learned that violence does not help them improve their lives. Shanice Joseph is 23 years old.

“People in Watts understand that having another riot just reinforces the stigma that's already going on. So to eliminate that, and get rid of this idea that it is just such a dangerous place, people are not willing to put themselves in that situation all over again.”

Most people who live in Watts are still very poor. But their relations with the police force have improved. Officers who work in the neighborhood are black, Hispanic and Asian in addition to white. People in Watts hope relations with police will improve in other black neighborhoods in the United States as well.

I’m Mario Ritter.


VOA Correspondents Kane Farabaugh and Zlatica Hoke reported this story. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted their reports for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in the News

chaos – n. complete confusion and disorder; a state in which behavior and events are not controlled by anything

maniac – n. someone who is violent and mentally ill

portray – v. to describe (someone or something) in a particular way

reinforce – v. to encourage or give support to (an idea, behavior or feeling)

stigma – n. a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something

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