The first time the Black community of Watts set fire to itself, Donny Joubert was 5 years old. The little boy had recently arrived at the Nickerson Gardens housing projects, a massive enclave of squat, two-story stucco buildings where everyone was Black and struggling.
Joubert, his mother and a passel of siblings had left their hometown of Houston and took a train to California, like thousands before them, in search of a new and better life. They piled into his aunt’s apartment in the Watts housing project.
It was the summer of 1965, in an especially hot August, when Joubert came downstairs one sweaty morning, clutching his toy soldiers that were never far from his reach. He liked to line them up in his bedroom window, arranging them in pretend patrols.
“I come on the front porch and I see a lot of my mother’s neighbors, and they all standing around in a circle. They was looking at this one black-and-white TV, and you could hear them crying, you could hear them upset. And then you look up in the air, you see black smoke that was all around. And I knew something bad had happened,” Joubert, now 59 and a Watts community leader, told Inside Edition Digital.
He looked at the toy soldiers in his hand and then up at the National Guardsmen swarming his neighborhood “with those big old guns on their shoulders,” and for just a moment, his young mind thought his miniature soldiers had to come to life.
In reality, the Watts Riots had begun — six days of racial unrest that claimed 34 lives and destroyed $40 million worth of property. The community burned, the National Guard was ordered in and national news coverage abounded, with serious-sounding reporters warning of “negro” residents rampaging through south Los Angeles.
The trouble began with a traffic stop involving Black driver Marquette Frye, who was on parole for robbery. A California Highway Patrol officer said Frye was driving recklessly, and administered a field sobriety test, which Frye failed.
An argument broke out and Frye’s mother and brother arrived at the scene. Someone shoved the woman, more police arrived, and the confrontation escalated into a physical fight as word spread through the community that a woman had been hurt by police.
It was as if a match had dropped into a mountain of tumbleweeds.
Decades of racial discrimination had kept Black people in Los Angeles from well-paying jobs and prohibited them from living in white neighborhoods. African Americans were largely confined to the south Los Angeles areas of Watts and Compton, where white flight had stripped the neighborhood of property values and basic services.
The Los Angeles Police Department, under the hardline leadership of then-Chief William H. Parker, had cracked down on minority communities and rode herd on their residents.
It was Parker who coined “The Thin Blue Line,” a term referencing hard-as-nails cops doing battle in an us-against-them world. The chief was also quoted calling Black people "monkeys" and referring to Hispanics as being from the "wild tribes" of Mexico.
A 2019 documentary "LAPD: Transforming the Dream" includes footage of Parker talking about L.A.'s Black residents: "They came in and flooded a community that wasn't prepared to meet them, despite the fact that we got all this relief money going in there," Parker said. "We didn't ask these people to come here."
So when Frye was pulled over, and the fighting began, Watts exploded. The relationship between law enforcement and the people who lived there had never been good.
Residents demanded an end to police mistreatment and to discrimination in housing, employment and school systems. There was widespread looting, fires and mass arrests.
It was not the only eruption of the 1960s Civil Rights era, but it was one of the worst.
Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest city, would burn again in 1992, when four Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King, another Black man pulled over for reckless driving.
When it comes to racial injustice and claims of police brutality against Black residents, Los Angeles has an unparalleled history.
And Joubert has lived through it all.
“Our community was really hurting,” he said of those times. “Because of the police brutality, the way we was treated in our own community … It was just because we was Black. That’s the only way we could see it. It’s because of the color of our skin.”
The LAPD’s motto is “To Protect and to Serve,” but that didn’t apply to the Black community, Joubert said. “The officers was here to serve and protect, and they supposed to protect all of us. And it was like they was just abusing us.”
To the police, Joubert said, the residents of Watts “had to be either a gang member, [a] criminal, you had to be something in the eyes of them. And it wasn’t fair.”
Growing up in Nickerson Gardens, Joubert felt protected by the project’s residents. “We was all together,” he recollects. “We stuck together. It was folks that was struggling, but folks took advantage of us, too.”
He remembers stepping out of his family’s apartment, headed to school in a freshly laundered shirt and pair of pants, only to be ordered by police officers to lie face down in the dirt while they searched him “because they said I looked like a suspect they was looking for.”
That happened regularly, he said. And though the community tried to hang together, times were tough. “I remember my mom struggling. She was a single parent. I remember seeing my mom crying when she couldn’t provide at Christmas.”
As a teenager, Joubert struggled, too. “I gang-banged,” he said. “I had my first child at 15. I had to grow up right fast. It was rough. I went to jail when I was 21. I did a little time.”
When he got out, he decided he’d had enough of gang life. He was now a man. He had a man’s responsibilities. “I started changing my life,” he said.
Then-California Assemblywoman Maxine Waters had started Project Build in the 1980s. It was the only job training program that went directly into the state’s large housing projects, and targeted the unemployed.
It started in Watts. And it came to Nickerson Gardens.
“They had a little training that they needed us to go through,” Joubert recalled. “They was paying $10 a day, and we was all going after that $10,” he said, laughing.
But he and his friends graduated from the program, and Joubert landed his very first job, working for an underground cable company. A few months later, he got hired by the city’s Housing Authority, where he still works, in Nickerson Gardens.
“I’m here seven days a week,” Joubert told Inside Edition Digital, sitting in a nondescript, austere office at the housing project, where he mentors young people, helps with community programs, and meets with officers from the LAPD’s Southeast Division, the local precinct.
“My wife and I lived here 33 years. I raised my kids here,” Joubert said. “We wanted to make it safe. We wanted to make a change.” His four children are grown now, and he has eight grandchildren. He and his wife moved from the project a few years ago, but they’re not far away.
For Nickerson Gardens, and for Black Lives Matter and the current struggle against police brutality and racism, Joubert works to leave a legacy based on his lifelong struggle against the same issues.
“We got to live together. We gotta work this out. I want to know that when I leave here, that my grandkids don't have to go through this — worrying about making the wrong move and having to lose their life.”
In the 1990s, to save the lives of those living in south Los Angeles, Joubert and some friends in the community decided it was time to try to get the notorious Crips and Bloods gangs to negotiate a ceasefire.
Out-of-control gang violence was killing residents and gang bangers alike, as bullets flew into rival gang members and into the homes of sleeping residents, killing parents and children.
A truce seemed a fool’s errand, and something no one had accomplished before.
But on April 28, 1992, the day before the L.A. riots erupted, there was a ceremony at the Nickerson Gardens housing project.
Hundreds of young black men from warring factions of the Blood and Crip gangs were gathered to declare a ceasefire.
"I do drive-by shootings, I kidnap babies, I kill people, so what? I'm an active gang member," one man, who asked not to be identified at the time, told a local TV reporter. "I’m going to stop."
Pressed by the journalist about whether he really would stop, the man said, "Check the homicide rate in Watts next year this time, fool."
The numbers did indeed drop.
Joubert and his colleagues were able to negotiate the truce against the backdrop of outrage over the beating of Rodney King.
On March 31, 1991, King was pulled over after leading officers on a high-speed freeway chase in the San Fernando Valley that came to an end in a residential neighborhood. King, a construction worker, was ordered out of the car and on to the ground, where he struggled with officers, who beat him with batons and Tased him.
A neighbor, George Holliday, videotaped the encounter and sent it to a local television station. And thus began the first nationwide outrage over a videotaped beating of a Black man by police officers.
King appeared in public, being discharged from the hospital, with a broken leg, a bruised and swollen face, multiple fractures of his face and a scarred burn mark on his stomach where the Taser struck him.
And the Black community in Los Angeles, for perhaps the first time, felt justice would finally come for an act of police brutality against one of its members. “People felt like, it's on video, it's on camera, you watch the way they beat that guy, how they beat him. And everybody just knew that they was finally going to be charged for what they'd done,” Joubert said.
Four officers were eventually charged — Laurence Powell, Stacey Koon, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno — and their trial on charges of excessive force was moved from Los Angeles to neighboring Ventura County, where a mostly white jury heard the case.
The LAPD chief was Daryl Gates, the driver and protege of former chief Parker. He also took a hardline, aggressive approach to policing, and in the 1980s he was criticized for targeting minority communities in an effort to quell gang violence and became a favorite target of emerging L.A. rap stars such as NWA and Dr. Dre.
Gates also possessed an affinity for making statements many construed as a racist. In 1982, responding to increasing in-custody deaths of Black suspects who were placed in carotid choke holds, the chief said, ''We may be finding that in some Blacks when it is applied, the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do in normal people.”
A few years earlier, Gates said Hispanic police officers were not promoted as quickly as others because they were “lazy.” He later said he was only joking and apologized.
As the jury of nine whites, one biracial person, one Hispanic person and one Asian American deliberated the officers’ fates in 1992, Los Angeles held its collective breath, worshippers prayed, and the memory of Watts burning 31 years earlier was fresh in the minds of those old enough to remember.
The unemployment rate in south Los Angeles approached 50%, people were sick and tired of being sick and tired, and the LAPD’s “Thin Blue Line” was wearing mighty thin in the Black community.
“And then they acquitted every last one of the officers for what they did,” Joubert said.
And then all hell broke loose.
South Los Angeles exploded again.
“When that verdict came down, it crushed the community,” Joubert said. “If that had been any one of us, we’d be in jail. Folks just exploded. You see your city … the place where you live all up in smoke. To see your city burned down, it was like a nightmare.”
For Joubert, it was a recurring nightmare.
“It brought back '65. Just seeing what I seen then, and seeing what I was looking at now, all the smoke, all the burning, all the things that was damaged and tore down, I knew, again, that our community was really hurting. Because of the police brutality.”
But this time, it was worse.
People had seen Rodney King being beaten for 15 minutes on grainy, black-and-white video while other officers stood around and watched.
“It showed every hit,” Joubert said. “And all he was doing was laying there trying to stop from getting beaten and hit and then you acquitted them officers.”
“So what you think that tells us as African Americans?”
It told them, Joubert said, that Black lives did not matter one bit.
The night the riots began, Gates went to speak at a fundraiser in West Los Angeles and claimed the situation was under control. But police did not respond to incidents of looting and violence around the city until almost three hours after the original rioting broke out, a city commission would later report.
Mayor Tom Bradley, the first Black mayor in the city’s history, called for a state of emergency that night, and was vocal in his criticism of how Gates had responded. Then-Gov. Pete Wilson ordered 2,000 National Guard troops to report to Los Angeles.
Even Rodney King tried to stop the rioting. Three days into the fighting, he stood outside a Beverly Hills courthouse with his lawyer and asked "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?"
The unrest went on for six days. More than 50 people died, including 10 who were shot and killed by LAPD officers and National Guard soldiers. More than 2,000 people were injured, and nearly 6,000 alleged looters and arsonists were arrested. Property damage was estimated at $1 billion.
Joubert and his family were prisoners in their own home. Schools were closed. A 6 p.m. curfew went into effect. There was no place to shop because stores had been looted.
“The sad part about it, they watched the city burn. They wouldn't even let firemen come in,” Joubert recalled. The police “wanted to see us burn.” It was as if a decision had been made, he said.
And the decision was: "They burn it, let it burn.”
It taught the community a lesson, Joubert said. “And that helped us grow a little bit more, understanding that this is what they really wanted.”
The lesson was that south Los Angeles was going to have to take matters into its own hands to change the way they were treated by police. And so it was that Joubert helped found the Watts Gang Task Force in 1995.
The idea was to help heal and repair their neighborhood and its relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department. Gates had stepped down as police chief, and the city’s first Black chief, Willie Williams, was now in office.
The LAPD’s Southeast Division, which served the area, was the task force’s target. The truce that Joubert had worked so hard to build had fallen apart by then, and he wanted the police to know the task force was working on that, and he wanted them to know the people who lived there.
“Every time a rookie came to Southeast, they had to come meet us, so they knew who we were,” Joubert said. “We built a pretty good relationship with them.”
“It took a while. It wasn't easy,” he said. But it eventually worked. And the task force still meets every Monday.
As the coronavirus marched across the country this year, the group began handing out food.
“We’ve been able to provide a lot of food, meals, for the residents. We've got 1,056 units, over 4,000 kids in this community ... we have to continue to try to do small things to keep our kids occupied and keep food coming into their house,” he said.
Fast forward to Memorial Day, when Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd was killed at the hands, and knee, of police officers as bystanders yelling at them to stop recorded the incident on cell phones.
Here we go again, Joubert thought.
“To turn around and see the way George was done, the way that officer kneed him in his neck, wouldn't take his knee off his neck, all the people begging him. And then you can hear this guy calling out that he can't breathe, calling out for his mother,” he said.
To Joubert, who “witnessed the stuff that took place in '65 and '92 … all I could see is the image of them hanging African Americans back in the days, them siccing dogs, or the water hoses. And now we felt like, every single time we felt like we was moving in the right direction, something like this come back to haunt us.”
But this time, things were different in south Los Angeles.
As rioting, looting and fires ignited some cities where protesters were outraged over Floyd’s death, Watts did not burn.
There was looting and violence in predominantly white areas including Santa Monica, but in south Los Angeles, where the population is currently about 29% Black and 61% Hispanic, residents marched peacefully.
Joubert said that was a purposeful effort.
“We grew up, we got a little smarter. We knew that if we're going to send a message … we have to do it the legitimate way.”
“We didn't have no one breaking windows, no one doing anything, but [saying] we just want justice. We want every last one of them officers to go to prison … the officer that put the knee, he murdered George. He need to get the death penalty.”
But Joubert sees hope in the demographics of those who have protested, in marches in every state of the union, against Floyd’s killing.
“It’s not just Blacks, it's whites, it's Latinos, it's Asians, because people are tired for us,” he said.
“They are tired of what they seen, tired of the mistreatment that they done to African Americans.”
He worries about what will happen if the Minneapolis officers charged in Floyd’s death are found not guilty.
“This place going to explode,” he said. “And we pray that it don’t. Every church, everybody should be praying heavy.”
In his community, Joubert is talking to young people, to his grandchildren, telling them to be prepared for “whatever the outcome might be.” That does not mean responding with violence, he said, but in “being committed to march. We have to continue to ask for a better life, a better opportunity.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has shown people of all races that “we got kids, we got grandkids, and as a parent, we worry. We worry when our kids go out the door. It’s sad that we can’t feel good that our kids is on their way to school, on their way to college, on their way to do something” with their lives, he said.
Black people feel now “this is the time that we get something. This is the time that things might change,” he said.
“I'm hoping that our communities get the same opportunity that other communities get.”
He has a message, he says, for people of all colors.
“We need all of y'all's support on this. And everybody that's going good, everybody that's living good, come out and help your community, come out and be vocal and speak for what's true, speak for what's right.
“Right is right and wrong is wrong.”