Monday, July 1, 2013

Rena Price, Matriarch of Watts Riots

Rena Price Is Dead at 97; Catalyst for the Watts Riots

Los Angeles Times
Rena Price with her son Marquette Frye, right, and stepson Ronald Frye at a hearing on the riots.
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Rena Price was in her kitchen in the Watts section of Los Angeles on Aug. 11, 1965, when a neighbor came to tell her that the police were arresting her 21-year-old son, Marquette Frye. She immediately raced to the corner of 116th Street and South Avalon Boulevard, her red-flowered dress billowing.
Her first reaction was to scold her son for driving while intoxicated, which a police sobriety test showed he was. He insisted he was sober, but Mrs. Price shrugged his arm away from her shoulder and said: “You’re not acting normal. You’re not acting right. Get away from me.”
Alongside them was a highway patrolman, Lee W. Minikus, who had stopped Mr. Frye for reckless driving and had, by his account, been joking with the young man when Mrs. Price arrived on the scene. He later said that “to all appearances” Mrs. Price’s words “appeared to incite Marquette to refuse to submit to physical arrest.”
Scuffling ensued, punches were thrown, and arrests were made as an increasingly restive crowd grew. Soon the tension boiled over into the neighborhood, setting off a contagion of mayhem that became known as the Watts riots — the biggest uprising by blacks in the United States since the slave revolts. “Burn, baby, burn!” was the cry of marauding bands, an exclamation mark on the race riots that had ripped through Harlem, Detroit, Newark and other places in the mid-1960s.
After six days of violence in Los Angeles, 34 people were dead and more than 1,000 were wounded. Property damage approached $100 million.
Mrs. Price remained in the city and died there on June 10. She was 97.
Precisely what happened at 116th Street and South Avalon Boulevard has long been debated. Versions of the episode have varied. Probably the most complete account is by Jerry Cohen and William S. Murphy, reporters whose coverage of the riots helped The Los Angeles Times win a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 and whose book that year, “Burn, Baby, Burn! The Los Angeles Race Riot, August 1965,” explored the event even further.
By their account, Mr. Frye, after his scolding, whirled from his mother and started swearing at the police, threatening to kill them. He swung at an officer trying to subdue him. As the police waited for reinforcements, an officer went to his car and got a shotgun.
Tensions escalated. Mr. Frye threw a punch at an officer, who slugged him back. A stepbrother, Ronald Frye, who had been riding in the car, also got involved in the fracas. Mrs. Price jumped on at least one officer’s back (Mr. Cohen and Mr. Murphy wrote that she had jumped on two, but accounts differ) and ripped his shirt. Meanwhile, the crowd of onlookers had grown to more than 200. They booed as Mrs. Price was handcuffed and shoved into a police car.
“Everything was going fine with the arrest until his mama got there,” Officer Minikus said in a 2005 interview with The Los Angeles Times.
Someone in the crowd spit on a police officer, and another woman was arrested. She had on the blue smock she wore as a barber, and because it was large and loose, like Mrs. Price’s dress, word spread through the crowd that two pregnant women had been roughed up and arrested. Neither, in fact, was pregnant.
Mrs. Price spent the night in jail and did not learn about the rioting until the next day.
“I was surprised,” she said in an interview with The Times in 2005. “I had never heard of a riot. There were never any riots before. I went back to my house. Where else was I going to go?”
A state commission found causes for the violence in a paucity of jobs, inadequate schools and resentment of the police. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who went to Watts immediately afterward, blamed “general despair.”
Still, as an F.B.I. manual issued six months before the riot stated, “some kind of provocation” triggers mass violence. Mrs. Price was an unlikely trigger.
She was born Rena Davis on May 13, 1916, into a farming family in Oklahoma. She completed the eighth grade before marrying C. L. Price, with whom she had four children. Marquette was the fourth. Six months after his birth, in 1944, the family moved to Hanna, Wyo., where there was a mining boom.
Shortly after arriving, she and Mr. Price divorced, and she began seeing Wallace Frye, who also had four children from a previous relationship. They married, and in 1957, after the mining boom petered out, the family moved to Los Angeles.
It was a tough adjustment, Marquette Frye said in an interview for the book “Burn, Baby, Burn!” He found being in an all-black school difficult after studying with whites in Wyoming. He was repeatedly suspended for fighting and was arrested for minor thefts and a robbery.
In the book, Mrs. Price, who found work cleaning houses, said that other children picked on Marquette from the time he arrived in Watts at 13. “His temper is short — like mine — so he don’t take no pushing around,” she said.
At the time, the whole family used the name Frye, but after the riots, most of them, including Marquette, abandoned it in favor of Price, deciding that the name Frye seemed synonymous with racial turmoil, according to Mrs. Price’s son Wendell Price, who confirmed her death.
Wallace Frye died in 1978, and Mrs. Price never remarried. Marquette Frye died of pneumonia in 1986. Besides her son Wendell, Mrs. Price is survived by another son, Charles, and 19 grandchildren. Wendell Price said he did not know how many of her stepchildren were still alive.
In August 1965, Marquette Frye pleaded guilty to drunken driving, battery and malicious injury of property. His stepbrother Ronald — who was also in the car, their mother’s 1955 Buick — pleaded guilty to interfering with a police officer. Wendell Price said Ronald was still living in the Los Angeles area. Both Marquette and Ronald were sentenced to three years’ probation.
A jury found Mrs. Price guilty of interfering with a police officer, rejecting her lawyer’s argument that she had only come to the aid of her sons. A judge fined her $250 and instructed her to pay in monthly installments of $10.
“I have a reason for this,” the judge said. “On the first of every month when you have to pay $10, you will be reminded of this case.”
Mrs. Price never reclaimed her Buick. It had been impounded, and the storage fees exceeded its value.

Rena Price dies at 97; her and son's arrests sparked Watts riots

On Aug. 11, 1965, Rena Price rushed from her home to a nearby traffic stop involving her son. An ensuing scuffle with officers ignited six days of deadly rioting in South Los Angeles.

On a hot August evening nearly 48 years ago, Rena Price was at home in South Los Angeles when she was summoned with alarming news: A few blocks away, one of her sons, Marquette Frye, had been stopped by California Highway Patrol officers after driving erratically down Avalon Boulevard, near 116th Street. Price hurried to the scene.

Her son, according to the arresting officer, had failed a series of sobriety tests but had been good-humored and cooperative until she arrived. Accounts vary on what set off the ensuing scuffle, but a patrolman hit Frye on the head with a baton and his mother jumped on another officer, tearing his shirt.

With a growing crowd bearing unhappy witness, Price, Frye and his brother Ronald, a passenger in the car, were handcuffed and taken to jail.

Their arrests on Aug. 11, 1965, ignited the Watts riots – six turbulent days that left 34 dead, thousands injured and millions of dollars in property damaged or destroyed.

"I didn't know about any of the rioting until my daughter came and got me out of jail at 7 the next morning," Price told The Times on the 40th anniversary of the riots in 2005. "I was surprised. I had never heard of a riot. There were never any riots before. I went back to my house. Where else was I going to go?"

Price, a reluctant figure in one of the grimmest chapters in the city's history, died of natural causes June 10 in Los Angeles, according to a son, Wendell Price. She was 97.

Born in Oklahoma on May 13, 1916, Price had moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1956 and found work cleaning houses and baby sitting. The neighborhood children she looked after nicknamed her "the Lady."

When Price reached the intersection of Avalon and 116th on the fateful night in 1965, she scolded Frye about drinking and driving, he recalled in a 1985 interview later published in the Orlando Sentinel. The situation quickly escalated: Someone shoved her, Frye was struck, she jumped an officer, another officer pulled out a shotgun.

After rumors spread that the police had roughed her up and kicked a pregnant woman, angry mobs formed, turning a 46-square-mile swath of the city into a combat zone.

After the Fryes' names appeared in news accounts about the riot's inception, most of the family began using the last name of Price, which belonged to the father of one of her children. "When people heard the name Frye, all kinds of red flags went up. We all got hassled," son Wendell recalled in an interview last week.

The post-riot period was especially hard on Marquette, described in news accounts as "the man who started the riots."

A folk hero to some and a pariah to others, he drifted from job to job, struggled with excessive drinking and was arrested dozens of times. After the death of an infant son with heart problems, he tried to kill himself. On Christmas Eve 1986, he died of pneumonia at age 41.
Price also struggled. Found guilty of interfering with police officers, a misdemeanor, she was fined $250 and given a 30-day jail term, later reduced to two years' probation. In 1966 an appellate panel reversed her conviction, citing prejudicial remarks the prosecution had made to the jury blaming Price and her sons for causing the deadly riots.

Still, she told The Times decades later, "nobody would hire me after the arrest. … We survived because my husband worked at a paper factory."

Her husband, Wallace James Frye, died in the 1970s. Her survivors include sons Wendell and Charles and a number of grandchildren.

As time caused the sharp emotions of that period to fade, Price eventually was able to find work. In her free time she enjoyed visiting friends and family in Oklahoma and Wyoming and found luck was usually on her side when she patronized her favorite casinos in Las Vegas. "She was very blessed," Wendell Price said, "despite everything."

Price never reclaimed her 1955 Buick, the car her son had been driving the day the riots erupted. By the time she located it at an impound lot, the storage fees had exceeded its value.

She wasn't one to dwell on the events of 1965, especially after they were eclipsed by the far more destructive 1992 riots.

"What was the name of that King guy? Rodney? You hear more about that than the '65 riots," she reflected in 2005. "Oh, it's been years. I'm through with it."

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