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SOUTH L.A.,
THEN AND NOW

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots (aka the Watts Rebellion), which began with a traffic stop and escalated into mayhem that stretched for nearly a week. When the smoke had cleared, 34 people were dead and more than $40 million in property had been damaged and destroyed.

The poverty and smoldering unrest that hung over South Los Angeles—policed by a hostile, increasingly militarized LAPD—helped give rise, two decades later, to N.W.A. Indeed, the Straight Outta Compton album and “Fuck Tha Police” mark an approximate halfway point between then and now.

(This week marks two other relevant anniversaries from elsewhere in the country: the 1973 birthday party in the Bronx during which DJ Kool Herc legendarily worked two turntables to keep a breakbeat going—arguably the birth of hip hop—and the one-year anniversary of the slaying of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, MO.)

So here we are, with many of the same systemic problems and the same violence between cops and communities, but with those issues front and center in our politics and media. And here we are, with N.W.A once again making headlines—but this time as creators and innovators whose story is fully mainstream. Dre and Cube are not only rich and famous but true movers of the culture. Still, stepped-up police presence at Compton movie screenings points to ongoing tensions.

And “Compton,” at least for the moment, is a word for skywriting and marquees rather than tales of an urban war zone.

How much has changed? Where to from here? Stay tuned.

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