Zoot Suit Riots begin in Los Angeles
On June 3, 1943, a group of American sailors marched through downtown Los Angeles, carrying clubs and other makeshift weapons and attacking anyone wearing a “zoot suit” – baggy wool pants, oversized coats and the pork hats favored by many young men of color at the time.
Over the next week, the so-called Zoot Suit riots spread throughout the city, including the predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood of East Los Angeles and the largely black Watts neighborhood. The riots marked the culmination of tremendous racial tensions in Los Angeles, in the context of the Second World War.
After its origins in Harlem jazz clubs in the 1930s, the zoot suit style had become popular with young men from black and Latin American communities across the country. In Los Angeles, which had a large Mexican-American population, many more conservative citizens (including older Mexican Americans and whites) opposed the young zoot-suiters who called themselves “pachucos”, associating them not only cultural rebellion but also criminality and gangsterism.
These negative opinions only increased during the Second World War, when the rationing of wool in early 1942 led to the ban on the manufacture of zoot suits and to consider them as non-patriotic. The Los Angeles media in particular have devoted themselves to portraying pachucos as dangerous, particularly after the so-called Sleepy Lagoon murder of August 1942. In this notorious case, hundreds of young Mexican Americans were arrested and 22 of them were tried and convicted in the murder of another young Mexican-American, Jose Diaz – a decision which was later quashed and considered a major miscarriage of justice.
READ MORE: What were the Zoot Suit riots?
On May 30, 1943, a verbal confrontation between a group of American sailors and a group of zoot-suiters resulted in the beating of one of the sailors. In retaliation, about fifty sailors left the armory of the local American Navy reserve on the evening of June 3, armed with makeshift weapons and targeting zoot suiters (even those who were only 12 or 13 years old) ). During the second night of riots, the sailors headed for the city’s Mexican-American communities, breaking into cafes, bars and theaters to search for and attack their victims.
Military and civilians joined the violence, with some traveling to Los Angeles to participate. While reports portrayed rioters as heroes battling a supposed wave of Mexican crime, many of their attacks were clearly racist in nature, targeting Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities even when they weren’t wearing zoot combinations. Meanwhile, police arrested hundreds of young Mexican Americans – many of whom had been attacked themselves – compared to the relatively few sailors or civilians involved in the riots.
The Zoot Suit riots finally died after June 8, when military officials banned all military personnel from Los Angeles and called for military police to patrol the city. Los Angeles City Council later passed a resolution prohibiting the use of zipper suits on city streets.
No one was killed in the Zoot Suit riots, although many were injured. Following this, Governor Earl Warren appointed an independent committee of citizens to investigate and determine the cause of the riots. Although several factors are involved, the committee concluded that racism was the central cause, exacerbated by inflammatory and biased media coverage and an uneven response from the Los Angeles Police Department.