Fri 30 Dec, 2011 06:52 am
The Zoot Suit Riots were a series of riots in 1943 during World War II that erupted in Los Angeles, California between white sailors and Marines stationed throughout the city and Latino youths, who were recognizable by the zoot suits they favored. While Mexican Americans and military servicemen were the main parties in the riots, African American and Filipino/Filipino American youth were also involved. The Zoot Suit Riots were in part the effect of the infamous Sleepy Lagoon murder which involved the death of a young Latino man in a barrio near Los Angeles.
The riots began in Los Angeles, amidst a period of rising tensions between white male American servicemen stationed in southern California and Los Angeles' Mexican-American community. Although Mexican-American men were, for their numbers, disproportionately overrepresented in the military, many white servicemen resented seeing so many Latinos socializing in clothing many considered unpatriotic and extravagant in wartime.
Zoot suits. 1942
During the 20th century, in addition to those whose families had already been in the American Southwest before 1848, many Mexicans emigrated from Mexico to places such as Texas, Arizona and California. In the early 1930s in Los Angeles County, more than 12,000 people of Mexican descent — including many American citizens — were deported to Mexico (see Mexican Repatriation). Despite some deportations, by the late 1930s there were still about 3 million Mexican Americans in the United States. Los Angeles had the highest concentration of Mexicans outside of Mexico. The Latinos were segregated into an area of the city with the oldest, most run-down housing. In addition to this, job discrimination in Los Angeles forced many Mexicans to work for below-poverty level wages. The Los Angeles newspapers described Mexicans by using racially inflammatory propaganda. These factors caused much racial tension between Latinos and whites.
It was during the late 1930s that young Latinos in California, for whom the media usually used the then derogatory term Chicanos, created a youth culture. They adopted their own music, language and dress. For the men, the style was to wear a zoot suit — a flamboyant long coat with baggy pegged pants, a pork pie hat, a long key chain and shoes with thick soles. They called themselves "Pachucos." In the early 1940s, many arrests and negative stories in the Los Angeles Times fueled a negative perception of these pachuco gangs among the broader community. In the summer of 1942 the Sleepy Lagoon case made national news when teenage members of the 38th Street Gang were accused of murdering a man named Jose Diaz in an abandoned quarry pit. This case created much anti-Mexican sentiment and the nine men were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. As one author puts it, “Many Angelenos saw the death of José Díaz as a tragedy that resulted from a larger pattern of lawlessness and rebellion among Mexican American youths, discerned through their self-conscious fashioning of difference, and increasingly called for stronger measures to crack down on juvenile delinquency.” Although ultimately the convictions of the nine young men were overturned, the case caused much animosity toward Mexican Americans. Much of this animosity had to do with the police and press characterizing all Mexican youth as "pachuco hoodlums and baby gangsters."
The Zoot-Suit Riots sharply revealed a polarization between two youth groups within wartime society: the gangs of predominantly black and Mexican youths who were at the forefront of the zoot-suit subculture, and the predominantly white American servicemen stationed along the Pacific coast. The riots primarily had racial and social resonances although some argue that the primary issue may have been patriotism and attitudes to the war.
With the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, the nation had to come to terms with the restrictions of rationing and the prospects of conscription. In March 1942, the War Production Board's first rationing act had a direct effect on the manufacture of suits and all clothing containing wool. In an attempt to institute a 26% cut-back in the use of fabrics. the War Production Board drew up regulations for the wartime manufacture of what Esquire magazine called, "streamlined suits by Uncle Sam." The regulations effectively forbade the manufacture of zoot-suits and most legitimate tailoring companies ceased to manufacture or advertise any suits that fell outside the War Production Board's guide lines. However, the demand for zoot-suits did not decline and a network of bootleg tailors based in Los Angeles and New York continued to manufacture the garments. Thus the polarization between servicemen and pachucos was immediately visible: the chino shirt and battledress were evidently uniforms of patriotism, whereas wearing a zoot-suit was a deliberate and public way of flouting the regulations of rationing. The zoot-suit was a moral and social scandal in the eyes of the authorities, not simply because it was associated with petty crime and violence, but because it openly snubbed the laws of rationing.
Immediate runup to the riots
Following the Sleepy Lagoon case, a series of violent incidents erupted between Mexicans wearing zoot suits and U.S. service personnel in San Jose, Oakland, San Diego, Delano, Los Angeles and other places. The most serious of these acts of violence broke out in Los Angeles.
Two conflicts between Mexicans and military personnel had a great effect on the start of the riots. The first occurred on May 30, 1943, four days before the start of the riots. The altercation involved a dozen sailors and soldiers including Seaman Second Class Joe Dacy Coleman. The group was walking down Main Street when they spotted a group of young women on the opposite side of the street. With the exception of Coleman and another soldier, the group crossed the street to approach the women. Coleman continued on, walking past a small group of young men in zoot suits. As he walked by, Coleman saw one of the young men raise his arm in a “threatening” manner, so he turned around and grabbed it. It was then that something or someone struck the sailor in the back of the head at which point he fell to the ground unconscious, breaking his jaw in two places. On the opposite side of the street, young men attacked the servicemen out of nowhere. In the midst of this battle, the service men managed to fight their way to Coleman and drag him to safety. 
The second incident took place four days later on the night of June 3, 1943. About eleven sailors got off a bus and started walking along Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles. At some point they ran into a group of young Mexicans dressed in zoot suits and got in a verbal argument. It was then that the sailors claimed that they were jumped and beaten by this gang of zoot suiters. When the LAPD responded to the incident, many of them off duty officers, they called themselves the Vengeance Squad and went to the scene “seeking to clean up Main Street from what they viewed as the loathsome influence of pachuco gangs.” The next day, 200 members of the U.S. Navy got a convoy of about 20 taxi cabs and headed for East Los Angeles. When the sailors spotted their first victims, most of them 12-13 year old boys, they clubbed the boys and adults that were trying to stop them. They also stripped the boys of their zoot suits and burned the tattered clothes in a pile. They were determined to attack and strip all minorities that they came across who were wearing zoot suits. It was with this attack that the Zoot Suit Riots started.
The riots themselves
As the violence escalated over the ensuing days, thousands of servicemen joined the attacks, marching abreast down streets, entering bars and movie houses and assaulting any young Latino males they encountered. Although police accompanied the rioting servicemen, they had orders not to arrest any of them. After several days, more than 150 people had been injured and police had arrested more than 500 "Latinos" on charges from "rioting" to "vagrancy".
A witness to the attacks, journalist Carey McWilliams wrote,
"Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot suiter they could find. Pushing its way into the important motion picture theaters, the mob ordered the management to turn on the house lights and then ran up and down the aisles dragging Mexicans out of their seats. Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked from their seats, pushed into the streets and beaten with a sadistic frenzy."
The local press lauded the attacks by the servicemen, describing the assaults as having a "cleansing effect" that were ridding Los Angeles of "miscreants" and "hoodlums". The Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution banning the wearing of "zoot suits" after Councilman Norris Nelson stated "The zoot suit has become a badge of hoodlumism". But no ordinance was ever approved by the City Council or signed into law by the Mayor. White sailors and Marines had initially targeted only pachucos, but African-Americans in Zoot Suits were also attacked in the Central Avenue corridor area. This escalation compelled the Navy and Marine Corps command staffs to intervene on June 7, confining sailors and Marines to barracks and declaring Los Angeles off-limits to all military personnel with enforcement by U.S. Navy Shore Patrol personnel. Their official position remained that their men were acting in self defense
Rudy Leyvas describes how Mexican American boys fought back in a battle on the corner of Central Avenue and 12th Street: "Toward evening, we started hiding in alleys....Then we sent about 20 guys right out into the middle of the street as decoys. Then they came up in U.S. Navy trucks. There were many civilians, too. There were at least as many of them as us. They started coming after the decoys, then we came out. They were surprised. It was the first time anybody was organized to fight back. Lots of people were hurt on both sides. I was about 15 then, and I had a baseball bat. I came out okay, but I know I hurt a lot of people."
As the riots subsided, nationwide public condemnation of the military and civil officials followed with the governor ordering the creation of the McGucken committee to investigate and determine the cause of the riots. In 1943 the committee issued its report; it determined racism to be a central cause of the riots, further stating that it was "an aggravating practice (of the media) to link the phrase zoot suit with the report of a crime." The Governor appointed a "Peace Officers Committee on Civil Disturbances" chaired by Robert W. Kenny, president of the National Lawyers Guild to make recommendations to the police. Human relations committees were appointed and police departments were required to train their officers to treat all citizens equally. At the same time, Mayor Fletcher Bowron came to his own conclusion. The riots, he said, were caused by Mexican juvenile delinquents and by white Southerners. Racial prejudice was not a factor.
A week later First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt commented on the riots in her newspaper column, which the local press had largely attributed to criminal actions by the Mexican-American community.
"The question goes deeper than just suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should." – June 16 Eleanor Roosevelt
This led to an outraged response from the Los Angeles Times which printed an editorial the following day, in which it accused Mrs. Roosevelt of having communist leanings and stirring "race discord".
On June 21, 1943 the State Un-American Activities Committee under State Senator Jack Tenney arrived in Los Angeles to determine if Communists had deliberately fostered the zoot suit riots. In late 1944, ignoring the findings of the McGucken committee and the unanimous reversal of the convictions in the Sleepy Lagoon case on October 4, the Tenney Committee announced that the National Lawyers Guild was an "effective communist front.