What You Need To Know About The WWII Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots

 
 
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Leading up to Absolute Mayhem

Pachuco culture is associated with the zoot suit and the idea of making flamboyant appearances in public. Photo Credit.
Pachuco culture is associated with the zoot suit and the idea of making flamboyant appearances in public. Photo Credit.

Shortly before the rioting began and all hell broke loose, there was the small matter of the Sleepy Lagoon Case, which was a total game changer when it came to the altercation between the Mexican-Americans, who dressed up in Zoot suits. Due to the media sensationalizing the Mexican youth, there was mass hysteria and paranoia amongst the white Americans who frequently got into fights with Latinos in all the major cities across the United States.

The Marines and sailors also played their part, as they viciously confronted, attacked and beat up numerous zoot-suiters whenever they encountered them. There were cases of violent conflicts, and even the police departments in those cities couldn’t do anything to stop them.

On June 4th, 1943, around 200 U.S. Navy servicemen got into taxicabs and headed to the center of the Mexican settlement. The sailors confronted the zoot suiters and actually assaulted them with clubs, then stripped them off their clothes and burned them in a pile. They didn’t stop and stripped and attacked anyone they saw in a zoot-suit. This kick-started the zoot-suit riots and all hell broke loose in Los Angeles.

The Rioting Begins

Sign posted in response to proposed Sojourner Truth Housing Project, February 1942.
Sign posted in response to proposed Sojourner Truth Housing Project, February 1942.

The ensuing violence was some of the worst that has been seen in the United States in history, and the riots lasted for several days. There were thousands of servicemen marching down the streets, entering movie theatres and bars, and openly assaulting every young Latino or Mexican male. Police accompanied the servicemen but were ordered not to arrest any of them, and after several days of this madness, around 150 people were injured and the police had arrested nearly 500 Latinos on charges related to vagrancy and rioting.

The local press hailed the attacks by the servicemen, and described them as an act of cleansing, where Los Angeles was being cleared of hoodlums, thugs and miscreants. The City Council of Los Angeles banned the wearing of Zoot-suits within the city, and the dress was turned into a badge of thuggery and hoodlumism. All sense of law and order in Los Angeles was lost as servicemen started viciously attacking everyone they met in zoot-suits, even African Americans were targeted.

The situation got so bad that the Marine and Navy Corps had to intervene in order to stop the attacks, and actually declared Los Angeles to be off limits for military personnel. They declared that the sailors and servicemen had acted in self-defense, but it did little to curb the race-riots that had started springing up all across America.

The Nation Reacts

Chavez visiting Colegio Cesar Chavez. Photo Credit.
Chavez visiting Colegio Cesar Chavez. Photo Credit.

Once the zoot-suit riots had been stopped, the entire nation publicly condemned the attacks by the military officials. The relations with Mexico had also seriously deteriorated at a time when the United States was embroiled in war and needed help in different industrial sectors. Many declared that the riots were caused due to racism and blamed the media for aggravating the situation by labeling zoot-suits as the badges of thuggery and hoodlumism.

The zoot-suit riots inspired many activists after the war, including the likes of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Luis Valdez. Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez were involved in the zoot suit riots and were also arrested several times during the disturbances.