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10/31/2017 Zoot Suit Riots - Facts & Summary - HISTORY.

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ZOOT SUIT RIOTS


The Zoot Suit Riots were a series of violent clashes during which mobs
of U.S. servicemen, o -duty police o cers and civilians brawled with
young Latinos and other minorities in Los Angeles. The June 1943
riots took their name from the baggy suits worn by many minority
youths during that era, but the violence was more about racial
tension than fashion.

CONTENTS
WHAT IS A ZOOT SUIT?
A BADGE OF DELINQUENCY
THE ZOOT SUIT RIOTS BEGIN
THE RIOTING SPREADS
AFTERMATH OF THE ZOOT SUIT RIOTS
SOURCES:

WHAT IS A ZOOT SUIT?


During the 1930s, dance halls were popular venues for socializing,
swing dancing and easing the economic stress of the Great
Depression. Nowhere was this more true than in the uptown
Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, home of the famed Harlem
Renaissance.

Style-conscious Harlem dancers began wearing loose- tting clothes


that accentuated their movements. Men donned baggy trousers with
cu s carefully tapered to prevent tripping; long jackets with heavily
padded shoulders and wide lapels; long, glittering watch chains; and

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hats ranging from porkpies and fedoras to broad-brimmed


sombreros.

The image of these so-called zoot suits spread quickly and was
popularized by performers such as Cab Calloway, who, in his
Hepsters Dictionary, called the zoot suit the ultimate in clothes. The
only totally and truly American civilian suit.

A BADGE OF DELINQUENCY
As the zoot suit became more popular among young men in African
American, Mexican American and other minority communities, the
clothes garnered a somewhat racist reputation. Latino youths in
California known as pachucosoften wearing ashy zoot suits,
porkpie hats and dangling watch chainswere increasingly viewed by
a uent whites as menacing street thugs, gang members and
rebellious juvenile delinquents.

Wartime patriotism didnt help matters: After the bombing of Pearl


Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, wool and other textiles
were subject to strict rationing. The U.S. War Production Board
regulated the production of civilian clothing containing silk, wool and
other essential fabrics.

Despite these wartime restrictions, many bootleg tailors in Los


Angeles, New York and elsewhere continued to make the popular
zoot suits, which used pro igate amounts of fabric. Servicemen and
many other people, however, saw the oversized suits a agrant and
unpatriotic waste of resources.

The local media was only too happy to fan the ames of racism and
moral outrage: On June 2, 1943, the Los Angeles Times reported: Fresh
in the memory of Los Angeles is last years surge of gang violence that
made the zoot suit a badge of delinquency. Public indignation
seethed as warfare among organized bands of marauders, prowling
the streets at night, brought a wave of assaults, [and] nally murders.

THE ZOOT SUIT RIOTS BEGIN


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In the summer of 1943, tensions ran high between zoot-suiters and


the large contingent of white sailors, soldiers and Marines stationed
in and around Los Angeles. Mexican Americans were serving in the
military in high numbers, but many servicemen viewed the zoot-suit
wearers as World War II draft dodgers (though many were in fact too
young to serve in the military).

On May 31, a clash between uniformed servicemen and Mexican


American youths resulted in the beating of a U.S. sailor. Partly in
retaliation, on the evening of June 3, about 50 sailors from the local
U.S. Naval Reserve Armory marched through downtown Los Angeles
carrying clubs and other crude weapons, attacking anyone seen
wearing a zoot suit or other racially identi ed clothing.

In the days that followed, the racially charged atmosphere in Los


Angeles exploded in a number of full-scale riots. Mobs of U.S.
servicemen took to the streets and began attacking Latinos and
stripping them of their suits, leaving them bloodied and half-naked on
the sidewalk. Local police o cers often watched from the sidelines,
then arrested the victims of the beatings.

Thousands more servicemen, o -duty police o cers and civilians


joined the fray over the next several days, marching into cafes and
movie theaters and beating anyone wearing zoot-suit clothing or
hairstyles (duck-tail haircuts were a favorite target and were often cut
o ). Blacks and Filipinoseven those not clad in zoot suitswere also
attacked.

THE RIOTING SPREADS


By June 7, the rioting had spread outside downtown Los Angeles to
Watts, East Los Angeles and other neighborhoods. Taxi drivers
o ered free rides to servicemen to rioting areas, and thousands of
military personnel and civilians from San Diego and other parts of
Southern California converged on Los Angeles to join the mayhem.

Leaders of the Mexican American community implored state and local


o cials to intervene, but their pleas met with little action. One
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eyewitness, writer Carey McWilliams, painted a terrifying picture:

On Monday evening, June seventh, thousands of Angelenos turned


out for a mass lynching. 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 nd. Street cars
were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were
jerked out of their seats, pushed into the streets, and beaten with
sadistic frenzy.

Some of the most disturbing violence was clearly racist in nature:


According to several reports, a black defense plant workerstill
wearing his defense-plant identi cation badgewas yanked o a
streetcar, after which one of his eyes was gouged out with a knife.

AFTERMATH OF THE ZOOT SUIT RIOTS


Local papers framed the racial attacks as a vigilante response to an
immigrant crime wave, and police generally restricted their arrests to
the Latinos who fought back. The riots didnt die down until June 8,
when U.S. military personnel were nally barred from leaving their
barracks.

The Los Angeles City Council issued a ban on zoot suits the following
day. Amazingly, no one was killed during the weeklong riot, but it
wasnt the last outburst of zoot suit-related racial violence. Similar
incidents took place that same year in cities such as Philadelphia,
Chicago and Detroit.

A Citizens Committee appointed by California Governor Earl Warren


to investigate the Zoot Suit Riots convened in the weeks after the riot.
The committees report found that, In undertaking to deal with the
cause of these outbreaks, the existence of race prejudice cannot be
ignored.

Additionally, the committee described the problem of juvenile


delinquency youth as one of American youth, not con ned to any

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racial group. The wearers of zoot suits are not necessarily persons of
Mexican descent, criminals or juveniles. Many young people today
wear zoot suits.

SOURCES:
A Brief History of the Zoot Suit: Smithsonian.com.
Zoot Suit Riots: Pomona College Research Library [online].
Remembering the Zoot Suit Riots: California Historical Society.
Los Angeles Group Insists Riots Halt: The New York Times.
Youth Gangs Leading Cause of Delinquencies: Los Angeles Times.
Accessed via web.viu.ca.
The Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots Revisited: Mexican and Latin
American Perspectives. Richard Griswold del Castillo, San Diego State
University.

Article Details:
Zoot Suit Riots
Author
History.com Sta

Website Name
History.com

Year Published
2017

Title
Zoot Suit Riots

URL
http://www.history.com/topics/zoot-suit-riots

Access Date
October 31, 2017

Publisher
A+E Networks

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