The zoot Suit Riots, a series of conflicts that occurred in June 1943 in Los Angeles between U.S. servicemen and Mexican American youths, the latter of whom wore outfits called zoot suits. The zoot suit consisted of a broad-shouldered drape jacket, balloon-leg trousers, and, sometimes, a flamboyant hat. Mexican and Mexican American youths who wore these outfits were called zoot-suiters. These individuals referred to themselves as pachucos, a name linked to the Mexican American generation’s rebellion against both the Mexican and American cultures.
White servicemen and civilians attacked and stripped youths who wore zoot suits ostensibly because they considered the outfits to be unpatriotic during wartime, as they had a lot of fabric. Rationing of fabric was required for the World War II war effort. While most of the violence was directed toward Mexican American youth, young African American and Filipino Americans who were wearing zoot suits were also attacked
The Zoot Suit Riots were related to fears and hostilities aroused by the coverage of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, following the killing of a young Latino man in a barrio near Los Angeles.
The riots began on June 3, 1943, after a group of sailors stated that they had been attacked by a group of Mexican American zoot-suiters. As a result, on June 4 a number of uniformed sailors chartered cabs and proceeded to the Mexican American community, seeking out the zoot-suiters. What occurred that evening and in the following days was a series of conflicts primarily between servicemen and zoot-suiters. Many zoot-suiters were beaten by servicemen and stripped of their zoot suits on the spot. The servicemen sometimes urinated on the zoot suits or burned them in the streets. One local paper printed an article describing how to “de-zoot” a zoot-suiter, including directions that the zoot suits should be burned. The servicemen were also portrayed in local news publications as heroes fighting against what was referred to as a Mexican crime wave. The worst of the rioting occurred on the night of June 7, when thousands of servicemen and citizens prowled the streets of downtown Los Angeles, attacking zoot-suiters as well as members of minority groups who were not wearing zoot suits.
In response to these confrontations, police arrested hundreds of Mexican American youths, many of whom had already been attacked by servicemen. There were also reports of Mexican American youths requesting to be arrested and locked up in order to protect themselves from the servicemen in the streets. In contrast, very few sailors and soldiers were arrested during the riots.
Shortly after midnight on June 8, military officials declared Los Angeles off-limits to all military personnel. Deciding that the local police were completely unable or unwilling to handle the situation, officials ordered military police to patrol parts of the city and arrest disorderly military personnel; this, coupled with the ban, served to greatly deter the servicemen’s riotous actions. The next day the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution that banned the wearing of zoot suits on Los Angeles streets. The number of attacks dwindled, and the rioting had largely ended by June 10. In the following weeks, however, similar disturbances occurred in other states.
Remarkably, no one was killed during the riots, although many people were injured. The fact that considerably more Mexican Americans than servicemen were arrested—upward of 600 of the former, according to some estimates—fueled criticism of the Los Angeles Police Department’s response to the riots from some quarters.
As the riots died down, California Gov. Earl Warren ordered the creation of a citizens’ committee to investigate and determine the cause of the Zoot Suit Riots. The committee’s report indicated that there were several factors involved but that racism was the central cause of the riots and that it was exacerbated by the response of the Los Angeles Police Department as well as by biased and inflammatory media coverage. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron ,concerned about the riots’ negative impact on the city’s image, issued his own conclusion, stating that racial prejudice was not a factor and that the riots were caused by juvenile delinquents.
A week later, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt commented on the riots in her newspaper column. “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, 1943.
The Los Angeles Times published an editorial the next day expressing outrage: 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 with orders to “determine whether the present Zoot Suit Riots were sponsored by Nazi agencies attempting to spread disunity between the United States and Latin-American countries.” Although Tenney claimed he had evidence the riots were “Axis-sponsored”, no evidence was ever presented to support this claim. Japanese propaganda broadcasts accused the United States’ government of ignoring the brutality of U.S. Marines toward Mexicans.