The Sleepy Lagoon murder case

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What began as a neighborhood party during the summer of 1942 led to the largest mass murder trial in California’s history. After young Jose Diaz was found murdered near Los Angeles’ Sleepy Lagoon reservoir, 600 Mexican Americans were rounded up by the police, 24 were indicted, and 17 were convicted. But thanks to the efforts of crusading lawyers, Hollywood celebrities, and Mexican Americans throughout the nation, all 17 convictions were thrown out in an appellate decision that cited lack of evidence, coerced testimony, deprivation of the right to counsel, and judicial misconduct.

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Late at night on August 1, 1942, eight to ten uninvited young men were ordered to leave a birthday party at the east Los Angeles ranch home of the Delgadillo family. The party crashers ended up half a mile away on a “lover’s lane,” where they assaulted several young people parked by a reservoir nicknamed “Sleepy Lagoon.” The victims of the beating returned to their own neighborhood, collected a large group of friends, and returned to confront their attackers. Finding no one there, they followed the sound of music to the nearby Delgadillo party. What happened when they arrived would never be clear, but a brawl erupted inside and around the Delgadillo house.

Police arrived to find two stabbing victims. They also discovered 22-year-old Jose Diaz dying nearby on the roadside. Authorities blamed Diaz’s death and the fight at the Delgadillo house on a perceived “Mexican youth gang” problem in Los Angeles. Intending to extinguish gang-related crime, police used Diaz’s death as a pretext to arrest hundreds of young Mexicans and Mexican-Americans for offenses ranging from weapons possession to minor charges like vagrancy, curfew violation, “unlawful assemblage,” or possessing a draft card with an incorrect address.

By the end of the week, between 300 and 600 people had been detained in nightly police sweeps. Police singled out young “zoot suiters,” who wore extravagant wide trousers, drape jackets, and flamboyant hats.

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Twenty-two of the detainees were charged with murder and assault, while two others were indicted as juvenile offenders. They became known as the “Sleepy Lagoon defendants.” Prosecutors accused them of being members of a teenaged “gang,” which had conspired to crash the Delgadillo party in search of the group that had attacked them earlier. Since Jose Diaz was allegedly killed during a fight resulting from this conspiracy, the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were held collectively responsible for Diaz’s murder.

American participation in World War II played a major role in how the case was viewed. Conservative dailies like the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Examiner railed against “zoot suit hoodlums,” but skeptics derided the trial. The California Eagle, Los Angeles’ African-American weekly, accused the conservative press of manufacturing fake “crime waves” perpetrated by minority young people in order to perpetuate segregation. Each side accused the other of aiding Nazi attempts to sow discord in the United States during wartime. Worried over reports that the Axis powers were using the trial to encourage a fascist “fifth column” in his country, Mexico’s consul accused the prosecution and the conservative Los Angeles press of being motivated by racism.

 

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The Zoot suits riots-June 1943

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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.

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

THE HALIFAX VE-DAY RIOTS

 

9f2fb106-d475-4208-b2bb-4de6549dedf9_thumbnail_600_600On 7 and 8 May 1945, riots broke out after poorly coordinated Victory in Europe celebrations fell apart in Halifax and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Several thousand servicemen (predominantly naval), merchant seamen and civilians drank, vandalized and looted.

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Word of Germany’s surrender in World War II was met by celebrations across Canada, but in Halifax, Nova Scotia the VE-Day celebrations rapidly turned into riots. For two days, military personnel and civilians roamed the streets, drinking, smashing windows, looting businesses and setting fires.

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A major North American port, Halifax had doubled its size during World War II, from about 70,000 people to 130,000.

The resulting overcrowding in Halifax, scarce food, and inadequate facilities had led to a buildup of tensions between military personnel and permanent residents of Halifax.

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The planning for VE-Day in Halifax was poor. In meetings before VE-Day there had been an agreement that the navy, army and air force would look after their own personnel and the Halifax city police force would take care of civilians. In reality, the military and civilian police could not handle mobs of mixed military personnel and civilians, and nobody could control 25,000 servicemen on leave who wanted to celebrate, but had nothing to do, and nothing to drink.

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When the news of the German surrender was announced on radio on Monday morning May 7, 1945, people in Halifax, as in many other Canadian cities, ran into the streets to celebrate.

Restaurants and liquor stores in Halifax were closed to let workers celebrate. There were no taverns in Halifax.

The navy wet canteens opened around noon and closed at 9 pm that evening. When the canteens closed, thousands of sailors streamed into the streets of Halifax, joining the throngs of civilians and other servicemen.

A group of sailors wrecked a tram car. When the police arrived, the sailors smashed the police van.

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By midnight the Halifax liquor stores were being hit by rioters.

On the second day, VE-Day, it started all over again at about noon.

Civilians and other servicemen joined the mob as vandalism and looting broke out and spread.

A mob broke through the police cordon at the brewery – some even carted beer out in trucks. When the city and army police arrived, the mob had grown to thousands of civilians and military personnel, and the looting of the brewery went on unchecked.

Admiral Leonard Murray marched a parade of servicemen downtown to set an example for the looters. The marchers were jeered and shoved, and many joined the rioters.

Systematic destruction and looting continued as restaurants were looted and burned and all the businesses in the Halifax downtown district were looted and smashed.

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Admiral Murray and Halifax Mayor Butler drove through the downtown wreckage of Halifax using a loudspeaker to announce an 8 pm curfew.

By midnight it had begun to rain, and the riots faded.

Three people died – two of alcohol poisoning, and one a possible murder.

More than 500 businesses were damaged.Over 200 shops were looted.

Thousands of cases of beer, wine and liquor were looted.

Admiral Leonard Murray was forced to retire.

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