June 3-1943: The LA Zoot Suit Riots

June 3-1943: The LA Zoot Suit Riots

From 1920-1940, the population of Los Angeles tripled to 1.5 million people, due to migration from Midwestern laborers escaping the Dust Bowl, African-Americans leaving the South and Mexican refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution.  The start of World War II in 1941 brought about another influx of servicemen to Los Angeles.

The Mexican youth adopted a fashion trend called the zoot suit — modeled on flashy, mobster attire — was widely ridiculed in the white press. Visiting servicemen joined in harassing “zoot-suiters.”  The War Production Board virtually banned it in March 1942, when it restricted the amount of material to be used in men’s clothes, but the zoot suit has continued to thrive- mainly through the diligence of bootleg tailors.

From Tolerance.org:

On June 3 in Los Angeles, a reported dispute over Chicanos set off a military riot. For five straight nights, Whites in uniform stormed the streets. They dragged zoot-suiters out of bars and nabbed them in movie theaters by turning the lights on. What started as an assault on Mexican Americans quickly expanded to include blacks and Filipinos. Each night, police officers waited until the GIs left and then swooped in to arrest the victims of the violence. . . .

Fearing mutiny, military officials declared the downtown district off limits to military personnel. The measure restored order, but real peace was harder to achieve.

From American Experience:

Los Angeles police were unwilling to step in and protect civilians. One policeman was quoted after the riots as saying: “You can say that the cops had a ‘hands-off’ policy during the riots. Well, we represented public opinion. Many of us were in the First World War, and we’re not going to pick on kids in the service.”

June 10th, the Los Angeles City Council passes the following resolution:

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the City Council by Resolution find that the wearing of Zoot Suits constitutes a public nuisance and does hereby instruct the City Attorney to prepare an ordinance declaring same a nuisance and prohibit the wearing of Zoot Suits with reet pleats within the city limits of Los Angeles.


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