Looking Back on the Zoot Suit Riots
by Sandy Flores Ruiz, age 15
In 1943, protests coined the Zoot Suit Riots (named after the outfits worn by young Latinos and minority groups) took hold of Los Angeles in the wake of swelling racial tensions and prejudice.
The outfit that became the namesake of the protests, the zoot suit, was a popular outfit in the 1930s. The style consisted of loose baggy clothing, jackets, shoulder pads, lapels, leg pants and accessories like chains, watches, and a variety of hats. For example, many Harlem dancers wore these types of clothing and their popularity spread across the country, specifically among Latin American, African American, and other minority groups. Over time, zoot suits evolved to be used to scapegoat minority groups. People who wore these outfits were seen as street thugs, gang members, and rebellious delinquents.
During World War 2, the zoot suits gained an even more malicious reputation as many service men viewed them as an unpatriotic waste of resources since the U.S. needed silks, wools and other fabrics to support war time efforts. Nonetheless tailors across the U.S in places like Los Angeles and New York continued to make zoot suits. As summer 1943 approached, tensions started to rise between white members of the military and zoot suiters, most notably in Los Angeles.
On May 31, a fight broke out in Los Angeles between servicemen and Mexican American kids, sparking the start of the riots. One sailor was beaten up and as revenge, 50 others from the U.S. Naval Reserve Armory marched across downtown Los Angeles attacking anyone wearing zoot suits or similar clothing. The riot continued with crowds of servicemen attacking Latinos and other people of color, ripping their suits and leaving the men beaten on the sidewalk. Local police did not intervene and often watched victims get beaten, and in some cases, arrested the victims themselves.
For the next few days, more service men and police officers joined the attacks on Latinos, African Americans, Filipinos and anyone else who displayed clothing that matched the zoot suit style. Riots continued to spread outside downtown Los Angeles. Taxi drivers even offered free rides to servicemen joining the riots. Though leaders in the Mexican American community sought help from officials, no one intervened and little action took place. People of color were pushed and beaten in the streets. In one case, a man’s eye was gouged out with a knife.
The riots did not subside until June 8 when U.S. military personnel were barred from leaving their stations. After the riots, local news framed the attacks as a response to an immigrant crime wave. Zoot suits were banned in Los Angeles and the violence expanded to cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit.
In the wake of the riot, then-California Governor Earl Warren appointed a group of people, The Citizens Committee, to discuss the ongoing issues and tensions that had occurred across the region. The group published its findings in a report, noting, “In undertaking to deal with the cause of these outbreaks, the existence of racial prejudice cannot be ignored.” In addition they emphasized that the problem of juvenile delinquency was one of American youth overall and not a definition of any racial group.