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Zuit Suit Riots

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Zuit Suit Riots

THE ZOOT SUIT RIOTS

Citizens of early 1940s Los Angeles lived in an atmosphere of racial tension that ultimately exploded in the Zoot Suit Riots. But what caused the unrest? In the decades leading up to the rioting, Los Angeles experienced an unprecedented population explosion. Along with Midwesterners who flocked to Los Angeles, thousands of Mexican refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution made their way there. So too did landless white laborers escaping the Dust Bowl in the Southern Plains, and African Americans seeking more opportunity than they'd had in the South. The coming of war in 1941 further complicated the city's dynamics. White men went off to fight in a mostly white military, and women and people of color filled the jobs in the defense industry previously reserved for white males. This situation, which is prompting racial antagonism between the Mexican, Anglo-Saxon and Black communities will undoubtedly have grave international repercussions which will inevitably damage the war effort and thwart the gains made by the Good Neighbor policy.

Many Angelenos saw themselves on the frontline of the battle with Japan and felt vulnerable to a West Coast attack. Civilian patrols were established throughout the city and Los Angeles beaches were lined with anti-aircraft guns. Civilian and military leaders in Los Angeles all too easily saw cultural and racial difference among Japanese Americans as subversion and betrayal, and supported the forced relocation of Japanese Americans into camps set up in the rural West. Consequently, up to 50,000 servicemen could be found in Los Angeles on any given weekend. Tensions between servicemen and civilians were on the rise as thousands of military men on leave poured into Los Angeles, using the city as a playground for booze, women, and fights. While many civilians tolerated them because of the war, others did not. Particularly in the segregated, ethnic areas of Los Angeles, unruly servicemen met stiff opposition from young men and women who refused to defer to the presumed prerogatives of white privilege. While white military men and civilian youth of all races clashed in the streets, confrontations occurred more often between white servicemen and Mexican Americans, because they were the largest minority group in Los Angeles. The tension continued to escalate until a street fight between sailors and Mexican American boys sparked more than a week of fighting in June of 1943 known as the Zoot Suit Riots.

On the night of June 3, 1943, eleven sailors on shore leave stated that they were attacked by a group of Mexican pachucos. In response to this, a group of over 200 uniformed sailors chartered 20 cabs and charged into the heart of the Mexican American community in East Los Angeles. Any zoot suitor was fair game. On the following night, many zoot suitors where beaten by this mob and stripped of their zoot suits, right on the spot. Nine sailors were arrested during these disturbances; not one charge was filed. The riots proceeded to intensify each day with retaliations from both the sailors and young Mexican Americans, eventually involving the entire Mexican American community. . The worst violence occurred on Monday, June 7. One Los Angeles paper printed a guide on how to "de-zoot" a zoot suitor: "Grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them." That night a crowd of 5,000 civilians gathered downtown. By this time the mob was no longer made up of only sailors from the Armory. Soldiers, Marines, and sailors from other installations as far away as Las Vegas eagerly joined in the assaults. Finally, at midnight on June 7th, because the navy believed it had on actual mutiny on hand. The military authorities did what the city of Los Angeles would not, they moved to stop the rioting of their

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