1940's Los Angeles
In the summer of 1943, Los Angeles erupted in violence. The city, a major training and transit point for military personnel, saw itself on the front lines of the war in the Pacific. Sailors, soldiers, and marines in the area read in the L.A. press about the war overseas, and the war against Mexican "pachuco" gangs at home.
More and more, people believed Mexican American youths were predisposed to criminality. These notions were encouraged by sensationalistic news reports and an overaggressive police department. At the time, many Mexican American teens were challenging the unwritten codes of prejudice. Those who wore the zoot suit — an outrageous, attention-grabbing fashion — knew they were placing themselves in the public eye. What they learned from the Zoot Suit Riots, however, was that self-expression can come with a heavy price.
A group of "zoot-suiters" fight 11 sailors who walk through the Alpine barrio; according to witness Henry Marin, the sailors were attacked for dating two of the Mexican American young men's girlfriends. Sailors in taxicabs begin to survey Mexican American neighborhoods to find the zoot-suited young men.
Several dozen sailors from the Naval Reserve Armory in Chavez Ravine rampage through the Alpine district, assaulting "zoot-suiters." Entering a theater, they pull Mexican Americans from their seats and beat them. Sailors roam side streets, entering restaurants and bars to seek victims. The shore patrol issues a riot call, but neither they nor the police arrive in time to make arrests. Shore patrol officers arrest several sailors downtown and send the rest back to base. Later, authorities release all prisoners without filing charges.
The Los Angeles Daily News calls the street fights "open warfare." Two hundred sailors hire a "fleet" of taxicabs and drive to East Los Angeles, beating zoot-suiters and sending five victims to the hospital. Shore patrol and the L.A.P.D. do not catch up with the sailors until they return to their bases. Only several are arrested — and no charges are filed. The Los Angeles Timesruns the headline, "Zoot Suiters Learn Lesson in Fight with Servicemen."
On leave for the weekend, army personnel and marines join the rioting sailors in L.A. Servicemen teem through downtown, allegedly giving Mexican American youths 24 hours to shed their suits. They venture into East L.A., where they attack individuals wearing "drapes."
The Los Angeles Times takes notice of the riots. Despite the presence of an additional 300 law enforcement officers, called to quell the disturbances, servicemen invade East L.A. on the hunt for zoot-suiters. One group chases Mexican American boys into a dance hall on First and State Streets. The Los Angeles Daily News reports that the sailors left the boys "crawling about with battered heads and smashed noses."
The riots reach a climax. The evening press runs special editions announcing that the zoot-suiters plan "to kill every cop" they see. The papers give details of when and where the attacks are to occur. Subsequently, five thousand servicemen and civilians converge on downtown L.A. and beat and strip every Mexican American boy they find. At the Orpheum Theater, servicemen pull Mexican American boys to the stage and strip them. At least half of the victims are not wearing zoot suits. The Herald and Express reports a police estimate that on this night more than 700 "grotesquely-clad hoodlums roam L.A. bent on the common purpose of engaging in battle with servicemen."
Rudy Leyvas describes how Mexican American boys fought back in a battle on the corner of Central Avenue and 12th Street: "Toward evening, we started hiding in alleys. ...Then we sent about 20 guys right out into the middle of the street as decoys. Then they came up in U.S. Navy trucks. There were many civilians, too. There were at least as many of them as us. They started coming after the decoys, then we came out. They were surprised. It was the first time anybody was organized to fight back. Lots of people were hurt on both sides. I was about 15 then, and I had a baseball bat. I came out okay, but I know I hurt a lot of people."
The fighting grows worse as the mob crosses the bridges over the Los Angeles River and invades East L.A. barrios.
Commander Clarence Fogg, a senior patrol officer, reports, "hundreds of servicemen prowling downtown Los Angeles mostly on foot — disorderly — apparently on prowl for Mexicans... Groups vary in size from 10 to 150 men and scatter immediately when shore patrol approaches. Men found carrying hammock clues, belts, knives, and tire irons." Shortly after midnight, military officials, deeming the L.A.P.D. incapable of controlling the violence, declare downtown out of bounds for all military personnel.
The Los Angeles City Council passes a resolution banning zoot suits:
"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."
Sporadic disturbances continue. In Watts, servicemen take Pacific Electric railway cars to 103rd Street, barge into stores and theaters, and lop off the cuffs of Mexican American boys wearing pegged pants. The police arrive only to take the victims into custody, and allow the servicemen to leave. To retaliate, zoot-suiters stone the trains as they pass through Watts for the next several days. The Los Angeles Daily News, "Nearly every window of an outbound Long Beach tow-car train was smashed when it was caught in the crossfire of a pachuco stoning."