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Zoot Suit Riots | Article

Clem Peoples and the Los Angeles Police Department

Sensation Magazine

"Satisfied with their savagery, the swaggering young guerillas climbed back into their cars and sped away." So read Clem Peoples' sensationalized, first-person account of the Sleepy Lagoon murder of 1942. He was the chief criminal investigator for the sheriff's office of the Los Angeles police force and headed the citywide dragnet that rounded up 600 young Mexican Americans on suspicion of connection to the murder of José Díaz. When 22 young men were singled out and indicted for murder, Peoples prepared the testimony for the prosecution. His article, "Smashing California's Baby Gangsters," was a blatantly fictionalized account of the murder written with the intent to place the 22 young men who were on trial behind bars.

While Sensation boasted it provided the "true stories behind the news headlines," it specialized in gruesome and lewd tales that shocked the public. Peoples' article, given a measure of credibility by his connection to the Los Angeles Police Department, was no exception. It exaggerated and sensationalized the view held by some police and city leaders in the early 1940s that juvenile delinquency was a particular problem among Mexican American youth because of the overcrowded conditions caused by waves of refugees from the Mexican Revolution. Peoples wrote, "Sheriff Biscailuz, knowing he must stop the wolf-packs before they committed further murders, organized a special anti-gang squad and named me as its chief."

The dragnet that followed the Sleepy Lagoon murder was the first major show of force against Mexican American teenagers. The mass trial of 22 young men that followed included a biased judge and a jury swayed by accounts in the mainstream press of Mexican American "gangsterism." The L.A.P.D. continued to round up Mexican American young people even after 17 of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were found guilty of murder and sent away to prison.

In 1938, a connection had been exposed between Mayor Frank Shaw and the criminal underworld of the city, and the corrupt L.A.P.D. was reformed as a result. Mayor Fletcher Bowron, a Los Angeles judge who crusaded against vice in the city's offices, replaced Shaw. Knowing they would soon be under scrutiny by the new administration, many police officials, including Chief James Davis, quickly resigned.

Another result of this reform was a shift in what was considered to be an officer's primary function. A code of police "professionalism" emerged, transforming the force from a responsive one into a preventive one, poised to fight crime rather than merely react to it. The L.A.P.D. became more aggressive in seeking out the "criminal elements" of the city. And more police patrolled neighborhoods deemed "high-crime areas."

The police, however, felt vulnerable. Mayor Bowron was busy securing war production contracts for the city, making Los Angeles central to the war effort and the recipient of some $40 billion in federal funds. As the economy boomed, the city's population swelled with immigrants looking for work. The L.A.P.D. was hardly equipped to "protect and serve" the diverse and rapidly growing population, especially since many police had enlisted in the armed services, leaving the police department understaffed.

Juvenile delinquency was a growing national preoccupation as fathers, brothers, and uncles went off to war and mothers, aunts, and older sisters filled their places in the workforce in dramatic numbers. Under these circumstances, who was looking after the kids? In Los Angeles, fears of delinquents focused on young people who embraced the jazz counterculture, which seemed to undermine the very foundations of white middle-class respectability. Coinciding with the growing popularity of jazz, young people of color increasingly refused to conform to the social restrictions demanded by segregation. "We're tired of being told we can't go to this show or this dance hall because we're Mexican or that we better not be seen on the beach front, or that we can't wear draped pants or have our hair cut the way we want to," a zoot-suiter named Alfred Barela wrote. "Why do the cops hate the Mexican kids and push them around?"

Not only did couples racially mix on the dance floor, they often verbally and physically challenged racial boundaries on the streets. These two social forces — a growing youth counterculture mixed with a rebellion against cherished social norms — led to the criminalization of the "zoot suiters." In the eyes of many Angelenos, those who brashly strutted on the streets in zoot suits were clearly delinquent.

Criticism of the zoot suiters also came from their own families. Many of L.A.'s quarter-million Mexican Americans lived in tight-knit neighborhoods, called barrios, whose inhabitants had become self-contained in response to decades of discrimination. But by the early 40s, young Mexican Americans like Henry Leyvas saw a different America outside their neighborhoods, and wanted to claim a piece for themselves. "These kids spoke to each other in English. And it was an English that was punctuated by jazz phrases: 'cool,' 'hip', 'on time.' ...They didn't speak Spanish," describes historian Eduardo Pagan. As young Mexican Americans stepped out in their zoot suits, their parents saw their children disappearing into a different world, and they feared their kids would become ill-mannered "pachucos" — a word they used to mean "punks."

In the aftermath of José Díaz's murder, California's governor, C. C. Young, demanded that the Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies crack down on youth crime. The L.A.P.D. and the L.A. County Sheriff's Office worked furiously to arrest Díaz's presumed murderers in large part to assure the public that they were capable of maintaining law and order. "Zoot-suiters" were particular targets. Racial profiling was rampant, and beating detainees for confessions was an established police practice. One of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants, Angel Padilla, recalled his ordeal: "They knocked me over a chair and then I was on the floor... he said, 'You Mexicans think you are smart: you guys never fight fair... We ought to shoot every Mexican dog like you.'"

As the number of minority teenagers in Los Angeles jail cells increased, both the L.A.P.D. and the press asserted that racial minorities were a problem. Police frequently arrested entire groups of Mexican American kids who had socialized on street corners and charged them with vagrancy. Youths of all ages compiled massive arrest records and jail time even though they were never convicted of crimes. Since Mexican Americans were the largest racial minority in Los Angeles, discussions about youth crime waves and rebellion inevitably focused on them.

Multiple social tensions collided in early June 1943. Draftees poured into Los Angeles on their way to overseas combat, and spent their last weeks stateside carousing. In response, Mexican Americans and African Americans defied segregation in asserting their public presence, and combated the military men who came through their neighborhoods. The young rebels wielded rocks, clubs, chains, bottles, and knives in response to the unwelcome invasion. Angelenos presumed criminality in these acts of defiance, and the police responded by indiscriminately making arrests. To assert that they were still capable of insuring public safety, the police operated from the assumption that all Mexican American young men — and especially those in zoot suits — were criminals.

After one particularly violent confrontation, military men retaliated in June of 1943 by amassing forces and attacking "zoot suiters." The violence spread and soon the servicemen were attacking any minority, whether young or old, zoot-suited or conservatively attired. The L.A.P.D.'s proactive law enforcement never made it to the scene; police held back until the rioting servicemen swept through an area of town, then swooped in and arrested the attack's minority victims. During the course of the riot, which lasted a week, the police arrested hundreds of Mexican American boys for rioting. The servicemen were just sent back to their bases.

The L.A.P.D.'s blatant mishandling of the riots had serious ramifications for the city. It received negative press in publications like Time and the Chicago Tribune.  Time blamed the L.A.P.D. specifically for contributing to the riot. Eleanor Roosevelt referred to the violence as a "race riot." With the city and its institutions disgraced, city officials feared that Los Angeles might lose many of its military contracts. Mayor Bowron responded to the riots by trying to shift attention away from racism and blamed the riot instead on juvenile delinquency and on Southern whites in the military. The Los Angeles County grand jury investigating the riots called for stricter and more aggressive law enforcement to deal with the youths. While it recommended improved housing conditions in Mexican American neighborhoods, the jury also asked juvenile authorities to lock up more of the suspicious youths, to involve superior court judges in juvenile cases, and to increase police personnel. In the end, the jury, the press, and the mayor blamed the riots on the "zoot suiter," a temporary, but dangerous criminal element.

Ultimately, the social confrontations that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots gave rise to the myth of the zoot-suiter as a young Mexican American gangster. For the L.A.P.D., anyone in a zoot suit was suspect. And the connection between Mexican American youths and gangsterism is one that persists today.

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