On June 3, 1943, a group of U.S. sailors marches through downtown Los Angeles, carrying clubs and other makeshift weapons and attacking anyone wearing a “zoot suit”—the baggy wool pants, oversized coats and porkpie hats favored by many young men of color at the time.
Over the next week, the so-called Zoot Suit Riots spread throughout the city, including the largely Mexican-American neighborhood of East Los Angeles and the largely Black neighborhood of Watts. The riots marked the culmination of simmering racial tensions in Los Angeles, set against the backdrop of World War II.
After originating in Harlem jazz clubs in the 1930s, the zoot suit style had become popular with young men in Black and Latino communities across the country. In Los Angeles, which had a large Mexican-American population, many more conservative citizens (including both older Mexican Americans and whites) objected to the young zoot-suiters who called themselves “pachucos,” associating them not only with cultural rebellion but also with criminality and gangsterism.
These negative views only increased during World War II, when the rationing of wool in early 1942 led the manufacturing of zoot suits to be banned and the wearing of them to be seen as unpatriotic. The Los Angeles news media in particular devoted itself to portraying pachucos as dangerous, especially after the so-called Sleepy Lagoon Murder of August 1942. In that notorious case, hundreds of Mexican-American youths were rounded up and 22 of them tried and convicted in the murder of another young Mexican-American man, Jose Diaz—a decision that was later overturned, and viewed as a major miscarriage of justice.
On May 30, 1943, a verbal confrontation between a group of U.S. sailors and a group of zoot-suiters ended in the beating of one of the sailors. In retaliation, about 50 sailors left the local U.S. Navy Reserve Armory on the evening of June 3, armed with makeshift weapons and targeting zoot-suiters (even those as young as 12 or 13 years old). On the second night of rioting, the sailors headed into the city’s Mexican-American communities, barging into cafes, bars and theaters to seek out and attack their victims.
Military personnel and civilians joined in the violence, some traveling to Los Angeles from elsewhere to take part. While news reports portrayed such rioters as heroes fighting against a supposed Mexican crime wave, many of their attacks were clearly racist in nature, targeting Latinos, African Americans and other minorities even when they weren’t wearing zoot suits. Meanwhile, police arrested hundreds of young Mexican Americans—many of whom had been attacked themselves—compared with comparatively few sailors or civilians involved in the rioting.
The Zoot Suit Riots finally died down after June 8, when military officials banned all military personnel from Los Angeles and called on military police to patrol the city. The L.A. City Council subsequently passed a resolution prohibiting the wearing of zoot suits on city streets.
No one was killed during the Zoot Suit Riots, though many people were injured. In the aftermath, Governor Earl Warren tasked an independent citizens’ committee with investigating the riots and determining their cause. Though several factors were involved, the committee concluded that racism was the central cause, exacerbated by inflammatory, biased media coverage and an uneven response by the Los Angeles Police Department.