On the night of 3rd June 1943, as American men of all ethnicities shipped off to service in World War II, the city of Los Angeles witnessed a violent racist outbreak when a group of fifty sailors ran amok viciously targeting and attacking Mexican-American youths wearing zoot suits. Deemed to be provocatively flaunting their lack of patriotism by wearing such flamboyant garb during wartime, the victims were stripped, beaten and pissed on. Their clothing was ritualistically burned. For nearly two weeks, thousands of servicemen joined in the hunt for young zooters, fuelled by a racist local press that lauded the “cleansing” of “miscreants” and “hoodlums”. A few days into the riots, the city council banned the wearing of zoot suits – not to protect the victims, but because they were a “badge of hoodlumism.” Soon civilians were joining in on the attacks. Thousands of whites roamed the streets ministering summary justice. Taxis even provided free transport to the “mass lynching”. The Los Angeles Police Department, meanwhile, turned a blind eye to the attacks and instead indiscriminately arrested hundreds of Mexican-American youths. The rampage stopped only when the army and navy commanders in southern California took seriously what had become a national crisis and confined military men to their bases. The so-called Zoot Suit Riots would expose the polarisation between White America and the growing Mexican-American community, and intensify national wartime anxieties which perceived all non-whites as a threat to homeland security.
In the preceding two decades, following an influx of Mexicans to the Los Angeles area, the socially disadvantaged second-generation Mexican-Americans struggled with their identity. Caught between two cultures, their disenfranchisement gave birth to the pachucos – a proto-gang group of youths who created their own dialect and appropriated the flamboyant zoot suit from the black jazzers as a peacock-like badge of their marginalisation. Most Americans across the colour line considered the zoot suit garish and inappropriate at best; at worst, they saw it as an affront to the unwritten code of segregation that demanded racial minorities to act discreet, decorous and deferential. For the rioting servicemen, destroying the zoot suit was as much a show of power designed to reassert the norms of white supremacy as it was an expression of wartime patriotism.
The Zoot Suit Riots was an international embarrassment for the United States. The Axis countries quickly pointed out that, contrary to Allied propaganda, American society remained deeply racist. In America, the incident triggered similar attacks against zoot suit-wearing ethnic minorities in Chicago, San Diego, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York. The riots would spawn a powerful breed of civil rights leaders, including a young zooter pimp known as Detroit Red whose experience when the fighting spread to New York was pivotal in his transformation into Malcolm X.
In the wake of the Riots, a committee whose job it was to determine the cause concluded that it had been delinquency, and racism had not been a factor. We know that’s a barefaced lie, but if we’re to reduce the victims to mere delinquents, well, let’s give them their due: as the first fashion-led youths to be associated with rebellion, the zooters’ influence would reverberate profoundly for future generations of disaffected teenagers. Indeed, the Zoot Suit Riots was the precursor to the widespread moral panic over the nation’s juvenile delinquents which deepened after the war and heralded the birth rock ‘n’ roll. Uh oh!