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Zootsuit Riots

In the 1940's, Los Angeles had a large Chicano teen age population, children of the immigrant wave of the 1920's. Some belonged to Chicano gangs whose members wore a distinctive style known as a zootsuits which consisted of high-waisted baggy-legged trousers, a long draped coat, a broad-rimmed flat hat, and a long elaborate key chain completed the outfit. Their hair style consisted of a squared-off haircut with a long duck-tail.

In April and May 1943, a few months after the convictions in the Sleepy Lagoon trial, there were some minor clashes between zootsuiters and military personnel in Los Angeles. Tension soon lead to serious rioting in the first day of June 1943, when clashes broke out between zootsuiters and groups of sailors and soldiers stationed in the area. The servicemen roamed the streets of Los Angeles seeking out and attacking those they thought were zootsuiters. Cars and buses were stopped, and zootsuiters were pull out. They enter theaters and zootsuiters were dragged out. The zootsuiters were then assaulted and had their clothes ripped off and their hair cutoff. These vicious attacks quickly extended to everyone who looked Mexican. There was an undeclared war on Mexicans by packs of serviceman. On June 7, fleets of taxis filled with sailors cruised the streets of Los Angeles seeking more Mexicans to attack. This time the L.A.P.D. and Sheriffs followed the taxis from a distance, and instead of arresting the serviceman they arrested the zootsuiters who were the victims of the military mobs. Time magazine later called the riots in Los Angeles "the ugliest brand of mob action since the coolie race riot of the 1870's."

What started out as street fights between zootsuiters and seviceman had turned into a full scale race riot inflamed by the L.A. newspapers and condoned by the major law agencies. The violence started to spread from Los Angeles to Long Beach, Pasadena, and down to San Diego. The violence in Southern California triggered similar race riots against Chicanos in the midwest and eastern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia during the summer of 1943.

The official version of the Los Angeles rioting by city and county officials was that the sailors and soldiers had acted in self defense, and that no element of racial prejudice was involved. However, a citizens committee found that these riots were caused principally by racial prejudice which was stimulated by police practices and by inflammatory newspaper reporting.

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