The Zoot Suit Riots were a series of riots that erupted in Los Angeles, California during World War II, between sailors and Marines stationed throughout the city and Latino youths, who were recognizable by the zoot suits they favored. While Mexican Americans were the primary targets of military servicemen, African American and Filipino/Filipino American youth were also targeted.
The riots began in Los Angeles, amidst a period of rising tensions between American servicemen stationed in southern California and Los Angeles' Chicano community. On May 31, 1943, a group of white sailors on leave clashed with a group of young Hispanics in the downtown area. One sailor, Joe Dacy Coleman, was stabbed in the melee. The violence escalated as sailors and Marines continued to clash with Mexican-American youth; specifically targeting young men dressed in Zoot Suits and calling themselves pachucos (a precursor to the term Chicano). The Los Angeles Police Department initially refused to intervene as newspapers, headed by various Hearst Publishing dailies, placed the blame entirely on the pachucos. As the violence escalated over the ensuing days, thousands of servicemen joined the attacks.
An eyewitness to the attacks, journalist Carey McWilliams, described the scene as follows:
Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot suiter they could find. Pushing its way into the important motion picture theaters, the mob ordered the management to turn on the house lights and then ran up and down the aisles dragging Mexicans out of their seats. Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked from their seats, pushed into the streets and beaten with a sadistic frenzy
The local press lauded the attacks by the servicemen, describing the assaults as having a "cleansing effect" that were ridding Los Angeles of "miscreants" and "hoodlums. Sailors and Marines initially targeted pachucos, but African-Americans in Zoot Suits were also victimized in the Central Avenue corridor area. This escalation compelled the Navy and Marine Corp command staff to intervene on June 7; confining sailors and Marines to barracks and declaring Los Angeles as off-limits to all military personnel with enforcement by U.S. Navy Shore Patrol.
A week later, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt characterized the riots, which the local press had largely attributed to criminal actions by the Mexican American community, as in fact being "race riots" rooted in long-term discrimination against Mexican-Americans. This led to an outraged response by the Los Angeles Times, which in an editorial the following day accused Mrs. Roosevelt of stirring "race discord.