Zoot Suit Riots (check out the cool fashions link...)

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By Gene Sherman

Fresh in the memory, of Los Angeles is last year's surge of gang violence that made the "zoot suit" a badge of delinquency.

Public indignation seethed as warfare among organized bands of marauders, prowling the streets at night, brought a wave of assaults, finally murders.

Gang activities constitute an important part of the juvenile delinquent problem in Los Angeles. Next to "desire for adventure and employment" the Police Department lists gangs as the chief cause of delinquency.

Many over 18 in Gangs

There are, however, two exceedingly important things to remember when dealing with gangs-a large group of the membership of gangs comprises youths over 18 years of age and although many gang members wear "zoot suits," thousands of "zoot suit" wearers are non-delinquents.

At the beginning of the year it was estimated that there were 30 gangs in the country, including approximately 750 juvenile boys.

This estimate is at variance, however, with the police statistics which blame gang activity for the booking of 811 juveniles last year and the investigation (without booking) of 115 more.

Mark of "Distinction"

Although "zoot suits" became a uniform of delinquency because of their popularity among the gangs, their adoption by some of the city's youth was more a bid for recognition, a way of being "different," in the opinion of Heman G. Stark, County Protection Office chief of delinquency prevention.

Stark and Superior Judge Robert H. Scott of Juvenile Court concur in the belief that the formation of gangs was an outgrowth of a feeling of inferiority on the part of minority groups.

Whitfeiffer, executive-secretary of the Council of Social Agencies, points out that, between native-born youths of native-born parents and native-born youths of foreign-born parents, the latter always poses the greater delinquency problem.

Language Marks Difference

Juvenile files repeated show that a language variance in the home - where the parents speak no English and cling to past culture - is a serious factor of delinquency. Parents in such a home lack control over their offspring.

Motives for gang warfare are ridiculous in adult eyes but sometimes lead to planned and bloody fighting. One youth rallied his gang when a member of another East Side band made disparaging remarks about his automobile. A knife fight almost resulted when a member of one gang bumped into a member of another on Main St.

Many of the gang fights reported in newspapers have been planned conflicts with clubs, rods, lengths of pipe, knives and even guns-planned much like a football contest would be.

Detective Work started

Using the gang idea, much has been done to direct the energies of groups of idle boys into constructive channels.

A plumber on Third Street not long ago was troubled by boys who broke his windows and raided other stores in the block. The plumber corralled the leader of the group, invited the whole group to have dinner with him, planned the organization of a club and personally raised money for athletic equipment.

Window-breaking ceased and the merchants had the fun of backing a winning softball team!

The gang theory is used to superlative advantage in the Boy Scouts, Wood-craft Rangers, Campfire Girls and other youth organizations. Juvenile officers report instances where whole gangs, engaged in assorted depredations, have been formed into merit-badge-winning Scout troops....



Subdued and no longer ready to do battle, twenty-eight zoot-suiters, stripped of their garish clothing and with county jail barbers hopefully eyeing their flowing duck-tail haircuts, languished behind bars today after a second night of battle with of fleers and service men.

The arrests came after a "war" declared by service men, mostly sailors, on zoos-suit gangs which have been preying on the East Side as well as molesting civilians. Impetus was given to the clean-up campaign when the wives of two sailors were criminally attacked by the youths.

Cruising in taxicabs and cars, and occasionally spearing into enemy territory on foot in precise platoon drill, the service men routed the gangs, depriving them of crude weapons.

Favored for fighting by the youths were lengths of rope weighted with wire and lead, tire chains and wrenches, hammers and heavy bottles, some with the tops broken off.

Deputy sheriffs and police riot squads patrolled the "No Man's Land," breaking up fights where possible.

Sixteen Mexican youths, all armed with some sort of bludgeon, were arrest-ed. They were said to have tried to keep Deputy Sheriffs Foster Kellogg and E. N. Smith from arresting one of their number.

The entire lot was booked in the county jail on riot charges after flying squadrons of officers arrived on the scene.

The suspects, who were in a truck, said they were on their way to "have it out" with a bunch of sailors who had sent word they would be at California and Temple Streets to accommodate any of the zoot-suiters who thought Uncle Sam's fighting men were not just that.



. . . Throughout tense hours last night the zoos-suit war was held to sporadic clashes by a combination of strong police patrols and a Navy order listing Los Angeles as a restricted area for men of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

Nearly 1000 uniformed and special officers took up assigned positions throughout the downtown and East Side sections of the city at dusk. Others patrolled the streets in cruising cars, keeping a throng of sight-seers moving.

Crowds were dispersed almost as soon as they gathered and few youths in zoot suits were seen as groups of soldiers moved through the district with the watchful eyes of men looking for trouble.

Sailor's Nose Broken

There was little violence reported alter dark.

One sailor, Harold Tabor, 32, was beaten by a group of zoot suiters at 103rd and Graham streets and treated at Georgia Street Receiving Hospital for a broken nose. George Lorigo, 19, of 9533 Wilmington Ave., was arrested on a battery charge in connection with the assault.

Lewis D. English, 23-year-old zoos-suit wearer of 844 E. Fifth St., was arrested by Officer R. F. Brady for carrying a 16-inch razor sharp butcher knife "for protection" and a 16-year-old lad was taken into custody for carrying an iron bar and a knife.

M.P.'s Patrol in Groups

Military police patrols roamed the streets on foot and in jeeps, augmenting the work of city police. Many women and girls strolled the sidewalks with soldier escorts and the bars were crowded with servicemen awaiting the sound of a police whistle or a scuffle.

Only a sprinkling of sailors was seen, however, as the ban ordered by Rear Admiral D. W. Bagley, commandant of the 11th Naval District, went into effect.

Admiral Bagley issued the "precautionary measure" as a result of clashes between Navy men and the youths.

The official Navy announcement described the sailors as acting in "self-defense against the rowdy element" and defined the order as applying to all Navy personnel except those granted special authorization by commanders of naval stations in the area....

Navy Men Taunted

Yesterday's incidents in the zoot war included insults hurled at Navy men in the Chavez Ravine area.... After shouting taunts and abuse mixed with dire threats, the youths sped away.

Earlier in the day police reported that Donald J. Jackson, 20-year-old sailor, had been knifed by a gang of youths at First St. and Evergreen Ave. shortly after noon, while his companion, James R. Phelps, 19, another sailor, escaped injury by fleeing.

The attack was reported to the Hollenbeck Heights police, who began a roundup of suspects in the vicinity. Jackson received a five-inch cut in the stomach and a slight cut on the head and was treated at the Georgia Street Receiving Hospital, where his condition was said to be serious.

Shortly after, D. A. Mainhurst, 23, a sailor who had just reached the city from San Diego, reported to Newton St. police that he was beaten and kicked by a gang of zoot suiters at Central Ave. and Olympic Blvd. as he was waiting for a bus....

Attacked from Behind

He told police that about eight men attacked him from behind, knocked him down and kicked him. He escaped and took refuge in a service station, from which the gangsters dragged him and began beating him when nearby residents came to his rescue and the gang fled.

Phelps and Jackson said they were walking peaceably along the street at First St. and Evergreen Ave. when at least 15 zoot suiters jumped from auto-mobiles and attacked them, slashing Jackson.

All this occurred shortly before Army and Navy officers conferred with Mayor Bowron and Chief of Police Horrall in the Mayor's office regarding plans for halting the disturbances. Full cooperation was pledged by the military officials, who were not aware at the time that Admiral Bagley had made Los Angeles a restricted area for his personnel....

Scores Beaten

In the Monday night rioting which blocked traffic on S. Main St. and Broad-way for a time, at least 50 zoos-suit youths were beaten and, in many cases, stripped of their outer clothing.

Thousands of civilians assembled in the area and, according to Chief Horrall, "egged on" the servicemen, who banded together and took on all persons they found clad in zoot suits.

In the police roundup which followed, more than 200 youths, only a few of them in coot suits, were arrested and booked in the Georgia Street Juvenile Bureau on suspicion of inciting to riot. Nearly 500 servicemen were taken in custody by military authorities and police but these were sent back to their stations early yesterday.



. . . The Coordinator of Latin-American Youths . . . informed us . . . that during a meeting in which the situation created by the riots between the "pachucos" and the marines was discussed, a decision was reached to send the following telegram to Mr. Elmer Davis, Head of the Office of War Information in Washington; to Mr. Alan Cranston, Head of the Division of Foreign Languages, of the same office, and to President Roosevelt at the White House. Here is the message:

Since last Thursday evening various groups of marines and soldiers have attacked Mexican zoot suiters throughout the city of Los Angeles. Although the youth did nothing to provoke the attack or for that matter to resist the attack, many were severely wounded, including women and children. Supposedly the attack has been motivated by past conflicts between the two groups and has been amplified by the press claiming that Mexican youths have been disrespectful toward the servicemen, a claim without any foundation.

Despite precautions taken on the part of the military police and local authorities to control the situation, the servicemen continue to walk the streets of Los Angeles armed with clubs and appear to be tacitly supported by many city and local officials in charge of keeping the peace; their attacks have now expanded to include blacks. This situation, which is prompting racial antagonism between the Mexican, Anglo-Saxon and Black communities will undoubtedly have grave international repercussions which will inevitably damage the war effort and thwart the gains made by the Good Neighbor policy. We urge immediate intervention by the Office of War Information so that it moderates the local press which has openly approved of these mutinies and which is treating this situation in a manner that is decidedly inflammatory.

Eduardo Quevedo, president of the Coordinating Council of the Young People of Latin America.

Approximately fifty people, including the members of the Council, attend-ed the meeting in which the decision to send this telegram was reached....



LOS ANGELES, June 9-There is no question of racial discrimination involved in the zoos-suit trouble here, Mayor Bowron told State Department officials in a telephonic conversation.

Following his conversation the Mayor issued a statement in which he said:

I have had a long-distance telephone conversation with the State Department in Washington relative to the local situation. I was advised that the Mexican Embassy  had called the matter to the attention of the State Department upon the basis of a report received from the Mexican Consul in Los Angeles.

I informed the State Department that assurances could be given to the Mexican Embassy that the occurrences in this city are not in any manner directed at Mexican citizens or even against persons of Mexican descent. There is no question of racial discrimination involved.

We have here, unfortunately, a bad situation as the result of the formation and activities of youthful gangs, the members of which, probably to the extent of 98 per cent or more, were born right here in Los Angeles. They are Los Angeles youth, and the problem is purely a local one.

We are going to see that members of the armed forces are not attacked. At the same time, we expect cooperation from officers of the Army and Navy to the extent that soldiers and sailors do not pile into Los Angeles for the purpose of excitement and adventure and v. hat they might consider a little fun by beating up young men ~ hose appearance they do not like.

We propose to handle the situation in such a way that there will be no reason for protests on the part of the Mexican Government.

At the same time, I want to assure the people of Los Angeles that there will be no side-stepping and the situation will be vigorously handled. There are too many citizens in this community, some of them good-intentioned and a few whose intentions I question, who raise a hue and cry of racial discrimination or prejudice against a minority group ever time the Los Angeles police make arrests of members of gangs or groups working in unison. They all look alike to us, regardless of color and length of their coats.

The police are going to do the job and I propose to back up the police.

EXCELSIOR, JUNE 10, 1943 *

WASHINGTON, June 9, (AP) - Rafael de la Colina, Council Minister of the Mexican Embassy in Washington, was noticeably indignant during an interview dealing with the recent assaults on Mexican American youths by military personnel in Los Angeles. He declared that many innocent Mexican passers-by had been beaten. After receiving news from the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, the Minister added that it was entirely possible that the Mexican government would present a formal protest to the government of the United States and that the Embassy awaited orders from the Mexican government.... Carey McWilliams, president of the National Lawyers Association in Los Angeles, dispatched a petition to Attorney General Francis H. Biddle calling for an investigation of the events surrounding the recent race conflicts. "These conflicts are not isolated incidents," said McWilliams. "Evidence indicates that the violence which has occurred during this last weekend is the logical response to the policies and methods used by the local police department against the Mexican community over the last 18 months."



By Meyer Berger

Later historians may argue the point but J.V.D. Carlyle, fashion editor for Men 's Apparel Reporter, the trade's authority, seemed convinced yesterday that the first zoot suit on record was ordered early in February, 1940, at Frierson-McEver's in Gainesville, Ga.

The garment so startled A. C. McEver, conservative half of Frierson-McEver, that when the zoot suit was ready he photographed the purchaser, who was Clyde Duncan, a busboy in Gainesville, and sent the pictures to Men's Apparel Reporter. It was published in the February, 1941, issue....

The trade was amused. It was amused that Clyde Duncan was one of those whimsical people who turn up at a tailor's occasionally with extraordinary ideas, and let it go at that. They were astonished when the "killer diller' caught on in Mississippi, New Orleans and Alabama and leap-frogged to Harlem....

There have been reports that the zoot suit was inspired by authentic Civil War garb worn by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in "Gone with the Wind." In several scenes he appeared in a long coat and peg trousers. The report may be true. "Gone with the Wind" opened in Georgia in December, 1939, a few months before Clyde Duncan upset the Gainesville tailors with his order....

About a year to eighteen months ago, when the garment trades realized that the zoot suit had caught on with "sharpies" -the hep cats, or swing-mad kids - they began turning them out. The suits were listed under the trade term "extremes," but in April, 194, when the WPB [War Preparedness Board] cloth conservation order banned pleats, cuffs and long jackets, all legal manufacturers dropped the zoot.

Bootleg tailors then took them up and still put them out. In New York City, Harlem is the zoot suit center. High school age children from all parts of the city go to Harlem for them. Prices range from $18 to $75....

Hep-cat terms for the zoot suit are actually meaningless. A "rear pleat" is merely an exaggerated pleat. It had its origin in assonance which colors all hep-cat slang. "Zoot suit" is another example. The "V-knot" tie, the zoot chain the shirt collar, the tight "stuff cuff," the wide, flat hat and the Dutch-toe shoes of the zoot-suiter, Mr Carlyle said, simply display the hep-cat's tendency toward exaggeration in all things.



By Lawrence E Davies

LOS ANGELES, June I0 - Service men and young zoot suit wearers engaged in new outbreaks today as State investigators, under orders from Governor Earl Warren, began probing for the basic causes of a week-long series of disorders which have placed Los Angeles "out of bounds" for most Navy personnel.

Community leaders held meetings in an effort to get the city "back to normal" and to present evidence that the street battles represented a symptom not of racial discrimination but of an increasingly serious State-wide juvenile delinquency problem.

A legislative committee sought evidence that might link subversive agents with the gang activities.

Robert Kenny, State Attorney General, with the aid of a dozen State investigators and a citizens' committee appointed by Governor Warren, began the task assigned by the Governor of "ascertaining all of the facts and then applying the appropriate remedy."

Meanwhile, there was no indication that Rear Admiral D. W. Bagley, commandant of the Eleventh Naval District, would countermand his order restricting liberty in this city for Navy personnel. He took this action on Tuesday afternoon as a result of dozens of retaliatory dashes between "zoos suit" hoodlums and Navy enlisted men.

C. B. Horrall, chief of police, declared that the situation was well in hand but about that time two "zoot suit" wearers at the Plaza had their pants stripped off by a group of sailors "just traveling through." Several other minor incidents marked the day.

Rise of Disorders Traced

The series of disorders actually began in December in San Pedro, according to Navy sources, when lone sailors were waylaid in dim-out areas, beaten and robbed. According to police records, there have been twenty-six attacks on service men since March; Navy officers believe that the number has exceeded fifty since Jan. 1.

The retaliatory action began about a week ago. According to one version, a small group of sailors was chatting with a group of young women of Mexican descent when zoot-suited friends of the girls intervened, brought reinforcements and routed the sailors. The sailors went after reinforcements and beat up the zooters. A series of retaliations followed. In some versions women did not figure.

By Monday night taxicab fleets of sailors were hunting for zoot-suit wearers.

Navy men emphasize, and police agree, that in most instances the sailors, aided in a few cases by soldiers, and sometimes by taxicab drivers, showed a spirit as of a college fraternity initiation. Petty officers were almost wholly missing. The uniformed participants were seamen who, for the most part, had been in the Navy from one to six months.

As for the zoot suit wearers, according to some observers, hundreds had in recent years roved in organized bands. These gangs engaged in thievery, petty crimes and now and then knifings. For the most part bands were content to war with one another. Members ranged in age from 16 to 20 years....

A perusal of juvenile arrests and juvenile court cases for last year showed that 928 court cases involving Mexican boys was one fewer than the figure for 1941, but that the number of cases involving Mexican girls was 25.8 per cent higher in 1942. For white boys the increase for 1942 was 1.4 per cent higher than the 1941 total of 2,408. The increase for white girls was 21.3 per cent. The largest increase, 37.6 per cent, was for Negro boys in the metropolitan area. Relatively few Negroes, however, have figured in the zoot-suit fracas....



By Lawrence E. Davies

LOS ANGELES, June 12 -Punishment of the guilty in crimes of violence, "regardless of what clothes they wear, whether they be zoot suits, police, Army or Navy uniforms," was demanded today by a Citizens' Committee appointed by Governor Earl Warren to investigate the Los Angeles outbreaks of the last ten days involving "zoos-suit" wearers and service men.

Working closely with Robert W. Kenny, State Attorney General, the committee, headed by Bishop Joseph T. McGucken of the Catholic diocese here, declared that the streets of Los Angeles "must be made safe for service men as well as civilians, regardless of national origins."

"The community as well as its visitors," it stated, "must learn that no group has the right to take the law into its own hands."

The committee issued an eight-page report, with demands for immediate and long-range curative action, after hearing testimony for two days behind closed doors from city police  officials, representatives of minority groups, and persons active in social welfare work. Its members plan to meet again on Monday and from time to time issue supplementary reports....

Virtual calm prevailed all over the county during the day after a caravan of fifty-three "zoot suiters" had driven past the City Hall with flags of truce fluttering from the jalopies. Captain Joe Reed of the Police Department, after interviewing them, congratulated them on their frank attitude....

Race Prejudice Factor Cited

Governor Warren's committee found it to be "significant" that most of the persons mistreated during the recent incidents in Los Angeles were either persons of Mexican descent or Negroes.

"In undertaking to deal with the cause of these outbreaks," its report said, "the existence of race prejudice cannot be ignored.

"Youth is peculiarly sensitive. To be rejected by the community may throw the youth upon evil companions.

"Any solution of the problems involves among other things an educational program throughout the community designed to combat race prejudice in all its forms.". . .

[The committee] asked for additional facilities for the care and study of delinquent youth and described the problem as "one of American youth, not confined to any racial group."

"The wearers of zoot suits," the report went on, "are not necessarily persons of Mexican descent, criminals or juveniles. Many young people today wear zoot suits.

"It is a mistake in fact and an aggravating practice to link the phrase 'zoos suit' with the report of a crime. Repeated reports of this character tend to inflame public opinion on false premises and excite further outbreaks."

Rise in Juvenile Delinquency

"All juvenile delinquency has increased recently in Los Angeles. This includes crimes committed by youths of Mexican origin. But the fact is that the increase of delinquency in the case of youths of Mexican families has been less than in the case of other national or racial groups and less than the average increase for the community.

"Between 1914 and 1929 all of California, and Los Angeles County in particular, had a rapid increase in Mexican population. The tremendous difficulties experienced by immigrants in making adjustments to their new surroundings are well known. We have learned that the problem is especially acute in the case of the second generation. The foreign-born parent loses authority over his American-born child; families tend to be broken up; and if the children are not completely accepted by their neighbors; they are often without responsible guidance.

"These facts shed light on the youths of Mexican descent in Los Angeles. Many of them are second generation. About 98 per cent of them are American born.

"Of the serious crimes committed by persons of Mexican descent, only 25 per cent are committed by minors. Most of the so-called 'zoos-suit' crime amounting to felony has been committed by persons who are fully and legally responsible for their acts."



LOS ANGELES, June 14 - Navy men, for whom Los Angeles has been out of bounds since last Tuesday, will have the freedom of the city again after tomorrow noon as the result of the almost complete absence of clashes over the weekend between young wearers of "zoos suits" and members of the armed forces.

Rear Admiral David W. Bagley, commandant of the Eleventh Naval District at San Diego, announced this evening that the restrictive order would be lifted. He had telegraphed Flavor Fletcher Bowron that he contemplated doing so in view of favorable reports, but he first sought the Mayor's recommendation.

The Mayor said he felt assured that order would be maintained.



Continued disorder.

Hundreds of service men prowling downtown Los Angeles mostly on foot-disorderly-apparently on prowl for Mexicans.

Have by joint agreement with Army Provost Marshall declared following Los Angeles city territory out of bounds to all Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Army personnel: Main Street east to Los Angeles city limits.

All shore patrol are concentrated in the downtown area. Disorderly personnel are being arrested by shore patrol. Expect adverse publicity in morning newspaper.

Los Angeles Police have called in all off-duty men and auxiliary police to handle situation.

Naval Reserve Armory did not grant liberty. Men involved are from Marine activities, San Diego and El Toro, Navy activity composed of Roosevelt Base, Port Hueneme, and Destroyer Base, San Diego.

Situation under control at present except for widely separated incidents.

Groups vary in size from 10 to 150 men and scatter immediately when shore patrol approach. Men found carrying hammock clues, belts, knives, and tire irons when searched by patrol after arrest....

Senior Patrol Office will call District Patrol Officer at about 1000 today, June 8, 1943, if there is anything additional to report.


. . . The Commandant is seriously concerned over the recent disorders which have occurred in Los Angeles and its vicinity and which have assumed such serious proportion as to be broadcast on the radio and published in newspapers throughout the U.S.  The Navy is a disciplined organization composed of loyal and intelligent men and partaking in any activities that are of the nature of mob violence is a direct reflection on the Navy itself and on the individual who wears the uniform. Irrespective of what may have been the original cause of these disorders the enforcement of the law rests in the hands of the civilian police and is not a matter which should be undertaken by any unauthorized groups of Navy personnel. The Commandant believes that the men now engaging in these demonstrations are actuated mainly by a desire for excitement and feels that they have not seriously considered the consequence which may follow from ill considered action. The Commandant suggests that commanding of fleers bring the substance of the above to the attention of the men of their commands in a personal and unofficial manner having full confidence that an appeal to the individual based on common sense and reasonableness will invoke prompt response....


1. The recent incidents connected with the so-called "Zoos Suit" riots involved mob action, and incipient rioting, by many soldiers and other service men.

2. Prompt action to check such action has been taken, and charges are being preferred against those arrested for inciting or actually participating in these riots.

3. It is obvious that many soldiers are not aware of the serious nature of riot charges. Convictions in a recent serious riot have resulted in sentence to death or long confinement.

4. It is desired that the attention of all Military personnel be called immediately to the critical dangers of any form of rioting and that incidents which may start as thoughtless group action in comparatively trivial offenses or boisterous conduct are liable to develop into mob riots of the most serious character. Further, mob rioting usually results in injury to persons in no way connected with the initial causes of the disorder. This is true in the case of the recent disorders, which resulted in affront and injury of some completely innocent civilians.

5. Military personnel of all ranks must understand that no form of mob violence or rioting will be tolerated, and that offenses of this nature will result in immediate and drastic disciplinary action.

Maxwell Murray,

Major General, U.S. Army Commanding



For two nights the mobs of soldiers and sailors had found poor hunting. In long caravans of cabs and private cars they had toured the Mexican sections, armed with sticks and weighted ropes, crashing into movie houses, looking for zoos-suited pachucos, the little Mexican-American youths. But they had found only a few dozen, and not all of them even wore zoot suits. They had broken the jaw of a 12-year-old boy. Said the boy, in the hospital:

"So our guys wear tight bottoms on their pants and those bums wear wide bottoms. Who the hell they fighting,  Japs or us?"

One Panzer division of the cab-and-car attack had rolled down a Mexican district side street, past the rows of mean, ramshackle frame houses. But they had only found a few victims to beat. One of them was a 1 7-year-old Russian boy, Pete Nogikoss, talking on a street corner to two Mexicans. The Mexicans fled. Pete stood still. The sailors beat him to the ground.

Scores of Mexican youths had been stripped of their pants (some of them on the stages of movie houses), beaten and then arrested by the Los Angeles police for "vagrancy" and "rioting." (The police practice was to accompany the caravans in police cars, watch the beatings and then jail the victims. Their orders apparently were to let the Shore Patrol and the Military Police handle the rioting sailors. The service police were futile.)

From:  Elliot Gorn, et al, Constructing the American Past:  A Sourcebook of a People's History (1970)