On June 3, 1943, sailors from the Los Angeles Naval Reserve Armory attacked Hispanic youths as revenge for the assault of an American sailor, sparking a week-long ethnic conflict known as the “zoot suit riots.”
In the 1920s and ‘30s, Los Angeles had an influx of Mexican immigrants, poor white laborers from the dust bowl, and southern blacks, creating an uneasy melting pot, explains PBS. During World War II, the city also had tens of thousands of white servicemen from nearby bases spending time in the city, and there were social tensions between the servicemen and the minority populations.
Second generation Mexican-American youths had formed their own “pachuco” culture, characterized by a unique “Calo” dialect and zoot suits: high-waisted, baggy pants, with long, wide coats, often worn with felt hats, pocket chains and other accessories.
For the pachucos, the flamboyant clothing expressed freedom and cultural pride, but outsiders, authorities and some older Mexican-Americans associated the suits with violence and gang activity.
Hostility between servicemen and Mexican-American youths had been building for months before the riots, with many small skirmishes sparked by alcohol and rivalry over women.
On May 30, 1943, sailor Joe Dacy Coleman was badly wounded in a fight with pachucos. On June 3, approximately 50 sailors, supposedly avenging Coleman, attacked anybody wearing a zoot suit, with some even stripping their victims and burning their clothing.
One paper described, “Zoot-suits smouldered in the ashes of street bonfires where they had been tossed by grimly methodical tank forces of service men.”
Violence escalated over the next week, with servicemen attacking Hispanics regardless of what they were wearing. Each night, the servicemen pushed farther east into Mexican neighborhoods. The pachucos fought back, often trying to lure servicemen into traps where they would be ambushed.
Police did little to stop the violence, choosing to arrest Mexican-American victims instead. The violence was not subdued until June 8, when the military issued an order forbidding servicemen to enter Los Angeles. The following day, Los Angeles banned the wearing of zoot suits.