Jun 11, 2018
June marks the 75th anniversary of what is known as the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. On June 3, 1943, a group of sailors – Navy draftees for World War II – broke into a movie theater in L.A. and began to attack young Mexican-American men in zoot suits, stripping them of their clothing and beating them. (The zoot suit was a style of men’s clothing that was in fashion in American cities at the time, and not just among Mexican-Americans. Malcolm X, for example, was a zoot-suiter in his youth.)
So the events should properly be called Sailors Riots. But they were named after the victims because that’s whom the authorities blamed. When police intervened, they arrested zoot-suiters who were being attacked!
This only encouraged racists. The next evening, hundreds of sailors raided the Mexican-American neighborhood of East L.A. and attacked young people in the streets. Police stood by, and so did military authorities. The press encouraged the attacks. The L.A. Times featured the front-page headline, “Zoot Suiters Learn Lesson in Fight with Servicemen.”
The attacks continued, and grew, for three more nights. Thousands of sailors, soldiers and white civilians raided downtown L.A., attacking not just zoot-suiters but Mexican-Americans in general, and some black and Filipino people also. Police often accompanied the attackers, and continued to arrest Mexican-Americans, more than 500 of them, claiming to “prevent fights.”
After five nights, the racist attacks finally ended when military authorities declared Los Angeles off-limits to military personnel – which they could have done days before, of course. But to the contrary, military brass had also encouraged the attacks. The commander of the naval district, Rear Admiral D. W. Bagley, for example, said that the sailors acted in “self-defense against the rowdy element.”
In fact, the entire ruling class of L.A. was directly to blame for this shameful episode in U.S. history. For years before the riots, the press and authorities had drummed up racism against Mexican-Americans, associating them with crime.
Today also, at a time when the living standard of the entire U.S. working class is deteriorating fast, authorities – including the president – have stepped up the drumbeat against certain parts of the working class. The only difference is that today, 75 years later, their target is not “criminal zoot-suiters,” but “criminal illegal aliens.”