The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

80 Years ago in Los Angeles:
A Racist Show Trial

Nov 7, 2022

In 1942, the murder of Jose Diaz, a 22-year-old farm worker, paved the way for a large trial in Los Angeles. Twenty-two young men aged 16 to 22, all Mexican-Americans except for one, were put on trial together as a group of “conspirators”. Seventeen of them were convicted and received various prison sentences, including life in prison for three of them. All guilty verdicts were overturned on appeal two years later.

Police swept through L.A.’s Mexican-American neighborhoods and rounded up more than 600 young men and women within a week of the murder. Some L.A. newspapers cheered the mass round-ups, telling stories about “zoot-suit hoodlums”, armed with clubs and knives, terrorizing neighborhoods. (The zoot suit was a style of clothing popular in American cities at the time, and not only among Mexican-American youth. Malcolm X, for example, wore a zoot suit in his youth.)

Such open racism against Mexican-Americans was nothing new in L.A. In fact, the round-up of hundreds of Mexican-Americans reminded people of police raids in Mexican-American neighborhoods a decade earlier. In the early 1930s, police rounded up tens of thousands of people, whom authorities then forcibly deported to Mexico. Many of the deportees were American citizens, and it took some of them years to be able to come back home to the U.S.

The Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, as it was called, began in October 1942, and was a sham trial. The prosecutors had not even bothered to take the testimony of the two young men who had been seen leaving the birthday party with Diaz, the victim. And they did not present any witness testimony about the actual murder. Instead, the prosecution resorted to accounts of gang fights and openly racist talk, before a jury that had no Mexican-American members, nor members who had children in the age group of the defendants. For example, a written report used by the prosecution, signed by Ed. Duran Ayres of the L.A. Sheriff’s Office, said: “Total disregard for human life has always been universal throughout the Americas among the Indian population. … This Mexican element knows and feels a desire to use a knife or other lethal weapon … His desire is to kill, or at least draw blood.”

After the convictions, the efforts of anti-racist activists and lawyers resulted in a successful appeal of the verdicts. The judges of the appellate court criticized the prosecution and the judge for failing to provide evidence linking any of the defendants to the murder of Diaz, and for discriminating against the defendants. But as is usually the case in such situations, they did not bring charges against the judge or prosecutors.

Jose Diaz’s murder case was never reopened and remains unsolved. The authorities were never concerned with solving the murder of a young worker in the first place. Instead, the authorities and the press, acting as the mouthpiece of the big bosses, saw this murder as an opportunity to launch an openly racist attack on L.A.’s Mexican-American community, in order to turn white workers against Mexican-American workers.

After two years of incarceration, the Sleepy Lagoon defendants gained their freedom, but racist attacks against Mexican-Americans in L.A. did not end. Less than a year later in June 1943, hundreds of Navy draftees, joined by some white residents of L.A., descended on Mexican-American neighborhoods and randomly attacked Mexican, Black and Filipino people in the street for five days. Police and military authorities stood by. To this day, these five days of barbarism are referred to as “Zoot Suit Riots”—a name which, in itself, is a testimony to the deeply ingrained racism in L.A.’s history: it was not zoot-suiters who did the rioting. It was sailors, with the open encouragement of the press and authorities!