Uniformed men bearing clubs searched for targets in Watts in June 1943. Library of Congress

In 1943, mobs of white sailors attacked Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles. The L.A. Times cheered it on.

In the 1940s, Los Angeles was a city of transplants: Mexicans fleeing war, black Southerners seeking opportunity, white farmers escaping the Dust Bowl. World War II was raging, stoking fears of a Japanese attack on the West Coast, and racial tensions were high.

Young Mexican-Americans embraced the pachuco style — known for its zoot suit with broad shoulders, narrow waist, and poofy pants — a look some regarded as gangsterish. In June of 1943, a group of zoot-suiters in downtown L.A. got into a scuffle with some sailors on leave from the war. Details of how it kicked off are murky, but one sailor, Joe Dacy Coleman, ended up with a broken jaw.


Two victims of a beating, one stripped, one badly beaten, during the Zoot Suit riots on June, 7, 1943.

Anthony Potter Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The fight lasted a only few minutes, yet it reverberated for days, wrote historian Eduardo Pagán: “The details of the fight grew larger and more distorted in each retelling of the story.” Another clash a few days later tipped the tensions into full anarchy.

On June 4, mobs of sailors and soldiers roamed the streets armed with pipes and sticks, beating any young Mexican-American male they could find, along with some blacks and Filipinos. Some people were stripped and left naked in the street. The police, according to victims, didn’t seem to care.


Zoot-suiters appeared at court in Los Angeles on June 15, 1943.

Herald Examiner, via Los Angeles Public Library

The L.A. Times cheered the violence. It wrote: “Those gamin dandies, the zoot-suiters, having learned a great moral lesson from servicemen, mostly sailors, who took over their instruction three days ago, are staying home nights.”

The rioting lasted several days until finally subsiding on June 8, after the military ordered its men back to their quarters. According to an official report, 94 civilians, compared to 18 servicemen, suffered serious injuries. Even so, arrests of zoot-suiters far exceeded those of military men.

City lawmakers marshaled a response as well: a proposal to make wearing zoot suits in public a jailable offense. It wasn’t enacted.

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