The Zoot Suit Riots: What Really Happened?

One of the most infectious songs of the 1990s, during those halcyon two weeks when swing music made a

comeback before getting buried under the weight of the sweet innocent pop music of Britney Spears and the startlingly open-minded rap of Eminem, was “Zoot Suit Riot” by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. (Don’t worry, kids, the boys in the band assure me that the name refers to the act of tossing cherries into their open mouths and nothing else.) For such a delightfully danceable song that I dare you to get out of your head within twenty-four hours of hearing, the inspiration was somewhat less an exercise in pure fun.

The Zoot Suit Riots were a real-life event, wildly mishandled by the white-controlled press to instill a sense of fear about the danger of Latinos gangs in Los Angeles during the World War II era. When it comes to being a Latino in Los Angeles, it just doesn’t ever seem to get any better, does it? The name Zoot Suit Riot is itself a bit misleading. Here is what has never been disputed: Violent, deadly fighting broke out between white sailors temporarily stationed in L.A. while waiting to go off and fight the Japs, and Mexican-American natives who were given to dressing in flamboyant clothing consisting of extra-long jackets called zoot suits.

But here is where the official story that was reported gets the full court press of being at the mercy of a media run by white men. Los Angeles has always been a city poisoned by the specter of racial tension and the 1940s were not much different from contemporary times in that regard. Those tensions boiled over in early June 1943 when several of the sailors arrived on base to complain that they had been attacked by Latino gangs. The response was that a large group of sailors marched out to East L.A. and began beating up smaller groups of pachucos. The sailors seemed to be especially upset by the zoot suits worn by the Latinos; so much so that they made a big deal of tearing the suits off and burning them. The newspaper reports were based in large part upon the police reports. And the police reports were written to justify the police beating of the zoot suiters who’d already been beaten half to death by the sailors who outnumbered them. The numbers tell the story. While less then ten sailors were arrested that night, several hundred Latinos wound up in jail. Eight of those sailors were quickly released without ever being charge and the other had only to pay a small fine. The Latinos suffered quite a different fate, however. Many sat in jail for days while getting little or not medical treatment.

The Zoot Suit Riots did not take place in a vacuum and the discrimination and prejudice went much deeper than mere ignominy of cracker sailors getting their butts kicked by Mexican-Americans. By the point the riots took place, the zoot suits had already been singled out by no less an American institution than Lil’ Abner comics strips. The notoriously right-wing creator Lil’ Abner had done a story arc that essentially positioned the zoot suit wearers as un-American and worthy of suspicion. It gets even more ridiculous. Following the riots and the war, an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee led to one Congressmen trying to pitch the case that the zoot suit craze was part of a communist conspiracy to indoctrinate young Latinos. Hell, all they wanted to do was drink and dance with white girls, they had no interested in communism.

Wonder how long it will be before there is a 21st century version of the Zoot Suit Riots. And will Fox News even come close to getting it right?