Taken from the name of the fashionable suits Latinx and other minority groups wore at the time, the Zoot Suit riots were a series of clashes between uniformed officers at the naval base and Latinx youth in Los Angeles. Zoot suits were essentially just really baggy suits that youth would wear to go out dancing during the 30s and 40s.
While the Great Depression period of inflation, homelessness, and joblessness raged on, people found ways to keep hope and love alive through these dance halls. There were heightened racial tensions as the US signed a deal with Mexico to fill job positions that had been vacated during WWII. Many white Americans were angered by this increased immigration. Zoot suits were also difficult to make in a time where wool was being rationed for the war, so they became a symbol of being "un-American" to some white Americans which also increased racial tensions. Still, this did not stop the zoot suiters in growing cities as zoot suits became a way for Latinx youth to distinguish themselves from not only American culture but also Mexican culture.
Popular figures of the time like Malcolm X could even be seen wearing a zoot suit as pictured here to the right in the Malcolm X movie. At the height of the racial tensions, zoot suits became a symbol of delinquency when many white Americans associated those who wore them with gangs. This was especially true after the Sleepy Lagoon murder in August led to the death of a Mexican American teen. Under the orders of the California governor, the Los Angeles police department rounded up more than 600 people, mostly Mexican American, and some were tried and convicted for murder. Although their convictions were reversed, many white Americans associated zoot suiters with gangs after this.
The riots began on June 3 when a clash between Naval officers and Mexican American youth ended with a beat-up sailor. A few days later, the Naval officers came back to beat up anybody they saw on the streets that wore a zoot suit. As the days went on, more naval officers joined in along with citizens and off duty policemen who all helped to find and beat anybody they saw wearing a zoot suit. Biased local media that went against the zoot suiters fueled this conflict even further. This extended to racial violence against anybody Black, Asian, or Latinx youth- even those not wearing the zoot suits. Police officers watched the violence on the side and arrested the victims, demonstrating their support for the naval officers. The riots continued for 8 days until the military barracks were closed and the naval officers could not leave.
These riots were not only characteristic to Los Angeles as similar racially motivated rioting began in other cities across the US.*/**
*Coroian, George. “Zoot Suit Riots.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 May 2020, www.britannica.com/event/Zoot-Suit-Riots.
**History.com Editors. “Zoot Suit Riots.” History, A&E Television Networks, 27 Sept. 2017, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/zoot-suit-riots.