It’s not every day that riots and public violence are tacitly approved of by the media and local law enforcement, but that’s exactly what happened during the infamous “Zoot Suit Riots” of early 1940’s Los Angeles.
Perhaps distracted (or influenced) by the major issue of the day, World War II, widespread public unrest was largely encouraged by authorities of the day. Sparked by a brutal murder that gained popular intrigue when the media dubbed it the “Sleepy Lagoon Murder,” public outrage at the local Mexican-American community reached a fever pitch.
This led nearly immediately to small-scale but violent clashes between groups of Mexican-Americans and law enforcement or military officials, stoking tension between the white majority and Mexican-American minority, who identified themselves by wearing popular “Zoot Suit” garments.
After the clashes, organized riots broke out as large groups of mostly white servicemen and police officers marched through the streets, assaulting and arresting Mexican-Americans, particularly if they were wearing Zoot Suits. Unlike traditional riots featuring typically repressed or under-represented minority groups lashing out at the majority, the inverse was the case with the Zoot Suit Riots.
However, the name itself illustrates the backwards justifications the majority used to endorse the violence, since calling them “Zoot Suit Riots” implies that people in Zoot Suits are the ones doing the rioting. In all, the riots were short-lived, as one might guess when one group has overwhelming power and authority over the other, but remain one of the more infamous, yet overlooked, chapters in American racial history.
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