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The Zoot Suit Riots
The wearing of the zoot suit was now in very marked and polarised opposition to servicemen in uniform. Zoot suit wearers were seen as both delinquents and as thumbing the nose at rationing.
As a result sixty zoot suiters, rather than their attackers, were arrested by the police. The police began to patrol the streets, whilst rumours circulated of servicemen forming vigilante groups. More and more zoot suiters were attacked and stripped of their outfits. Some drunken sailors ran riot through a cinema, dragged two pachuco zooters on stage, where their suits were stripped from them and urinated on. The confiscated suits were burnt on bonfires. In addition, in a move that reflected what happened with Hitler Youth attacks on Schlurfs and Vichy youth organisation attacks on Zazous, zoot suiters had their ducktail hairstyles shorn by rampaging, soldiers, sailors and marines.
In the second week of June, Pachuco youths retaliated by slashing a sailor, whilst a policeman was run over when he tried to flag down a car-full of zoot suiters. Pachucos stoned a train load of sailors, fights broke out daily in San Bernardino, and vigilantes assembled in San Diego and began to look for zoot suiters. Meanwhile a young Mexican was stabbed by Marines.
The riots accelerated with a police special officer gunning down a zoot suiter in Azusa. Pachuco youths were arrested for rioting in the Lincoln Heights district of LA.
Now black zootsuiters became involved, wrecking a train in Watts. Three zoot suit “gang leaders” received widespread coverage in the press after their arrests. Two were Mexican, whilst the other was black. Their arrests confirmed the popular view that most zoot suiters were black or Mexican, that they were of conscription age but were avoiding it or had been exempted on medical grounds. What was conveniently forgotten was coverage of white zoot suiters, of servicemen being arrested for rioting, and the refusal of Mexican-American servicemen to take part in vigilante raids.
The riots now spread beyond California to Arizona and Texas. Now media coverage began to concentrate on gangs of women zoot-suiters like the Slick Chicks and the Black Widows. The appearance of the female zoot suiters was linked to the breakdown of family normality . “… There are many indications that the war years saw a remarkable increase in the numbers of young women who were taken into social care or referred to penal institutions, as a result of the specific social problems they had to encounter” (Cosgrove). The Slick Chicks and Black Widows wore black drape jackets, fishnet stockings and tight skirts with heavy make-up, dark lipstick and black eyeliner, with pompadour hairstyles. Some adopted the full zoot suit outfit, challenging heterosexual norms of dressing. Cosgrove again :”The Black Widows clearly existed outside the orthodoxies of wartime society: playing no part in the industrial war effort, and openly challenging conventional notions of feminine beauty and sexuality”.
Whilst the disorder died down in Los Angeles in the second week of June, it now spread to Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. Within three weeks Detroit experienced the worst race riot in its history. These were not ”zoot suit roots” as such, but nevertheless they were preceded by attacks on wearers of zoot suits, that is, black youths.
The press had from the start instigated and fuelled hostility against wearers of the zoot suit and against Pachuco culture. During the disorder, their daily and false reports further fanned the flames.. However , other parts of the establishment were worried. State senators were concerned about relations with Mexico, just to the south. Senator Downey said that there could be “grave consequences” with the souring of relations between the USA and Mexico, hindering the supply of Mexican labour to help grow crops in California. The Mexican embassy did then raise the matter with the State department. These US administrators were not concerned with the appalling abuse and discrimination against the Mexican-American population, they were exercised by the effect the riots would have on the economy.
The press now began to deny the racial component of the disorder. As the black writer Chester Himes protested: “Zoot Riots are Race Riots” (Himes wrote a great series of novels set in Harlem, with characters like Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed, that should be read!) The response of the authorities was a crackdown on bootleg tailors, additional detention centres, a youth forestry camp for youth under the age of 16, as well as an increase in military and shore police, as well as some increase in neighbourhood recreation facilities etc. As Cosgrove notes: “The outcome of the zoot-suit riots was an inadequate , highly localised and relatively ineffective body of short-term public policies that provided no guidelines for the more serious riots in Detroit and Harlem later in the same summer.”
The zoot suit riots had an important effect on a generation of youth that was socially disadvantaged. They happened whilst the USA was at war and they broke with the official orthodoxy that America was united and was a champion of freedom. They, and the riots in Detroit that followed, were signs of the unrest that was to come in the 1960s when new movements emerged and once again riots broke out. As Himes said, the racial factor was important, but as important was the development of youth cultures that were beginning to reject the norms of capitalist society, inequality, racism, and with the pachucas, sexism and “normal” sexuality. They with the contemporary youth movements in Austria, France and Germany, were to be heralds of new and combative youth cultures that were to emerge in the post-war years.