Image: Los Angeles Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats Program for “Zoot Suit” Credit: Jose Legaspi
In Part 5, we looked at the story of Joe Dacy Coleman, “patient zero” in the Zoot Suit Riots, which led to a report at the National Archives. As it turns out, the archives have moved from Laguna Niguel to Riverside, so while we track down that report, here’s something else interesting.
In 1997, while doing research at the city archives on the Black Dahlia case, I came across a stack of radio addresses by Mayor Fletcher Bowron. My philosophy is: “If you think you’ll ever need it, take it, because who knows when you’ll be back.” So I copied everything.
Fourteen years later, I have unearthed two of Bowron’s speeches about the Zoot Suit Riots. Here’s his speech from June 9, 1943, courtesy of the optical character recognition software on my scanner.
In the speech, Bowron (a former Superior Court judge) wholeheartedly supports the LAPD and the servicemen, and warns
about the increasing threat of juvenile delinquency and gang violence.
Bowron’s view is that there was no racism involved in the attacks on zoot-suiters, saying: “The action of the service men was entirely understandable and largely excusable. It is unfortunate that Mexicans and negroes, whether they wore zoot suits or not, happened along the street at the wrong time.”
Chief Horrall says: “Police reserves were utilized to the fullest and the amount of damage done and the injuries received was slight. And while these crowds were large and contained many Service men, the spirit was one of fun rather than an attitude of belligerency.”
Also notice how Chief Horrall emphasizes that the Police Department has 545 vacancies due to enlistment of personnel in the military.
Wednesday, June 9, 1943. 7:45 p.m.
June 7, 1943: Servicemen stop a streetcar on Main to remove a passenger who is wearing a zoot suit. Credit: Los Angeles Times, June 8, 1943. According to Police Chief Horrall, “the spirit was one of fun rather than an attitude of belligerency.”
CITIZENS OF LOS ANGELES:
Unfortunate happenings in this city during the past few days and nights have set a considerable portion of the people to talking about zoot suits and pachuchos, hoodlums, mobs, attacks upon service men, retaliation, about racial discriminations, and prejudice against minority groups, and about the safety of our civilian population, (especially women) who use the city streets in certain sections of the city.
The situation is serious but not as bad as many are led to believe. There is no reason for fear or hysteria. There has been exaggeration or over-statement of the facts, and of course there are plenty who are ready to criticise without first having the advantage of knowing what they are talking about.
It is regrettable if anyone has gained the impression that the situation is beyond the control of local authorities
Now let us keep our heads and stay cool. Precipitate action of the wrong sort will do infinitely more harm than good. In the first place, we should know the facts, the unvarnished truth. It is characteristic of the average American that he would like to believe the worst and plain facts are too often not very exciting. The people of Los Angeles are entitled to a report on the condition of the affairs of the city in this particular, and in order to do so adequately, and properly, I have brought with me Chief of Police Horrall, and Deputy Chief of Police Lester. Time is all too short, but they will endeavor to give you the background, the history, the facts of occurrences during the past week, and tell you what is being done for your protection.
First, let me give you the assurance that there has been no breakdown of local governmental authority, and order will be maintained. I would like to make a few more general observations as follows.
Nothing that has occurred can be construed, in any manner, as having been prompted by prejudice against Mexicans or by racial discrimination against young men of Mexican or colored blood. Neither is there a foundation for anyone to say that attacks or arrests have been intentionally directed towards members of minority groups.
Police working with the FBI and other Federal agencies have not been able to uncover sufficient evidence to justify the statement that gangs of juveniles and young men roaming over parts of the city and county have been organized, controlled or directed by Nazi or other enemy agents. It is, however, significant that what we are having in Los Angeles is not peculiar to this section. The same kind of gangs and the same kind of disturbances have been reported in cities of Arizona and West Texas and in various other California cities.
Elsewhere, as here, there have been numerous instances of fights between tough young hoodlums and soldiers and sailors. In other places, as in this city, service men have been beaten up, slugged and robbed; and in other places, as here, service men have retaliated and have in turn beaten up a number of boys and older civilians who look like, or bear resemblance to, those who beat up their buddies.
The so-called zoot suit, an outlandish apparel that no wholesome young American youth would wear, is not necessarily a uniform of gangsterism. Many of the young gangsters wear zoot suits, but not all of those who wear zoot suits are gangsters. Unfortunately, many Mexican and quite a number of negro youth wear zoot suits. This probably led to the unfortunate attack upon Mexican and colored boys, when young men from the armed forces, for all the world like college boys would act, came piling into Los Angeles, looking for excitement and feeling that, if there was going to be a fight anyway, they wanted to get in on it.
The action of the service men was entirely understandable and largely excusable. It is unfortunate that Mexicans and negroes, whether they wore zoot suits or not, happened along the street at the wrong time.
But the zoot-suited gangs of young hoodlums present a serious problem. These gangs of young men must be broken up, ‘They are a menace to the community and are affording excellent training for young criminals. These young rascals and hoodlums must be sternly dealt with, lest they lose all semblance of respect for law.
Now, for the background of the gangs of juveniles and local young men, I will present Deputy Chief Ervis W. Lester, whom I consider one of the best informed men in the State of California on the subject of juvenile delinquency. For many years he was head of the Crime Prevention Bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department. He has worked with the various judges who have presided over the Juvenile Court, with social workers, and with Federal agencies. He knows the facts and can analyze them as well as any one I know.
Deputy Chief Lester.
DEPUTY CHIEF LESTER:
Our greatest current social problem centers around the activities of the zoot-suit gangs. It seems important that we carefully analyze this problem. When we examine the background of these gangs we find that they have been known to the police and social agencies for many years, contrary to the general belief of the public. Fifteen years ago there were a dozen or more neighborhood gangs well known to the police and courts. Five years ago there were half as many as exist today. Four years ago the depredations of one large neighborhood group brought so much attention to the problem that the Coordinating Councils and social agencies formed committees to study the situation.
Nearly two years ago the “zoot suit” began to make its appearance among these groups. Up to that time the depredations of the gangs had consisted for the most part in the breaking up of each other’s parties, dances and other social events, with seldom anything more serious than blackened eyes and bloody noses. About this time, however, some unfortunate clashes resulted in the deaths of two or three of the participants. Prior to this there had been little or no publicity attending the activities of these groups, but with the more violent crimes there came a great deal of publicity which seemed to stimulate the leaders to engage in even more aggressive acts of violence. These youths had at long last gained a desire that is fundamental with all human beings — the desire for recognition, and as these newer acts of violence were reported by the press a phenomenal recruiting program went on among the younger boys of the neighborhoods who were clamoring to belong to these organizations which were receiving so much public attention.
To understand all this, one has to realize that most of these youngsters come from over-crowded, colorless homes that offer no opportunities for leisure-time activities. It must be remembered that they are living in neighborhoods where the standards of social conduct are poor, and where their own conduct does not deviate greatly from the normal. Under these conditions, the problem has become progressively worse during the past two years until it has reached proportions which demand intelligent and forthright action on the part of all who can be helpful in its solution.
It is definitely wrong to blame the law enforcement agencies for the present situation. society as a whole may be properly charged with mishandling the problem. The state has failed in its responsibility to provide adequate facilities to deal with delinquents. In fact, we are struggling along with about the same treatment facilities that were available thirty years ago. The Juvenile Court has been forced to be over-lenient in returning children again and again to their own homes and neighborhoods, glaring examples of the fact that little or no correction action could be expected.
On this basis, perhaps the recent clashes between service men and zoot-suited hoodlums are understandable. In fairness to all concerned it must be stated that violations of law have not been confined to either side. One thing at least is clear – these outbreaks and the attendant publicity has brought into focus a serious problem of long standing, and it is to be expected that an aroused public will demand that the state, through its new crime control agency – the California Youth Authority – provide adequate facilities for effective control. It must be borne in mind that to be effective any law enforcement program must have the full support of the prosecuting agencies and the courts.
Thank you, Deputy Chief Lester, for that excellent report to the people of Los Angeles.
And, now, to give you a brief review of the facts relative to the recent disturbances and to tell you what the police are doing to cope with the situation, I give you Chief of Police C. B. Horrall.
Several days ago clashes occurred between members of the Military and youths of the City garbed in “Zoot” suits. It resulted in injury to some of the men in uniform.
We all know the fighting spirit of our men in the Armed Forces and when those in the various camps and stations in this vicinity heard of these occurrences, thru the publicity that was given them, they took it upon themselves to retaliate. This is the spirit that has always been exhibited by young Americans, and has been particularly noticeable in our High School and College students through the years, so it is natural to expect that those boys who are now in the Service would continue to have this feeling.
The “zoot suiters” retaliated in turn and while many arrests were made by the Police Department, the clashes were brought to a climax with the occurrences on Monday night, On that night, many Service men were in the City, and attracted by the publicity, many citizens of Los Angeles appeared on the street in the hope of seeing some excitement. The number of persons on the street was so great that despite the fact the crowds were continually broken up by the police, they would again congregate, especially if a youth in the zoot suit could be found.
Police reserves were utilized to the fullest and the amount of damage done and the injuries received was slight. And while these crowds were large and contained many Service men, the spirit was one of fun rather than an attitude of belligerency.
The Police Department, reinforced by all available reserves, took definite action of an unbiased and impartial nature, resulting in arrests of “Zoot Suiters”, Civilians and Service men. These arrests occurred whenever persons responsible for any disturbances or unlawful act could possibly be identified, regardless of their race, creed, color or occupation.
The Los Angeles Police Department will continue to operate in this manner, and wishes to assure the public that we can and will fully control this situation.
We have been severely handicapped by those sightseers who insist upon driving their cars up and down the streets or congregating in crowds on the sidewalks, in the hope that they may be able to observe some excitement. These persons, in hampering the operations of the Police Department, are also committing offenses and action will be taken to see that this practice is discontinued.
Every available policeman will be continually used in the sections of the city where occurrences may be anticipated, until the situation is entirely cleared. We realize the seriousness of the problem and accept the responsibility for its control. We wish to inform those sightseers, who insist on blocking traffic, sidewalks, and being present at unlawful assemblies, that they will be subject to arrest the same as all persons participating in disturbances and assaults, and we will make as many arrests as necessary in all cases.
May I again say to all law-abiding citizens of Los Angeles that the Police Department can and will control this situation and in doing so will act in an impartial and unbiased manner.
Thank you, Chief Horrall, and I am sure that the big majority of the people of Los Angeles thank you, too. I am glad to have this opportunity to bring local citizens a little closer to their Police Department in order that they may understand the good work that is being done.
As now administered, I have complete confidence in the Los Angeles Police Department and I feel that the big majority of the people of this community have confidence in, and should support, their Police Department, which is handling serious new problems as they arise, and maintaining order, despite the great increase in population, with a reduced force. At the present time, there are 545 vacancies in the Police Department, mostly due to inductions into the armed forces
The police are using effective, vigorous methods to meet the present situation. They are going to do the job, and I am going to back up the Police Department — despite the criticisms that are bound to come from those citizens who just can’t bear the thought that juveniles or persons who happen to be member’s of so-called minority groups can do anything so wrong that they must be arrested and punished. Racketeers and gamblers and vice barons don’t like Chief Horrall’s method, either.
Thank you, citizens of Los Angeles. I will present a further report of the state and local affairs next Wednesday evening at the same time.