‘Zoot Suit’ and History – Part 7

June 8, 1943, Zoot Suit Riots

Photo: June 8, 1943 — A mob of servicemen stop a streetcar on Main Street to remove a passenger wearing a zoot suit.

Here’s a second radio address by Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron, delivered June 16, 1943, on the Zoot Suit Riots. Bowron discusses letters he has received, the way Hollywood influences Los Angeles’ image, the city’s financial standing and buying War Bonds to finance a cruiser to be named the Los Angeles.

Notice the reference to the Beebe case. This was a famous 1943 police brutality case involving Stanley H. Beebe, who died at Los Angeles County Hospital after telling emergency personnel that he  had been kicked in the stomach by a police officer following his arrest for public drunkenness.  The Beebe case would require numerous posts, so I won’t get into it further at this point.

Copies of Bowron’s speeches may be found at the city archives, where I copied them years ago.

“Zoot Suit” and History, Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6



Wednesday, June 16, 1943, 7;45 p.m.


Jan. 6, 1943, Beebe case I arise to say a good word in behalf of the City of  Los Angeles. Not that this city is in need of a defense, but merely to supply variety. So much that is uncomplimentary has 

gone to the outside world which has placed the greatest city of the west in a ridiculous light, that apparently the rest of the country and, for that matter, a good part of the world, must regard Los Angeles as a strange place, where only the unusual happens, a big overgrown city without substance.

A few months ago, when revelations of the Beebe case went to the four corners of the nation, the impression was created that we had a police force of brutal men who, knowingly and intentionally, violated the rights of defenseless citizens who happen, for no good reason at all, to fall into the toils of the law, and were heartlessly beaten up in dark dungeons that serve as jails.
More recently Los Angeles has gained a different kind of reputation, a place where the Police Department is not brutal enough, where “zoot suiters” run wild and ruthlessly attack service men, apparently merely because they wear the uniform of the Army or Navy.
What it will be next week or next month, I cannot guess, but the Hollywood section of Los Angeles is always good for some spicy domestic scandals and divorce cases of movie stars rate a headline in any newspaper from Maine to Florida.
I feel that it’s high time that Los Angeles should be given the reputation it deserves — that of a modern, progressive great city that has done many outstanding and constructive things.

Why can’t the good things be said about Los Angeles as well as the other kind?

The press of the nation has been telling a deplorable story about Los Angeles “zoot suiters” and the ether waves have been tingling with accounts of radio news commentators who have indicated that it is more dangerous for servicemen to be on the streets of Los Angeles than at the battlefronts. A distorted account has even reached Japan, and in broken English the propaganda commentator over the Tokio short-wave radio has told all of those who might listen about disgraceful clashes upon the streets of Los Angeles.

Within the past week my mail has been bulging with letters received from all parts of the country. Let me quote from just a few of these letters.

From New York Alexander S. Ornstein writes: “Having read of the zoot suit rioters in Los Angeles, which situation has been thoroughly covered by the New York newspapers, may I offer a suggestion? Why not as Mayor issue an executive order to all tailors in Los Angeles to immediately cease making zoot suits?” Thank you, Mr. Ornstein. I am quite sure that that would solve all of Los Angeles’ troubles.
But to J. Webb Saffold, research journalist of Cleveland, Ohio, the situation requires more drastic action, requiring special technique designed to fit the situation. “And this is my idea”, writes Mr. Saffold. “Dress some of your best policemen in uniforms of service men. Equip them with blackjacks and pistols and instructions to kill the first zoot suiter who attacks them.” So much for the comments from our correspondent in Cleveland, Ohio.
Down in Waxahachie, Texas, A. L. Emerson takes his pen in hand to write to the Mayor of Los Angeles to give his view as follows: “When a serviceman isn’t allowed to walk your city streets and a hoodlum is, something’s gone wrong. The hoodlums attacked the soldiers. It appears to just about everyone in this part of the country that you can stop it by either clamping down on the zoot suiters or letting the Japs attend to it. So that is the impression carried to the people of Texas.
Someone from Oklahoma City, who didn’t sign his name, offered this helpful advice: “I would like to see the Army and Navy permit the men on leave to carry sidearms and kill a few of your most useless citizens. That is always a great deterrent for crime.”
One of the most unkind cuts comes from near at home, from the San Francisco Bay area. A. S. Hediger of San Anselmo writes: “The current civil disturbance is the inevitable consequence of the tolerance of lawlessness and moral deterioration which has become a characteristic of many activities in the Los Angeles Area.” Carbon copy to Will Hays.
I have disliked very much to read these quotations but I have done so for a purpose, a very definite purpose. I venture to say that had the breaches of the peace occurred in almost any other large city in America an entirely different story would have been related to the rest of the country; – but because it happened in Los Angeles the events had to be glamorized with a Hollywood touch, and a little more.
The thing that did it was the “zoot suit” and the idea of a fight between zoot suiters and sailors could easily be made to sound sinister.
And then, of course, Los Angeles had to be investigated from the outside, from Sacramento and from Washington, which  immediately gave the impression elsewhere that there was a breakdown in local government, that we couldn’t take care of our own problems.

     Now, I’m just wondering how we in Los Angeles would have got the news if the events of the past ten days had occurred in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Ohio, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or staid old Boston, Massachusetts, or any other large American city. I strongly suspect that we would have read something like this, (if indeed’ it had been considered of sufficient, importance to send the word out to the country at large.) “Boston, Mass., June 8, 1943. A disturbance occurred on the downtown streets last night when there was sporadic street fighting between a few native Boston youth, who are said to have been formed in gangs, (some of them wearing outlandish suits with long coats and baggy trousers, undoubtedly sold in violation of OPA regulations,) and sailors of the United States Navy. The police arrived and quickly quelled the disturbance, but only after a number of curious citizens, attracted to the scene by the report that there would be some excitement, had done their best to promote some additional fights by leading members of the armed forces who acted like college boys to other sections of the City where others wearing similar costumes, had been seen. The Boston Police Department has made an investigation and finds that the fights started when jealous young local swains found that their outlandish civilian costumes could not compete with the service men’s uniforms and learned that their girls showed preference for sailors. These young men, some of whom should have been in the armed forces themselves, evidenced the truth of the wartime version of the old adage that there is no fury like a young civilian scorned, and proceeded to beat up a few sailors who had taken their girls away from them. In Boston, as in every other port in the world, when one beats up a sailor, he must fight the entire United States Navy, and so groups of sailors went hunting for those who had beaten up their buddies. There were no international complications, mostly because the local young men happened to be the sons of parents of foreign birth. Naval officers, working in conjunction with local police, have restored order and, are patrolling the streets, and give assurance that there will be no further outbreaks.”
That report from Boston, Mass., is entirely fictitious, but it could have happened in Boston as it did happen here, and in that event the reports to the outside world would have been vastly different.
How I wish it were possible to glamorize the truth and send plain facts out from Los Angeles to the country at large to make the headlines of the nation’s press that tell the real story of Los Angeles, on which its reputation should be based.
Here are just a few of the things that might be said:

With the State of California having seventeen per cent in value of all war production contracts, it is estimated that the metropolitan district in and surrounding the City of Los Angeles produces approximately one-tenth of all the war goods in America, in addition to supplying most of the oil and aviation gasoline for the entire Pacific theatre of War.

Or, something like this from the nation’s capital: A high government official who has just returned to Washington after a tour to the larger cities of the country was asked: “If an enemy attack should be made tonight and there should be heavy aerial bombing, which city in the United States is best prepared, through its civilian defense organization, to meet the emergency?” The answer was “Los Angeles”. As a matter of fact, citizens of Los Angeles, that actually did happen in Washington, D. C.

And here’s something that those in New York and Ohio, Texas and Oklahoma, and even our friends from the San Francisco Bay area, who write about the zoot suiters, might, or at least should, be interested in. No other city in America has a better financial credit rating than Los Angeles, as shown by a transaction in the financial district of New York yesterday when a $21,900,000 revenue bond issue of the Department of Water and Power was sold at the unprecedented low premium rate of 1.9673. Think of it! Less then 2% in these troublous times. The issue was a refunding issue to take advantage of lower interest rates than the city is paying on bonds of the same character issued some years ago. The difference in interest rates means a saving to the City of Los Angeles of $5,743,000.

And then the nation should know this about our Police Department. It has enforced the law. There is no widespread commercialized gambling or vice in Los Angeles, no pay-off. It is the cleanest large city in America.

The Traffic Bureau of the Police Department has made an outstanding record. For the last calendar year, Los Angeles was first among the country’s cities in the number of lives saved. When we consider the reduction of fatal accidents, 198 lives were spared, and Los Angeles is now considered among the two safest cities in America for those who drive or walk on the public streets. Traffic fatalities in 1942 were the lowest figure recorded here in fifteen years, and the Police Department has accomplished results with fewer men, considering either area or population, than any other large city in America.
According to the United States Department of Commerce  statistics on city finances, New York’s Police Department was run at a per capita cost of $7.91; Chicago, $5.41, Philadelphia $5.89; Detroit $6.20; and Los Angeles $4.52.
And what should the nation know about health conditions in Los Angeles? City Health Officer Dr. George M. Uhl reports we have had no serious outbreak of epidemic disease in spite of crowded living conditions, transportation problems, longer working hours, food shortages, and a marked increase in population. In the control of venereal disease, through the cooperation of the City Health Department and the Police Department, Los Angeles stands out far ahead of any of the larger cities where conditions are in any manner comparable.
And then it might be recorded and broadcast to the nation that Los Angeles has during the past few years done more than any other large American city to promote friendly relations with the people of the Latin American countries.
It might be said that Los Angeles is developing a master plan and the progress made in post-war planning is attracting the attention of other large cities of America.
The nation should know that citizens are not merely safe on the public streets but in places of entertainment and amusement as well as secure in their homes. There has been no disastrous fire of any proportions in Los Angeles for years, due largely to building and safety requirements, inspection and constant vigilance of the Fire Prevention Bureau of the Fire Department, and general efficiency in fire fighting.
Los Angeles is sound, it is substantial. People here have security. The peace is kept. This is a modern progressive community. We know it. The people of the nation should know it. Tokio short wave radio, please copy. Los Angeles is entitled to a better reputation than some are persistently trying to give it. Los Angeles stands on solid ground.
One closing word. A cruiser to bear that name is under construction and we hope that a ship at war will give a fine account of itself against America’s enemies on the high seas. There is just one minor detail. The people of Los Angeles are expected to raise the cost of that cruiser, approximately $40,000,000, through the purchase of War Savings Bonds during the month of July.

Do not hold up buying war bonds and stamps now, but the people of this city will take pride in raising the $40,000,000 In quick time, after the campaign is launched by the Secretary of the Navy, who will be here on June 30.

Adjust your financial affairs to buy as many bonds as you can during July to give the name Los Angeles to a warship and give the City of Los Angeles the right kind of a world reputation.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1943, City Hall, Crime and Courts, Downtown, Fashion, Film, Hollywood, LAPD, Latinos, Radio, San Francisco, World War II, Zoot Suit and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.