Sleepy Laggon and the Sailor Riots of 1943 (a.k.a. Zoot Suit Riots)
The Sleepy Lagoon Case
Set in the environment of ethnic and racial paranoia that defined the early 1940s in Los Angeles, the "Zoot Suit Riots" were a defining moment for Zoot Suiters and the Mexican American community. The ethnic populations of California as a whole, and Los Angeles in particular, were under siege. Without the Japanese Americans around to focus the locals’ racial paranoia, Los Angeleans began to look toward the Zoot Suiters. A "Mexican Crime Wave" was announced by local newspapers (precursors to today’s tabloids ), and a special grand jury was appointed by the City of Los Angeles to investigate.
Around the same time, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department also decided to investigate and appointed E. Duran Ayres to head a special commission. And though Mr. Ayres identified much of the active discrimination that was occurring against the "Mexican element," he drew some startling conclusions which were presented to the grand jury: "He stated that Mexican Americans are essentially Indians and therefore Orientals or Asians. Throughout history, he declared, the Orientals have shown less regard for human life than have the Europeans. Further, Mexican Americans had inherited their ‘naturally violent’ tendencies from the Aztecs of Mexico. At one point in his report Ayres suggested that the Mexican would forever retain his wild and violent tendencies no matter how much education or training he might receive." On the night of August 1, 1942, Henry Leyvas, 20, and some of his friends were involved in a fight with another group at the Williams Ranch by a lagoon. Later the next morning, a man named José Díaz was found bleeding and unconscious on a road near the lagoon (later named the Sleepy Lagoon by a reporter). He later died. The autopsy revealed that Mr. Díaz was drunk at the time of death and that his death was the result of blunt head trauma. Though one medical examiner stated that his injuries were consistent with that of being hit by a car, Henry Leyvas and 24 members of the Mexican community were arrested and charged with the murder of José Díaz.
Led by the local tabloids, a public outcry for "justice" and vengeance against the zoot suiters caused the Los Angeles Police Department to conduct a roundup of over 600 people on the nights of August 10th and 11th. All were charged with such things as suspicion of assault, armed robbery, etc., and 175 people were held on these charges. Of the 600 plus people arrested during this roundup, every single one was of a Spanish surnamed individual!
During the time leading up to the trial and for two weeks into the trial, Henry Leyvas and his co-defendants were not allowed to change their clothes by order of the trial judge, Charles Fricke. The district attorney reasoned, and Judge Fricke agreed, that the jury should see the defendants in the zoot suits, which were obviously only worn by "hoodlums." During the trial, 22 of the 24 co-defendants including Henry Leyvas were tried together. They were not allowed to sit with or talk with their lawyers. Whenever their names were mentioned by a witness or the district attorney, the defendants were instructed by the judge to stand up, regardless of how damning the statements being made were. Judge Fricke also had E. Duran Ayres come and testify as an "expert" witness as to his belief of the Mexicans’ penchant for killing. The trial went on for five months. On January 15, 1943, the jury found 3 of the youths guilty of first-degree murder, 9 guilty of second-degree murder, and 5 guilty of assault. The remaining five were found not guilty.
In October, 1944, the California District Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the lower court’s verdict, dismissing the charges for lack of evidence. The treatment of Mexican Americans in this case remained a black eye for law enforcement, the media, and the city for many years.
The Sailor Riots of 1943
Against this backdrop of hate and vengeance toward the Mexican American community in Los Angeles, a year later what is known as the "Zoot Suit Riots" occurred (though they are now more often referred to as the "sailor riots"). On the night of June 3, 1943, eleven sailors on shore leave stated that they were attacked by a group of Mexican kids. In response to this, a group of over 200 uniformed sailors chartered 20 cabs and charged into the heart of the Mexican American community in East Los Angeles. Any Mexican was fair game. On this and the following nights, many a zoot suiter was beaten by this mob and stripped of their clothes, their zoot suits, on the spot. 9 sailors were arrested during these disturbances, not one was charged with any crime. On the following nights of June 4th and 5th, the uniformed servicemen (by this time the sailors had been joined by the Army and Marine Corps) again invaded East Los Angeles, marching abreast down the streets, breaking into bars and theaters, and assaulting anyone in their way.
Not one was arrested by the police or the sheriff. In fact, the servicemen were portrayed in the local press as heroes stemming the tide of the "Mexican Crime Wave." During the nights of June 6th and 7th, these scenes were again repeated. Time Magazine later reported that, "The police practice was to accompany the caravans of soldiers and sailors in police cars, watch the beatings and jail the victims." According to Acuña in Occupied America, "Seventeen-year-old Enrico Herrera, after he was beaten and arrested, spent three hours at a police station, where he was found by his mother, still naked and bleeding. A 12-year-old boy’s jaw was broken. Police arrested over 600 Chicano youths without cause and labeled the arrests ‘preventive’ action. Angelenos cheered on the servicemen and their civilian allies."
Finally, at midnight on June 7th, because the navy believed it had an actual mutiny on hand, the military authorities did what the City of Los Angeles would not; they moved to stop the rioting of their personnel. Los Angeles was declared off limits for all military personnel. Though there were little consequences for the rioters (servicemen and local law enforcement authorities alike), there was some public outcry. Governor Earl Warren (later Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court during their landmark desegregation cases) convened a committee to investigate the riots and recommended punishment for all involved in the riots, servicemen and civilians. Other than the charges filed against the Mexican American victims, no punishment was ever handed out.
The official version of the Los Angeles rioting by city and county officials was that the sailors and soldiers had acted in self defense, and that no element of racial prejudice was involved. However, a citizens’ committee found that these riots were caused principally by racial prejudice which was stimulated by police practices and by inflammatory newspaper reporting.