The Lesser-Known Race Riots of Los Angeles

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Sure, we've all heard about the Watts riots in 1965 and the 1992 Rodney King riots, each of which were sparked by racial tensions and cost the city of Los Angeles millions of dollars and dozens of lives. But LA's rich history of riots goes back much further than that; from its roots as an ethnically diverse, rough-and-tumble Old West outpost to its current incarnation as a megasprawl metropolis, the city never lost its volatile mixture of extreme diversity and sometimes extreme intolerance. Like a Coke-n-Mentos experiment, it couldn't help but release all that pressure once in a while -- and here are some lesser-known times that it did.

The Zoot Suit Riots

That's right, it's not just an annoying Cherry Poppin' Daddies song; the so-called "Zoot Suit Riots" were also a tragic white-vs-Chicano conflict that embroiled the city in violent clashes for days. In the early days of America's involvement in WWII, white servicemen in Los Angeles would walk though a Chicano neighborhood on their way to barracks after nights of drinking, sparking frequent fights with Chicano youth, known as "Zoot-Suiters" for the then-outlandish double-breasted suits they favored. There were brawls, robberies, men were sent to the hospital, and as the tensions grew, the police stepped up pressure on the Chicano community, in July 1942 arresting more than 600 in one fell swoop. The following year, tensions boiled over: a sailor was badly injured in a fight, and in retaliation, more than 50 sailors headed to East LA, where they randomly targeted Chicano youths (especially the ones in Zoot Suits). Days of back-and-forth fighting ensued, described this way by one eyewitness:

Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot suiter they could find. Pushing its way into the important motion picture theaters, the mob ordered the management to turn on the house lights and then ran up and down the aisles dragging Mexicans out of their seats. Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked off their seats, pushed into the streets and beaten with a sadistic frenzy.

Days later, the military police finally got involved, quelling the violence and declaring the city of Los Angeles off-limits to military personnel. Though thousands of Chicanos were arrested during the riots, only one sailor faced any penalty, paying a small fine.

The Chinatown Massacre

massacre.jpgThe dead Chinese in Los Angeles were hanging at three places near the heart of the downtown business section of the city; from the wooden awning over the sidewalk in front of a carriage shop; from the sides of two "prairie schooners" parked on the street around the corner from the carriage shop; and from the cross-beam of a wide gate leading into a lumberyard a few blocks away from the other two locations. One of the victims hung without his trousers and minus a finger on his left hand.

That was 1871, when Los Angeles' main thoroughfares were still made of dirt, and roving lynch mobs could operate with impunity. In this case, more than 500 whites descended on a Chinese neighborhood after a white man was caught in the crossfire between two rival Chinese factions; they pulled every Chinese resident they could find from their homes and businesses, beating them, robbing them and killing as many as 23. After the incident, East Coast newspapers dubbed Los Angeles "a bloodstained Eden."

The Sunset Strip riots

Perhaps not "race" riots per se, but an interesting chapter in LA's history of violence nonetheless, were the Sunset Strip "curfew riots" of the 1960s. It was hippies vs. cops, stemming an ongoing clash between an insubordinate youth counter-culture that was spreading across the country and the nervous adults who tried to quell it with curfews, arrests and relentless traffic stops. The Socialism Journal characterizes the riots this way:

In the long struggle against curfews and crowd control on the Sunset Strip in the late 1960s (parodied in teen exploitation film Riot on the Sunset Strip), white youth increasingly were persuaded that their resistance to a violent sheriff's department was a second front to the battle being waged by the Black Panther Party in south central Los Angeles. The culminating showdown between thousands of white kids and the sheriffs in 1969 was mobilised by a psychedelic leaflet demanding, 'Free the Strip! Free Huey!' The battle over the urban night had joined forces with the revolution.

The ultimate evidence that no one took the hippies' Strip protests very seriously is the film Riot on the Sunset Strip, for which this is the hilarious trailer:

June 9, 2008 - 6:04am
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