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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:

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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