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Old Posted Jan 23, 2011, 4:40 PM
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mdiederi mdiederi is offline
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Another crime story and important chapter in Los Angeles history.
(Not many building references, but there have been other crime posts in this thread, so figured I'd post it since I went through the trouble of compiling it.)

1942 - The Sleepy Lagoon Murder

Sleepy Lagoon was a reservoir by the Los Angeles River. Frequented by Mexican Americans who were denied access to public pools, the swimming hole was named after a popular song of the time performed by big band leader and trumpet player Harry James.

I cannot for the life of me find any photos of the reservoir nicknamed "Sleepy Lagoon", but apparently it was near the community of Maywood, near the intersection of Slauson Boulevard and Atlantic Blvd. Nothing remains of the reservoir now.

The proceedings of this case (People v. Zammora) took place within the context of war-time anxiety and hysteria, when one hundred twenty thousand Japanese-Americans were detained and put into internment camps in February 1942. Several months later, a young Mexican national named José Diaz was found dead at a swimming hole called Sleepy Lagoon.

Local media outlets, most notably the Hearst-owned Herald-Express and The Los Angeles Times, blamed Diaz’s death on a “crime wave” led by Mexican American “zoot-suiters” or “pachucos”. Many young Latino males distinguished themselves with "duck tails" hairdoos and "zoot suits" (wide-brimmed hats, broad-shouldered long coats, high-waisted peg-legged trousers and long dangling chains). More than six hundred youth (most of them Mexican American) were arrested after Diaz’s death. Many were detained for the clothes that they wore or their general appearance. Some claimed that such “racial profiling” was necessary for national security because they believed Mexican American “zoot-suiters” had established “fifth column” (pro-fascist) groups within the United States. Twenty-two youths were eventually subject to a mass trial, complete with an all-white jury. Three were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison; nine were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to five-to-life; and five were convicted of assault and released for time served.

Convicted Sleepy Lagoon defendants.

Sleepy Lagoon defendants in San Quentin

1943 - Zoot Suit Riots

The war had caused Los Angeles to swell with military personnel at local bases, many of them from other parts of the country with no prior experience with Latinos and Latino culture. News of the Sleepy Lagoon convictions heated racial tensions for months until finally Los Angeles erupted in the Zoot Suit Riot.

On June 3, 1943, a number of sailors claimed to have been beaten and robbed by Mexican pachucos. The following evening, a mob of about 200 sailors, tired of boredom and fired up with bigotry, hired a fleet of cabs and rolled into East Los Angeles to beat up and strip the clothing off any young Latino male they could find. The authorities seemed to approve. Police made a few initial token arrests of sailors, but they were quickly released. This emboldened the sailors. For several subsequent nights, the swelling mobs of sailors were joined by soldiers and some civilians as they invaded the barrio, marching abreast down streets, invading bars and movie houses, assaulting and humiliating any and all young Latino males, many not attired in "zoot suits." Young Black and Filipino males unfortunate enough to be in the area were also assaulted. Mobs of servicemen in search of "zoot suiters" also prowled the Pike in Long Beach. Although police accompanied the caravans of rioting servicemen, police orders were to let the shore patrol and military police deal with military men. As the riot progressed, Mexican American boys moved to defend their neighborhoods, setting traps for sailors and assaulting them in their cars.

After several days of rioting and assaults by servicemen, more than 150 had been injured and police had arrested and charged more than 500 Latino youths for "rioting" or "vagrancy," many themselves the victims. The local press lauded the military rioters for confronting the menace of the "Mexican crime wave." "Zoot Suiters Learn Lesson in Fight with Servicemen," declared the Los Angeles Times. The Los Angeles City Council issued an ordinance banning the wearing of "zoot suits." "The zoot suit has become a badge of hoodlumism," explained Councilman Norris Nelson. "We prohibit nudism by an ordinance and if we can arrest people for being under-dressed, we can do so for being over-dressed." Some sources suggest this ordinance is still on the books, but I could not find it in the city code.

Finally, on June 7, military authorities did what civil authorities would not. Navy and Army commanders sought to get control of their men by ordering that the City of Los Angeles be declared off-limits to military personnel. Nonetheless, the official Navy position was that their sailors were acting in "self-defense against the rowdy element."

Nationwide condemnation of the actions of the military rioters and civil authorities followed. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt commented, "The question goes deeper than just suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should." The Los Angeles Times responded with a June 18 headline, "Mrs. Roosevelt Blindly Stirs Race Discord." The editorial page accused her of communist leanings.

Riot in front of the Hippodrome theater on Main Street.

Zoot Suit Riot.

Zoot Suit Riot.

Zoot Suit Riot.

Pachucos beaten and stripped during zoot-suit riots.

Luis Verdusco, riot victim.

Mexican American youths detained for questioning

(Click for larger image.)
Alleged "Zoot Suit rioters" leave a Los Angeles jail for a court appearance, 1943. (Click for larger image.)

1944 Sleepy Lagoon Murder Case Acquittal

In October, 1941 a dark chapter in Los Angeles history came to a close when, as a result of the tireless efforts of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, the U.S. District Court of Appeals overturned the convictions as a miscarriage of justice. A precursor to the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, the Sleepy Lagoon case is one of the most important events in the social history of Los Angeles but, even today, it is difficult to find complete and accurate information regarding the people and places involved in this historic case.

(click for larger image)
Sleepy Lagoon murder case acquittal.
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