“A look at the past reminds us of how great is the distance, and how short, over which we have come. The past makes us ask what we have done with us. It makes us ask whether our very achievements are not ironical counterpoint and contrast to our fundamental failures.”
Robert Penn Warren – Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and poet
The New York Times reminds us that 23 years ago rioting erupted in Los Angeles “that claimed 54 lives and caused $1 billion in damage … after a jury in Simi Valley acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of almost all state charges in the videotaped beating of Rodney King.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that in response to the pillaging in Baltimore, “All Los Angeles officers not working undercover assignments were ordered to show up for their shifts in uniform, a move designed to enhance police presence. They also were instructed against riding alone in their cars.”
Throughout its history the social fabric of Los Angeles has erupted periodically. Given current events I thought it appropriate to highlight some of these eruptions. It is of course understood that they constitute only a portion of the history of race relations in Los Angeles.
The Chinese Massacre of 1871
In 1870 Los Angeles had 5,728 residents; 179 were Chinese immigrants. Now covered by the southeastern corner of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the center of LA’s first Chinatown was Calle de los Negros. This was an unpaved 500 feet long lane where 66 Chinese were packed into single-storied adobe living quarters scattered among saloons, gambling-houses and dance halls.
The rest of the Chinese population lived either with their Anglo and Latino employers or were scattered on the pueblo’s outskirts. Most maintained close ties with their relatives and clans in China.
Chinese immigrants were subjected to prejudice and discrimination. They could not become naturalized American citizens. The Los Angeles press was replete with derogatory comments about them. California law prohibited Chinese from testifying against Anglos or Latinos.
A long-standing feud existed between two of Los Angeles’s Chinese clans. On October 24, 1871 the two clans engaged in a shootout triggered by the abduction of a Chinese woman. A popular Anglo, Robert Thompson, was mortally wounded when he intervened.
Even before Thompson succumbed to his wounds a multi-ethnic mob of over 500 men, led by Anglos and Latinos, assaulted Chinatown. Rumors proliferated, including one that Chinese “were killing the white men by wholesale.”
Although the warring clan members had already dispersed, the mob ransacked the Chinese-occupied buildings in Chinatown. Its residents were beaten or robbed. In addition, 18 Chinese immigrants were mutilated and then hanged – the largest mass lynching in United States history. Today the United States Courthouse sits on one of the hanging sites. The entrance to the Los Angeles Mall’s parking garage is where other hangings took place.
Ten members of the mob were later tried. Eight were found guilty of manslaughter. Their convictions were overturned on appeal – the indictments failed to specify that anyone had actually been murdered! East coast newspapers, their interest in the Great Chicago Fire waning, headlined the massacre and labeled Los Angeles a “blood stained Eden.”
Very little has been written about the Chinese Massacre. The best book I have found is Scott Zesch, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871.
Zoot Suit Riots
“By the 1940s, Mexican-American youths in large numbers were now wearing their own type of uniform – the Zoot suit – and they were carrying on their own kind of rebellion…Along with an oversize coat, with its wide, padded shoulders, most of the boys sported the signature ‘ducktail’ hair style, long, especially on the sides, and swept back in waves. They also wore a broad-brimmed hat and carried a long watch chain dangling down the side of their pants.” (Roger Bruns, Zoot Suit Riots, ix).
During the spring of 1942 Los Angeles was a major departure point for soldiers and sailors in transit to the Pacific war theater. Tensions and uncertainties were high. The internment of American citizens of Japanese descent was well underway. The infamous Battle of Los Angeles and its comedic three-hour barrage of 1,400 anti-aircraft shells directed at weather balloons was already history.
In June Frank Torres, a nineteen-year old member of the Clanton Street gang (which still exists) was shot while leaving the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as the all-city high school track meet ended. A riot was prevented when fifty armed soldiers from a nearby encampment were called out to subdue the crowd.
That summer a series of fights involving navy personnel and Mexican-American youth in downtown Los Angeles exacerbated growing tensions and antagonisms – antagonisms that were constantly fueled by the local press.
On the night of August 1 – 2, at a birthday party just outside what are now the Bell city limits, near a water-filled gravel pit nicknamed “Sleepy Lagoon,” a fight between neighborhood gangs resulted in the death of 22 years old Jose Diaz. The Los Angeles police rounded up over 600 Mexican Americans for questioning.
During a grand jury investigation of the Diaz murder Lieutenant Edward Ayres of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department submitted a document that purported to contain scientific evidence that individuals of Mexican descent, “like wild cats,” were biologically inclined toward violence and criminal behavior.
The grand jury indicted 22 Mexican American men for the murder of Jose Diaz. Their en masse trial, People v. Zammora, began October 13, 1942 and continued until January 12, 1943.
Replete with prosecution references to the clothing and hairstyle of the defendants and questionable judicial rulings, the trial remains the largest mass trial in California history. Paralleling the trial was an unrelenting stream of inflammatory attacks by the press on Mexican Americans. Three defendants were convicted of first-degree murder, nine of second-degree murder and five of lesser charges.
The end of the trial did not ease community tensions. In the summer of 1943 a series of on-going, small scale public confrontations between servicemen and Mexican American youth erupted into what today is referred to as the Zoot Suit Riots.
On June 3 roving bands of sailors from the Naval Reserve Armory at Chavez Ravine beat up Mexican American youth using clubs, belts, bats and other makeshift weapons. They forcibly removed their victims’ Zoot suits. The Los Angeles police largely ignored the attacks.
From June 4 through June 6 more servicemen joined the roving bands. Now using taxicabs to move from location to location, thousands of servicemen escalated their attacks and invaded East Los Angeles. Local newspapers lauded the attacks. Police arrested mostly Zoot suiters.
Finally, on June 7 Los Angeles’s police chief declared the existence of a general riot and ordered police to clear the streets.
On June 8 Rear Admiral David W. Bagley, commandant of the 11th Naval District, issued an order declaring Los Angeles “out of bounds” for all enlisted sailors, marines and members of the Coast Guard. The City Council passed a resolution banning the wearing of Zoot suits in public.
Over a year later, on October 4, 1944, the Second District Court of Appeals reversed the Sleepy Lagoon verdicts. All defendants were discharged.
There are a number of books about the Zoot Suit Riots. The Bruns book has a useful chronology that I have relied on but is written at a high school level. It also contains sloppy mistakes and offers a sympathetic but simplistic perspective. The best book I have read on the topic is Eduardo Obregón Pagán, Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, & Riot in Wartime L.A.
A few minutes past 7:00 P.M. on August 11, 1965, on Avalon Boulevard, half a block north of 116th Place, a California Highway Patrol officer stopped a driver for suspicion of drunk driving. What began as a routine traffic stop morphed into the Watts Riot. Los Angeles police, aided by 14,000 National Guardsmen faced off and fought the residents of South Central Los Angeles while the rest of the city entered panic mode, anticipating a black invasion of their suburbs. Thirty-four persons died, over 1,000 were injured and nearly 4,000 were arrested. Property damage totaled $35 million. The phrase, “Burn, baby, burn” reverberated.
The Watts Riot spotlighted ubiquitous patterns of segregation throughout America’s urban areas. The result was, as Robert Conot, author of a classic study of the riots has said, “…the end of the era of Negro passivity—passivity that took the form of the doctrine of nonviolence, and the acceptance of white leadership in the civil rights struggle. In Los Angeles the Negro was going on record that he would no longer turn the other cheek. That, frustrated and goaded, he would strike back, whether the response of violence was an appropriate one or no.” (Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness)
The Watts Riot foreshadowed physical unrest in other cities as well as burning political debates over race, city, poverty, and welfare – debates that continue with varying intensity to this day.
Two nonfiction books offering different perspectives of the Watts Riots are:
Jerry Cohen and William S. Murphy. Burn, Baby, Burn! The Los Angeles Race Riot, August 1965. The authors were members of the Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning team who covered the Watts Riot. The book reconstructs those events.
Robert Conot. Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness. Many consider this to be the classic reconstruction of the Watts Riot. Conot examines the riot’s background and provides a narrative that transcends a day-by-day newspaper style chronology.
Sometimes the essence of an event is best conveyed through fiction. I have found Walter Mosley’s Little Scarlet and Nin Revoyr’s Southland very helpful in interpreting the Watts Riot.
Rodney King Riots
(a.k.a. 1992 Los Angeles Riots, South Central Riots, 1992 Los Angeles Civil Disturbance, 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest and the Los Angeles Uprising)
On March 3, 1991 a twenty-five year old African American, Rodney King, was stopped while speeding on the 118 Freeway. As videotaped by a local resident, King was shot by a stun gun and repeatedly kicked and beaten by police officers. Four of the officers were criminally tried for their conduct. A not guilty verdict was rendered on April 29,1992.
Following the “not guilty” verdicts rioting broke out in the city. One of the first public images of this rioting occurred at Normandie Avenue and Florence Boulevard where a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, was pulled from his truck and beaten nearly to death by black assailants as a news helicopter’s TV camera captured the entire scene. Yet, contrary to that image, the 1992 rioting was not a reprise of the Watts Riots. It was not a simple black against white conflict. Instead, it has been characterized as “the nation’s first multiethnic urban riot.”
More than half of those arrested were Latinos. Korean Americans were the single most visible group of victims. More than half of the 3,100 Korean American businesses in Los Angeles suffered damages, totaling $350 million. One of the four officers found not guilty was part Latino.
Nancy Abelmann and John Lie in Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots offer an informative analysis of the 1992 riots. A work of fiction which received a good New York Times review and which I have just started is Ryan Gattis, All Involved. Its storyline take place during the Rodney King Riots and transitions from character to character offering different perspectives.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.