In California and the U.S. more broadly, the style and culture of young people, especially those of color, have long been criminalized. In the 1940s, moral panic over delinquency and gangs was stoked by mass media, first with the case of Sleepy Lagoon and then with the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when policing of youth also aimed to control their spatial mobility. Today’s version is the hoodie, whose wearer, when of color and not in his expected neighborhood, can and often is violently policed by authorities and others.
Police responded to the murder of José Diaz on August 1, 1942, near Sleepy Lagoon, a gathering place in Commerce (eastern Los Angeles), highlights wartime anxieties. An earlier attack on Henry Leyvas led to a fight that ended with Diaz stabbed to death. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) then arbitrarily rounded up 600 Mexican American youth, eventually charging 22 of them with murder. Sensationalistic press coverage of the trial fed an already racially charged atmosphere that saw the prosecution of the defendants’ teenage status, clothing styles, and Latino heritage as evidence of their guilt. Newspaper headlines fomented panic about delinquency. Henry Leyvas and the other defendants were found guilty of murder or assault and received sentences from a year to life imprisonment. The community-supported Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee was soon formed and, due to overt prejudice on the part of the sentencing judge and lack of evidence, succeeded by 1944 in getting all sentences overturned. Leyvas by then had served years in prison, while some of the women who had been rounded up remained wards of the state at Ventura School for Girls, even after the men on trial had been released.
Immediately following Sleepy Lagoon, tensions between young Mexican Americans and white servicemen continued to grow. A new sartorial style, the zoot suit, cut large and known as “drapes,” had gained popularity amongst Mexican American, African American, and other nonwhite youth. The zoot suit quickly became a flashpoint for outright racism and accusations of delinquency and anti-Americanism by whites, as its extravagant use of fabric seemed to flaunt consumerism and violate federal rationing orders. Outbreaks of violence targeting young zoot suiters--whether or not they were in their “own” neighborhoods--led up to the riots. White sailors and civilians attacked Mexican Americans leaving the Aragon Ballroom in Venice, CA, in retaliation for a rumored stabbing of a white sailor. On June 3, 1943, sailors claimed to the LAPD that they had been attacked and beaten by a gang of Mexican American zoot suiters. Over the next four days, large groups of white servicemen invaded East L.A. looking for zoot suiters. They beat them and stripped them of their “drapes” to humiliate them, while police overlooked what happened. In the aftermath, officials acknowledged race as the primary impetus for the riots but publicly blamed it on “the restlessness of youth in wartime.” The riots further galvanized non-white communities in the area into political action.
These are precedents to today’s policing of youth. In 2012, the shooting death of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman brought the hoodie to central stage as material evidence. For Trayvon, wearing a hoodie precipitated his murder. He wasn’t the first. Young, unarmed, hoodie-wearing Oscar Grant on December 31, 2009, was attacked and shot to death at a train station by Oakland police officer Johannes Mehserle. Outrage over his death fueled major public demonstrations, from “lay ins” to marches, which were used to show solidarity across color lines and to challenge police brutality as a means to control communities. The Million Hoodie Marches that began after the Trayvon Martin murder did similarly. And these marches have continued, now as a mass movement for racial justice by and for youth.
By donning hoodies for symbolic value, activists challenge the ways youth of color have been marked as criminal based on racist presumptions about who they are, how they look or behave, and where they ought to be. Yet in redeploying the hoodie for forward-looking purposes, activists also call attention to the past, and long histories of violence against people of color that are conjured by the image of the hood, from the robes of friars sent to missionize California Indians to Klan terror and vigilantism to police brutality against those who are deemed criminally suspect for their appearance. The hoodie is all of this, and more, as we can also use it conjure—lest we ever forget—the memories of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and nameless others.
Alvarez, Luis. The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance During World War II. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.
Bailey, J. “Fruitvale Station’s Insight: Oscar Grant’s Life Was Complex; His Death Was Tragic.” The Atlantic, December 7, 2013. Accessed November 28, 2015. Link.
Escobedo, Elizabeth R. From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2013.
Fruitvale Station. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, 2013.
“Hoodie Day Crenshaw District, Los Angeles.” Revolution Newspaper, June 13, 2013. Accessed November 25, 2015. Link.
Nguyen, Mimi Thi. “The Hoodie as Sign, Screen, Expectation, and Force.” Signs, 40 (Summer 2015): 791-816.
Pagan, Eduardo Obregon. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Pomona College. “Zoot Suit Discovery Guide.” Accessed November 25, 2015. Link.
Ramírez, Catherine. The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
“Zoot Suit Riots.” American Experience. PBS, 2002.