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In Rittenhouse Trial, Language Matters

The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse is underway. Rittenhouse, who used an AR-15-style rifle to shoot protesters in Kenosha, Wis., in August 2020, is charged with six criminal counts, including first-degree homicide.

In establishing the ground rules for the trial, Judge Bruce Schroeder ruled that attorneys could not refer to the men Rittenhouse shot and killed as “victims.” The defense considered the term too loaded, and legal experts seem to agree. But the judge also announced that he would permit the defense to refer to the two men as “looters,” “rioters” and “arsonists,” as if those labels were somehow less charged, better connected to evidence or less likely to influence a jury.

But nearly a century ago, a trial in Los Angeles against Mexican American boys pivoted around a set of equally charged terms — “gangster,” “gang” and “zooters.” The history of that trial shows us that such labels can be loaded with meaning, especially when used to justify vigilante-style violence.

As Los Angeles prospered in the 1920s and its population exploded, city leaders produced a multimillion-dollar development plan designed to create a downtown district reflective of the city’s grandeur, one that included a plaza railway terminal and a $5 million City Hall.

The city’s plan to “clear way” for development included removing thousands of residents from a predominantly Mexican American section of the city. As the steam shovels rolled in, families moved out, many of them heading east of downtown into nearby working-class neighborhoods, including Boyle and Lincoln Heights, where new arrivals confronted animosity from established White residents.

By the late 1920s, these tensions, along with poverty and prejudice, drove teen boys and young men in the shifting communities of East Los Angeles to begin organizing clubs around neighborhood ties and common ethnic or racial identities. Jewish, Italian, Anglo and Mexican American youths created cliques in which members acted as protectors of their blocks, defending against hostile outsiders, which included both rival cliques and the police. Yet it was Mexican American youths who earned the ire of city officials and the local press, with labels that marked them as criminal and violent: “boy gangs” and “gangsters.”


Crime reports citing young “zooted” — the new term for wearing the drape suit — gangsters with Spanish-surnames (and often their home addresses, too) helped crystallize stereotypes about Mexican American youths as uniformly criminal and East Los Angeles as a haven for crime. Whether guilty of crimes or not, these young people — already categorized as boy and girl gangs — also became pejoratively “pachucos,” “cholitas,” “hoodlums” and, by the 1940s, “zooters.”

World War II exacerbated White Angelenos’ anxiety about an onslaught of “gangsterism.” Government authorities urged the public to conserve resources, including eliminating “wasteful use” of fabric that the armed forces might need. In this light, the zoot suit, with its long, flowing drapes and expensive (or, at least, expensive-looking) accessories appeared anti-American, even treasonous.

Throughout 1942, the Los Angeles Times linked its reporting on wartime slackers to “gangsterism” among youths outfitted in the notorious drape suit. When these purportedly violent young people became the victims of violence, either at the hands of civilians, servicemen, rival groups or police, officials suggested they brought it on themselves.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post