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Language matters in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial

How we think of people shapes actions, including violence.

Kyle Rittenhouse waits for his attorney to give opening statements to the jury on Nov. 2 at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis. (Sean Krajacic/AP)

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.”

The language of “gangs” was embedded in the zeitgeist of the era, a period in which White criminal syndicates ran wild, organized into mob families governed by “kingpins” with nicknames such as “Mad Dog” and “Bugsy,” and engaged in everything from racketeering and bootlegging to homicide. These men generated lurid headlines as they struck fear into the public and drove officials to warn that gangsters threatened the very existence of “civilized and enlightened” communities nationwide. In 1932, a Chicago detective told the Los Angeles Times that gangsters would probably take over Los Angeles, and that the city “should get ready for them.”

But organized crime syndicates didn’t swarm Los Angeles as predicted. Most headed to Las Vegas instead, placing their bets on legal gambling. Depression-era organized crime did, however, leave an imprint on Los Angeles popular culture — in the form of the movie “gangster.”

The adventures of slick hustlers who toted guns, flaunted wealth and orchestrated assassinations enlivened Hollywood scripts and captivated audiences. Gangster films, including “Little Caesar” (1931) and “Scarface(1932), showcased power and violent masculinity. They also featured the “gutter to glitter” fantasy, a stylized — even romantic — portrayal of real gangsters, who were born into destitution and subject to ethnic discrimination before choosing crime as the path forward.

Cultural critics lambasted these movies, arguing that they were devoid of morality and, worse still, encouraged juvenile delinquency. Although youth crime statistics didn’t bear out this contention, the outlaws of popular gangster cinema did have a clear influence in one area: youth fashion.

Costume designers seeking to portray a kind of opulent swagger looked to Black clothing styles in the big band and jazz scenes in places like Harlem and Chicago, selecting for on-screen cool guys only the most flamboyant, broad-shouldered, wide-lapeled suit jackets paired with flowing trousers and wide-brimmed hats — the “drape suit.” Because the outfit looked sharp and the characters wearing it acted slick, the style became popular, particularly among marginalized young people in cities that hosted frequent showings of gangster films — Los Angeles, in particular.

This was especially true of the city’s Mexican American youths, including those who ran with neighborhood clubs and defended themselves and their friends against rivals, racist foes and law enforcement.

But appropriating Hollywood gangster style made them conspicuous to White Angelenos, moral authorities, the police and reporters. And it earned them the culturally loaded label of “gang.” Formerly only associated with White organized crime syndicates, this label began to envelop Mexican American teens by the end of the 1930s.

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.

In this climate, in August 1942, 22-year-old José Díaz was killed near the Sleepy Lagoon reservoir in East Los Angeles. In the ensuing days, the Los Angeles Police Department conducted its first “gang raid.” Officers arrested almost 600 Mexican American young people, each targeted as much for their clothing style as for their age and skin color. When police officials disclosed that they had seized from these “young jerks” a stockpile of weapons, including crank handles and scrap steel daggers, the news fed wartime phobias about roving “hoodlums.”

Investigators charged 17 boys alleged to be members of a “street gang” with murder. In the biggest mass trial in California history, the 17 youths came to be known as the 38th Street Gang, and prosecutors pointed repeatedly to their clothing, their neighborhood loyalties and their “pachuco” behavior as the primary evidence of their guilt. The defendants fit the era’s popular conceptions of “gangsters” to a T, and the jury, persuaded by these characterizations, convicted three of first-degree murder, nine of second-degree murder and the others of assault.

What’s more, sensational coverage of the trial became a flash point for racial violence just months after the jury handed down its guilty verdict.

In June of 1943, rumors spread that young, zoot-suited “marauders” had fatally stabbed an off-duty sailor in Venice Beach. The image of anti-American Mexican kids attacking a good U.S. patriot galvanized dozens of mostly White military men and civilians to converge around downtown Los Angeles, with crowbars and bats in hand, seeking to root out the “zoot suit menace.”

Young men and women of color fought back, but in violently defending themselves they provided local and national officials with a convenient narrative about a barbarous throng of dark-complected brutes. Naval authorities reported during the rioting that their servicemen were simply acting in self-defense against “the rowdy element.”

In the immediate aftermath of the violent clashes, Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron announced that city officials would work together to “stamp out for good [the] hoodlum element.” These “Zoot Suit Riots” heralded ominous changes in the region’s approach to policing, including more targeted profiling of the city’s young people of color and the advent of “gang sweeps.”

This case illustrated how loaded language can pejoratively shape legal trials by assigning criminality without proof. It can also drive vigilante violence. It’s worth remembering that it is Kyle Rittenhouse on trial now, not the men he killed, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber. But terms like “looters,” “arsonists” and “rioters,” preferred by the defense, will probably be used to frame the two dead men as violent, raging aggressors to signal to the jury that Rittenhouse feared for his life and was therefore justified in shooting them. And history indicates it may work.