By Jonathan Lee
Chapter 6: The Battle for Los Angeles
On March 3, 1991, surrounded by more than 20 Los Angeles police officers, taxi driver Rodney King was ordered out of his car. After King was forced to the ground, four of the officers tased him and beat him with batons. George Holliday, a witness, recorded the incident, which sparked national outrage once it aired on local news station KTLA. King, an AfricanAmerican, became a symbol of American police brutality. Stacey Koon, one of the officers on the scene, would later claim in court that King initially acted violently, and that the officers suspected King of being on PCP. However, the tape revealed that King was beaten every time he made an attempt to move.
By the time King was taken to Pacifica Hospital, he had skull fractures, broken bones, shattered teeth, kidney failure and permanent brain damage. Surgeons worked for five hours to stabilize him. A month after the beating, a flyer satirizing King’s beating was circulated within the Los Angeles Police Department. During a fundraiser, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates made light of the footage. “If it wasn’t for our helicopters, the lighting would have been horrible,” he said. Gates continued to joke about the video at several other separate events while the four officers who attacked King were on trial for assault and use of excessive force.
The headline that ran in the New York Times on April 29, 1992 is one that is still chillingly familiar to us: “Los Angeles Policemen Acquitted in Taped Beating.”
None of the 12 jurors were black. There were 10 whites, a Filipina and a Latina.
Riots erupted all over Los Angeles County, and lasted the next six days. It was far more unrest than the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department could handle. Police from Long Beach, Compton, Pasadena and Inglewood were called out when the rioting spread to their respective communities. On the fourth day, Governor Pete Wilson called in the California Army National Guard, and President George H.W. Bush sent the 7th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army and the 1st Marine Division.
Though the riots officially ended up May 4, troops remained in the city until May 27. The final casualty tally was 63 people killed and 2,383 injured. Over 12,000 were arrested. There was over $1 billion of property damage.
The 1992 Los Angeles riots have since attained mythic status, inhabiting the same realm as Washington crossing the Delaware in our national imagination. Given that Los Angeles itself is the heart of the American film industry — Hollywood is a neighborhood of Los Angeles — and music, this is hardly surprising.
It was a deeply formative event for some of the country’s most celebrated artists. There are more films and songs about the L.A. riots than any other riot in American history. They deeply influenced the work of Spike Lee, Kendrick Lamar and Zach de la Rocha. Lee’s film Malcolm X opens with footage of the Rodney King beating. The television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air dedicated an episode to the riots and the subsequent difficult conversations about how to move forward as a country.
Politicians, too, invoke the Los Angeles riots as the archetype for understanding all other riots. After the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, activists took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in a series of protests that came in three waves, lasting nearly a month in total. During the second wave of the Ferguson protests on November 24, 2014, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey tweeted an article he wrote when he was 22 years old, after the verdict in the Rodney King trial was announced. In the piece, Booker asked, “I’m a black man. I am 6 feet 3 inches tall and 230 pounds, just like King. Do I scare you?”
But in telling the story of the riots, key details have been obscured or outright forgotten. For example, only 36 percent of the people arrested over the six days were African-American. Fifty-one percent were actually Latino. As the journalist Brentin Mock said, this raises the question of why we remember “the face of the rioter” as black.
One more side of the story: Two thousand Korean-American businesses were razed in the riots. The damages totaled over $400 million — the largest loss suffered by a single ethnic group.
Photographs of Korean-American storeowners defending their shops sparked a brief national sensation. Men, all of them military veterans because of South Korea’s policy of universal conscription, perched on their rooftops with pistols and rifles because both the National Guard and LAPD had abandoned them to rioters.
Those pictures were perhaps the most honest depiction of the riots. Not a binary conflict between white or black, but rather an eruption born out of a long, complicated history of interethnic interaction between black, brown, and yellow, overseen by a white government that oversaw the oppression of the three.
For those shop owners, and to the black residents of South Central Los Angeles, the inciting incident wasn’t the nationally televised beating of Rodney King on March 5, 1991. It came 11 days later, with the shooting of a 15-year-old girl named Latasha Harlins.
The Forgotten Death of Latasha Harlins
On a Saturday morning, Latasha Harlins walked into the Empire Liquor Market and Deli on South Figueroa Street for a bottle of orange juice. She put the orange juice into her backpack and made her way to the counter, two dollars in hand. Soonja Du, the store owner, claimed she did not see the money in Harlins’ hand and concluded that Harlins was trying to steal the juice.
The footage shows Du and Harlins in a scuffle. Du grabbed Harlins’ sweater and pulled her, and Harlins retaliated by hitting Du with her backpack. As Harlins walked away, leaving behind the juice, Du pulled out a pistol from underneath the counter and fired. The bullet struck her in the head and she died instantly.
It was a fatal example of the tension that had long existed between Korean-Americans and African-Americans in South Central Los Angeles. At the time, Korean-Americans made up a fraction of the community in South Central but owned many of the small businesses. The majority of the residents of South Central, who were black and Latino, saw Korean-American store owners as opportunists who took money from the community without contributing anything back, a stereotype exacerbated by the language barrier.
Despite this animosity, there were still early attempts at peacemaking after the Harlins shooting. Leaders from both the African-American and Korean-American communities delivered a joint statement expressing grief over Harlins’s death. Unfortunately, leadership couldn’t prevent what happened next.
On November 15, 1991, a jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, with a maximum sentence of 16 years imprisonment. Joyce Karlin, the judge overseeing the trial, reduced the sentence to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 dollar fine. Karlin justified her decision by explaining that Empire Liquor Market and Deli had been the target of robberies before, and Du’s reaction was regrettable but understandable.
Harlins’s death was memorialized in music. The rapper Tupac Shakur referenced Harlins in a number of his songs, including the classic “Keep Ya Head Up.” A month after Du’s trial, the rapper Ice Cube released “Black Korea,” an incendiary song alluding to the incident:
So pay respect to the black fist
Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp
And then we’ll see ya
Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into black Korea
The album on which “Black Korea” was released, Death Certificate, was criticized for what many saw as anti-Asian, anti-Semitism and homophobic. In “No Vaseline,” (the title alluding to anal penetration), Ice Cube set his sights on rapper MC Ren and Jerry Heller, a Jewish-American music producer:
But I got a whip for ya, Toby
Used to be my homie, now you act like you don’t know me
It’s a case of divide-and-conquer
Cause you let a Jew break up my crew
Korean-Americans feared that Death Certificate would spark violent retaliation against their stores. Entertainment Tonight interviewed Yumi Park, executive director of the Korean-American Grocers’ Association (KAGRO). But his over 30-minute video interview was reduced to a few minutes, replaced by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center who acted as the biggest voice of the proposed boycott against Ice Cube. The media had effectively silenced Korean-Americans, so they took a different approach.
At the time, Ice Cube was endorsing St. Ides, a malt liquor sold by the McKenzie River Corporation that had a big audience in inner cities. KAGRO instructed its members to pull St. Ides products from its stores. As a result, 5,000 to 6,000 stores across the country in cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia and Baltimore removed St. Ides from their shelves. McKenzie River acquiesced to KAGRO’s demands and pulled all promotional materials and commercials featuring Ice Cube. The rapper himself met with KAGRO leaders and apologized, vowing to discourage violence against store owners and act as a conduit of peace.
Unfortunately, this peace talk didn’t receive much press coverage. Ice Cube claimed that his music wasn’t intended to offend or condemn all Korean-Americans, but the final lines of “Black Korea” ended up becoming a prophecy.
The death of Latasha Harlins is a footnote in most histories of the Los Angeles riots, if she’s mentioned at all. The Los Angeles Times 25-year anniversary retrospective and timeline on the riots doesn’t include Harlins’ fatal death at the hands of Soonju Du. Her memory only lives on among the residents of South Central, a handful of scholars and Korean-Americans who keenly remember how their community was targeted over the course of those six days.
Koreans remember traumatic events by invoking their dates. In South Korea, the Korean War is referred to as Yook-I-O, or 625, a reference to the war’s first battle on June 25. When Korean-Americans speak of the riots, it’s Sa-I-Gu — 429. April 29.
Though Koreans were one of the three major parties affected by the riots — the other two being blacks and Latinos — they were rarely given the opportunity to speak. David Joo, one of the iconic store defenders captured in news footage during the riots, wasn’t interviewed about his experience until over 20 years later. In the years that followed the riots, there has been a wide range of content produced from the black perspective, but comparatively little has been shown of the Korean side. When the occasional Korean character does crop up in a film based on the riots, it’s rarely a humanizing portrayal.
Moreover, the LA riots continue to be seen as a dispute primarily between whites and blacks, despite the fact that most of the people involved were non-white. Korean-Americans would have likely become homicide victims if not for swift mobilization and calls to arms. The Los Angeles riots challenge the notion that race in America can be viewed with a binary lens, because Asian-Americans themselves have always been a confounding inconsistency in a country that insists that all peoples must fit neatly into either being white or black.
The Asian-American legacy of being perpetual outsiders to the national understanding of race, of being neither white nor black, is possibly a reason why the Korean-American perspective of the riots has been ignored. In the little footage we have of American news stations interviewing Korean sources during the riots, there is one consistent question from the Koreans: Why us? If it’s white police officers who keep destroying black bodies and white landowners who sold black slaves, why are Koreans being attacked?
The response from critical black sources at the time echo stereotypes of Asian-Americans similar to those that whites held. The Koreans are greedy, they can’t speak English and they refuse to assimilate into the community. They are perpetual outsiders, neither white nor black, and are not welcome to throw their lot in with either group.
The accusations that Asians held a special place of privilege among other minorities in America was absurd to Korean-Americans. Koreans in small businesses worked grueling hours to turn a profit, often seven days a week. They were also in danger. Robberies were an ongoing problem, and in the years leading up to the riots, Korean grocers were being shot and killed.
Most of the Korean-American store owners who weathered the riots immigrated in the 1960s and 1970s, when South Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world. In 1960, the country had a lower GDP than some nations in sub-Saharan Africa and most of Latin America. All of them had lived through the Korean War and some of them had served in the Vietnam War, in which South Korean troops made up the second largest army in the anti-communist coalition.
However, the long-held Korean-American belief that hard work was what propelled the community from poverty into the middle class was also a myth. At the turn of the century, blacks and Asians had faced similar barriers to economic mobility for decades. But between the 1960s and the 1980s, the period when most of the Korean-Americans of Los Angeles immigrated to the United States, Asian wages shot up dramatically. There is no conclusive agreement among Asian American scholars over what prompted this shift, but one compelling thesis is the Cold War. The Western fear of communism overtaking all of Asia meant that America had a vested interest in creating strong relationships with South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. That also meant the creation of a new stereotype of Asian-Americans, one of the Model Minority — industrious, quiet and reliable, a direct contradiction to previously held stereotypes that still held strong for blacks and Latinos.
Korean-Americans didn’t earn a place in middle-class America and academia solely because of hard work. Korean-Americans became middle-class because white society allowed them to. Black-Americans still faced brutal, ubiquitous discrimination in housing, wages, policing and loans no matter how hard they worked.
However, while the black and Korean community in Los Angeles did indeed exist in a tense relationship, there were also significant efforts at bringing them together. Leaders in both the black and Korean community have worked towards peace since the late 1980s. When shop owner Kwangyul Chun was shot and killed on October 30, 1991, Pastor Haesoung Kim of Young Saeng Presbyterian Church insisted that it was a poverty issue, not a race issue. Yumi Park, the director of the Korean-American Grocers Association agreed.
After meeting with Ice Cube, the Korean-American Grocers Association made regular donations to youth programs for the black community. Black churches held free classes for Korean immigrants studying for their citizenship exams.
But when the riots finally came a year later, their efforts for solidarity seemed to fall on deaf ears. The razing of Korean property laid bare America’s racial hierarchy and debunked the notion that Asian-Americans were honorary whites, because when the rioters came, the city of Los Angeles left the Korean-American store owners to fend for themselves. Black and Latino rioters, attacking Korean stores that were abandoned by white authorities. This is what the 1992 Los Angeles riots were. They were also, perhaps, the event that gave birth to Korean-American identity.
One week after the riots, 30,000 Korean-Americans marched through Koreatown in Los Angeles. Second-generation Korean-Americans began to form political groups to secure rights and representation. The collective cultural trauma suffered by Korean-Americans inspired a push for unity and action that went beyond small business unions and Sunday schools. Traditionally, Korean-Americans viewed themselves as long-term expats — Korean nationals who live in America but ultimately derive their identity from the old country. After the riots, Korean-Americans viewed themselves more on racial rather than national terms, Americans of a different color from white, black or brown.
But even in the midst of unity, Korean-Americans were split on how to move forward. Some Korean-American political groups identified as Democratic and viewed the riots as a result of failed communication. They wanted work closer with other minorities and develop a better dialogue. Other Korean-American groups went Republican, believing that the best way to prevent another riot was law, order and a generous interpretation of the Second Amendment. The opposing decisions were driven by a fundamental disagreement on race: Are Koreans closer to black than white? Or closer to white than black?
It was a question the United States itself was asking since the 1700s, from when the first shipwrecked Filipinos settled in Louisiana, and again when the Chinese began arriving in the thousands during the California Gold Rush.
After the riots, Korean-Americans — and by extension, all East Asian-Americans — were both and neither. There was little consideration of seeing Asian-Americans as a unique group, partly because the term itself encompassed hundreds of different cultures originating from Asia, but also due to the close proximity that Asian-Americans had to both white and black populations. As Asian-American economic mobility improved, Asian-Americans gained access to white suburbs are schools, but their small businesses still served predominantly black and Latino customers.
This vague position in America’s racial hierarchy was exemplified in 1995, when Gary Locke, a third-generation Chinese-American lawyer who grew up in a public housing project, announced his campaign for governor of Washington State.
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