From Police Brutality to Uprisings
Police brutality against urban populations was heavily documented in the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, especially in minority communities, and in the 1980s and 1990s, it would enter popular media as a part of the American landscape. The resultant pent up resentment at continued oppression would lead to one of the most violent riots in the history of the civil rights movement: the L.A. Riots, or the 1992 L.A. Uprising.
In the Korean community, the riots became known as Sa-I-Gu (4/29), for the date they began. This title was created because much of the violence was concentrated around Koreatown, a neighborhood located on the west side of MacArthur Park, and Downtown L.A., where 2,000 Korean-owned businesses were vandalized and looted. This fact continues to be a point of division for many Koreans who are reluctant to be involved with Black Lives Matter initiatives today.
What Were the L.A. Riots?
The 1992 L.A. Riots were a series of disturbances that originated in South-Central Los Angeles, taking place from April 29th, 1992 to May 4th, 1992. They led to 63 dead, over 2,000 injured, 12,000 arrested, and almost $1 billion in damages done. This time would become known as the most destructive US civil disturbance in the 20th century.
The events were directly triggered by the Rodney King verdict, which came out on April 29th, 1992.
Almost a year before the riots, the California Highway Patrol pulled Mr. King over for a speeding ticket. He led the patrol on a high speed chase but eventually stopped his car in front of an apartment building. Four L.A.P.D. officers, later identified as Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, Officer Theodore J. Briseno, Officer Timothy E. Wind, and Officer Laurence Powell, took control of the traffic stop and beat Mr. King as George Holliday, an apartment resident, filmed the incident (trigger warning: police brutality). Mr. Holliday reported what happened to local news, and the story spread. Analysts showed that the L.A.P.D. had struck Mr. King with their batons over fifty times, kicked him in the head, and tased him. Furthermore, Police Chief Daryl Gates initially joked about the Rodney King assault, stating that “If it wasn’t for our helicopters the lighting would’ve been horrible.”
The four officers were charged with assault and the use of excessive force for the beating but would all be acquitted of their charges in criminal court. Even with racial tensions already heightened, this verdict was handed down by a primarily white jury, with one Hispanic member and one Asian member represented. The country was shocked by both the video and the verdict, and the response was heard around the world.
The resultant rage and hurt were vented in the only way left to get the public’s attention. During the riots, Chief Gates was slow to deploy L.A.P.D. to affected areas, and once deployed, they only acted as a barricade to prevent the riot from spreading into the surrounding, predominately white areas. For example, L.A. resident Terri Barnett later recalled her rescue of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was assaulted during the chaos while police cars drove past and refused to help. Despite Chief Gates’s assurances that “everything was under control,” Governor Pete Wilson called to deploy the National Guard on April 29th. On April 30th, 2,000 National Guardsmen were deployed. Mayor Wilson requested another 6,000 troops later that same evening. It was not until May 3rd that the marines were deployed, but by then the streets were relatively calm. The state of emergency was lifted on May 4th; however, the lasting damage had already been done.
At the end of the riots, a commission headed by former FBI and CIA Director William Webster concluded that the L.A.P.D. and City Hall leaders did not plan appropriately for the possibility of riots prior to the verdicts in the King case. Following the riots, Chief Gates would be forced to resign. Sgt. Koon and Officer Powell would receive 30 months in federal court for violation of Mr. King’s civil rights. Officer Wind would be fired from the L.A.P.D. as would Officer Briseno.
Tension had been mounting in the Black community over the one year trial of the four officers indicted for brutalizing Mr. King. However, what had appeared to be an open and shut case of unnecessary force became a detailed look at the law enforcement system and the lengths officers would go to in order to protect their own.
Why Did the L.A. Riots Happen?
The country was shocked by the outbreak of violence that occurred during the riots; however, Los Angeles had been a hotbed of racial tension for some time leading up to April 29th, 1992. For decades prior to the L.A. Riots, hostilities between white and Black residents, as well as between the Black community and the police, had been rising.
Most significantly, racial hostility almost seems to be part of the makeup of modern L.A. Years before, in 1965, violence erupted in the Watts neighborhood after a Black motorist was arrested for drunk driving, as claims of excessive police brutality spread throughout the area. The ensuing events, known as the Watts Riots or the Watts Rebellion, continued for six days and resulted in 34 deaths and 1,000 injuries in the span of six days, until the National Guard was called in to regain control of the city as thousands were arrested. During this time, police officers were regularly recruited from southern states, where Jim Crow laws were largely still in effect. The tone these officers set then continued as new officers joined the force. Martin Luther King Jr., after a visit to Watts, said that there “is a unanimous feeling that there has been police brutality.”
During the Watts Riots, L.A.P.D. Police Chief William H. Parker ignored local requests for more Black police and fanned flames by deriding rioters as “monkeys in a zoo” after they threatened to move toward white neighborhoods. Of the 34 killed, 26 were at the hands of L.A.P.D., who deemed the deaths justifiable. After calm was restored, the governor requested a special commission to report on the causes of the uprising, known as the McCone Commission. It pointed to racial segregation due to Proposition 14 and the recruitment of southern police officers who harbored racist attitudes toward the Black and Hispanic communities. The riots resulted in the passing of the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which effectively ended segregated housing in California. However, the Watts Rebellion continues to be pointed to today as one of the most destructive riots in American history.
The hostilities between the police and the Black community as well as between the Black and white communities did not end after the Watts Riots. Rather, they festered over the following decades as poverty continued to flourish in South-Central Los Angeles. These neighborhoods were largely ignored by mainstream papers. Black publishers spread articles on issues like housing discrimination and inequitable employment. What started in the post-war era as a series of laws aiming to control a growing African American population actually grew worse as civil rights courts demanded an end to segregation. Andrea Gibbons, author of City of Segregation and urban geographer, points out that “[t]he fact that people still kept fighting is quite amazing, but it’s a frightening thought that things became even more segregated through the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s than they ever had been.” This legacy continues today, with Los Angeles as the 10th most segregated metropolitan area in the US.
In addition, through the 1980s, the struggles of Black Americans became more stigmatized as images of violent Black Americans spread on TV, fueling negative stereotypes. A report published by the Howard Journal of Communications informs us that “in one of the earliest examinations of African American portrayals, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1977) found that African American television portrayals typically depicted the following stereotypic personality characteristics: inferior, stupid, comical, immoral, and dishonest. Dates (1990) later noted that other stereotypes of African Americans existed, including disrespectful, violent, greedy, ignorant, and power-driven.” With popular new shows like Cops, these media perceptions have impacted the viewpoints of white Americans, including those in the police force, from then until today.
Since the Watts Rebellion, police brutality continued to permeate Black neighborhoods, which continued to be the most heavily policed areas in L.A. Allegations against the L.A.P.D. for use of excessive force and misconduct were found in the Christopher Commission Investigations soon after the L.A. Riots. These allegations were regularly discussed in the rap and hip hop communities, most notably by N.W.A., Tupac, and Ice Cube. Albums like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Fear of the Black Planet” began to make their way into popular music streams. Songs like “F* the Police” and “Trapped” did not hold back on their criticism of the police and of the prison system. Over 2,000 reports of police brutality were made in 1991 and 1992, and many hoped the Rodney King trial would be a cathartic moment with police being held accountable and the community seeing justice. This was not the case.
However, this incident was not the only trial that the Black community in L.A. was watching. In the time after the Rodney King video was released, there had been multiple killings of Black residents by those outside their community. This violence would lead to further hostilities from the Korean American community as Korean grocery store owners committed violence against Black customers with little to no punishment.
Finally, nine months before the riots broke out, a Los Angeles Times survey of almost 1,500 city residents of mixed heritage showed that 70 percent of them supported reforms for police. Responses pointed at racism and excessive use of force as reasons for a rift between police and the Black community. It is likely that perceptions shown in this survey were informed by two recent changes in the law. In 1983, the Supreme Court decided not to indict officers who used a chokehold following a routine traffic stop. People were also critical of L.A.P.D. Chief Gates at the time because of controversial remarks, such as “[B]lacks were more likely to die when placed in police chokeholds because their arteries did not reopen as quickly as those of ‘normal people.'” Only after sixteen victims (12 of them Black men) were killed did the city ban chokeholds. Chief Gates was aggressive in his approach to law enforcement and is credited with developing the local SWAT team, employing the use of helicopters, and using the CRASH unit in Operation Hammer, which conducted multiple raids in “problematic” neighborhoods to reduce gang-related violence.
Additionally, in 1988, the city of L.A. began to investigate its own sheriff’s department. Years later, in 1992, there was still no result as residents waited to see how the force would police itself.
Long before the L.A. Riots broke out, the issues of police brutality and discriminatory laws were ignored by city officials. Even after the civil rights movement, de facto racism reared its head as systematic discrimination sank deeper into the makeup of the city.
Key Players and the Aftermath
On May 1, 1992, Rodney King broke his silence with a speech to end the violence.
People, I just want to say, you know, can we all JUST get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? … It’s just not right. It’s not right. It’s not, it’s not going to change anything. We’ll, we’ll get our justice … Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to work it out.
Mr. King was one of the few Black voices to make it to public airways in the aftermath of the riots. Instead of being interviewed, many were silenced as the media pushed images of fires, looters, and guns without the context of years of abuse. Sylvester Monroe, a Black reporter, stated, “I wrote about the rage and frustration I shared with the protesters and sent it to my editors. The only response I received was, ‘That’s really intense.’ Time did not publish it. It was later published in the NABJ Journal, the newspaper of the National Association of Black Journalists.’”
Blame was leveled against all parts of the Black community. The city’s first Black mayor, Tom Brady, had previously served five terms, but would not run for another after 1992. He was largely criticized for being unable to contain the riots.
In addition, there were no Hispanic representatives to voice their concerns over the increasing violence in their neighborhood. East L.A. had been the primary settlement for the Latinx community, but there was a growing influx into the South-Central neighborhoods as well.
The 1990 census showed that South-Central Los Angeles was 45 percent Hispanic and 48 percent Black. Both communities were underrepresented in local politics and the police force, and both also faced economic hardships associated with racial discrimination. During the riots, the Latinx community was also underrepresented in the media. A major barrier was language, which was the same reason for a lack of Korean representation in the media at the time. As many were recent immigrants to the neighborhood, only a portion could speak English.
The arrest ratio of the riots was 51 percent Latinx. Hispanic community members spoke out, holding that the community was venting their frustration as they were accepted by neither the white community nor the Black community. Frustration from economic hardships complicated by immigration issues sparked their involvement as well. However, there is, unfortunately, very little research done on the role of the Latinx community in the riots.
After the riots, the city banded together and rebuilt. Communities that had little connection worked cooperatively to recreate their neighborhood, and, in the aftermath of the riots, a commission was created to evaluate the L.A.P.D. It went on to condemn widespread brutality. Reporter Sandy Banks, who has followed the situation since April 29th until today, states that, with efforts extending over the years, the discovery of drug-dealing, corruption, evidence planting, and brutality in the police force has led to reforms in the police. However, though the struggle to end police violence continues today.
Banks adds, “Ultimately, the riots led to the end of the L.A.P.D.’s lifetime-tenure for police chiefs, the creation of a civilian oversight board, and changes in recruitment and training that paved the way for ‘community policing’ and called upon officers to act as guardians, not warriors.”
Why Were Korean Americans Involved in the L.A. Riots?
Tensions between Black and Korean Americans had been growing for years throughout the country.
As Koreans moved to the United States in greater numbers following the Immigration Act of 1965, they created their own racially homogeneous neighborhoods known as “Koreatowns” in low-rent areas and hired workers from their own communities. In other words, Korean shop owners, whose foreign degrees and certifications did not qualify them for opportunities in the US, began opening businesses in Black areas in major urban centers around the U.S. Hostilities began quickly as misperceptions and misunderstandings grew.
Laura Vanderkam from City Journal speaks on the Korean immigrant experience in her descriptions of New York, noting that “The Koreans also struggled to make sense of the low-income, high-crime black [sic] neighborhoods where they worked, such as Harlem, Flatbush, and Jamaica. Facing labor-market barriers, Korean immigrants had started their own businesses and then worked long hours to support their families. Wondering why their customers failed to take similar steps and fearful of the violent robberies that a 24-hour grocery could attract, many developed suspicious attitudes toward blacks [sic].”
For Black Americans, Korean Americans and other immigrants often represented oppressive forces that directly impacted their daily lives. Suspicion of violence and theft, refusal to employ African Americans, and stereotypes about the Black community stemming from media depictions all worked together to create a rift between these two communities. Furthermore, in L.A., few Korean Americans lived in the communities where their businesses were located, creating a greater feeling of division. African Americans saw first- and second-generation Korean immigrants as taking money from them while investing little back into the neighborhood.
From the 1980s, advocate groups encouraged Black residents to boycott their local Korean grocers, culminating in the infamous 17-month-long Red Apple boycott in New York City.
In L.A., this drama reached its height in the 1991 shooting of Latasha Harlins. Soon Ja Du, a Korean grocery store owner with a reputation for accusing neighborhood children of stealing, was working at the counter of her family-owned business, Empire Liquor. Normally, her husband and son worked at this location; however, gang members had recently threatened Mrs. Du’s son. So, on the morning of March 16th, Soon Ja and her husband, Billy Du, told their son to work at the family’s other store. Mrs. Du was managing Empire Liquor alone after her husband went outside to nap in the family van because he had worked late the night before. When Latasha Harlins approached the counter with $2.00 and a bottle of orange juice in hand, Mrs. Du did not see the money and grabbed Miss Harlins’s backpack. She assumed Miss Harlins was attempting to steal from her store. The fifteen-year-old Harlins pushed Mrs. Du away; however, the store owner returned with a shotgun and killed Latasha Harlins. Soon Ja Du was given five years probation and a $400 dollar fine for the crime. The sentence shocked the Black community, who felt they had been, yet again, denied justice.
The same year, Tae Sam Park killed a Black man named Lee Arthur Mitchell in an argument over store prices and was acquitted of the crime. To make matters worse, two Korean immigrants were killed by suspected Black gang members around the same time as well.
Once the L.A. Riots began, Black protesters began to march. However, police blocked roads to wealthy white areas and independent neighborhoods like Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. One L.A. Riot survivor, now a Koreatown lawyer, explains, “It was containment. The police cut off traffic out of Koreatown, while we were trapped on the other side without help. Those roads are a gateway to a richer neighborhood. It can’t be denied.”
Abandoned by police, Korean Americans rose to action during the L.A. Riots to defend their businesses from looting. Using a local radio tower, they spread information on where to go in order to stop the violence around them. In the end, 50 people were killed, more than 2,300 were injured, and thousands were arrested. $1 billion was done in property damage, $400 million of this concentrated on Korean businesses.
As always, responses to tragedy are mixed, and this appears in the Korean American community as well. Activists took a step back to look at the L.A. Riots’ causes and began to publish reports about systemic racism in American culture. The moment shocked the Korean American community, which was largely left to fend for itself in the aftermath of racial violence. Rose M. Kim, Ph.D. and Associate Professor of Social Sciences, Human Services, and Criminal Justice, notes that Korean Americans were scapegoated as the cause of Black rage when it was issues stemming from centuries of oppression that truly created the riots. As a result, activism grew in the Korean American community and more understanding between first- and second-generation immigrants was achieved. However, animosity continues to exist between communities as people refer back to the violence of the L.A. Riots. This animosity is sometimes used by Korean Americans as a reason to avoid supporting the BLM movement or participating in racial justice discussions outside of their own community.
Why Do Koreans Still Talk About the L.A. Riots Today?
The Korean community suffered greatly during the L.A. Riots. Businesses were targeted by looters, and many families lost their livelihoods. Many of the shops in the primarily Black-Hispanic district were destroyed, and Korean Americans saw themselves as casualties of racial tensions, unrelated to themselves, boiled over.
In Korea, many people had only heard the Korean American narrative of the events that happened in L.A. Even with the coverage of the Latasha Harlins’s murder, many Koreans only saw the bruised face of Soon Ja Du, with no narrative of what had transpired at the scene.
Grace Lee, director of “K-Town ’92,” remembers hearing about the riots while she was in Korea.
“I was actually living in Korea at the time…It was so surreal to me because at that point I had never lived in Los Angeles, but I’d always heard about Koreatown… So suddenly, something that’s not me personally, but related to who I am and where I come from, is completely on fire. It was like a war happening. When I came back to the U.S. a few months later, everyone was talking about it. People were really trying to dig into this so-called ‘Black-Korean conflict.’”
Koreans remember this time as an attack on their community, and some use this as an excuse to not get involved in the racial struggles of the Black community. Predominantly, the older generation tends to have issues separating the tragedy of the riots from the racial issues that are still present today. They remember the coverage and still harbor a great deal of resentment toward the movement and what they believe it stands for: the destruction of non-Black communities.
Popular media reinforced this narrative as well. The only film created on the topic of the riots, Western Avenue, showcased the Black-Korean conflict, but then dismissed its involvement in the looting of Korean businesses. Korean scholars note that the film portrays its Black character preparing to rally before the Rodney King verdict is made. They further state that “The film instead complies with a popular perspective argued by Korean Americans during and after the riots: Korean Americans were set up as the scapegoat of African Americans’ anger against deep-rooted racial discriminations in the United States.”
During the riots and in their aftermath, the Korean American community also came together to support each other. Many Korean Americans felt abandoned by the police and government and argued the media attention they received did not reflect their community. Images of Korean Americans shooting from rooftops became part of the narrative about their community, which showed them as either hostile participants or as victims. This would lead to an increase in Korean American journalists and lawyers, as well as a rise in Korean American involvement in politics with the goal of influencing change in their neighborhood and the ability to tell their own stories.
This lack of contextualization is still present in the coverage of the 2020 protests, as news agencies report the damage to Korean-owned stores prior to or in place of comprehensive coverage of the George Floyd murder. Within the younger generation, many are supportive and are able to separate the two narratives of the riots. Asian Boss and their journalism on the topic of Black ex-pats and Black Lives Matter show that younger Koreans, as a whole, are more open to discussing racial issues. While there are some instances that contradict this, in general, young Koreans are more likely to engage in these conversations.
What Does This Mean for Black Lives Matter in 2020?
The L.A. Riots are often referenced in the Black Lives Matter movement today, and many similarities still exist.
In one similar instance, live coverage of the riots radicalizes the issue by focusing on the damage, without giving context to why the community is destroying property, or showing how broadly peaceful the protests actually are. In reality, over 90 percent of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests are peaceful, but media coverage focuses on property damage in an onslaught of sensationalized coverage.
In addition, anti-Black racism in Korean communities has become a focus of news coverage once again as small businesses are looted. Largely, these business owners are left to fend for themselves much like they did in 1992.
In the wake of the coronavirus, these issues seem to stand out as additional heartaches for individuals who are often struggling to get by in communities that face hardships daily. However, not all people see the issue in this light.
John H. Kim, a Korean American who both lived through the L.A. Riots and was looted in recent protests, puts the issues in perspective:
“What I recall feeling in 1992, and what I believe my nephew felt, is a sense that we are all pawns in a game that is fixed — the sense that our political system and our political leadership doesn’t care what happens to people of color, so long as whatever happens doesn’t affect their bottom line or power structures…
“So, let me say this as a person whose family had actual losses to rioters and looters: ‘Despair is dangerous,’ and, as [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] said, ‘a riot is the language of the unheard.’
“While there are reports of white-supremacist instigators fueling the flames of some of the unrest, there is no doubt that the sheer anger and frustration we’ve seen is a bubbling up of so many incidents of black [sic] lives being looted and destroyed, coupled with the lack of any rational and constructive way to affect the politics of today (elections are sometimes too few and far between).
“When the American president and his administration lies, deflects and fuels oppression, and when senators and representatives stand by in silence as the checks and balances that our forefathers brilliantly devised are systematically looted, what do we expect?”
It is these stories that should remind us that the current political and capitalist society continues to not only disenfranchise minorities, but also turns racial groups against each other. When discussing the L.A. Riots or the current protests, it is important to remember that there is no guide on how to express frustration and anger over inequality. It is also important to remember that the struggle for equality involves everyone. After all, the civil rights that Asian Americans enjoy in the US exist because of the struggle Black Americans undertook for their own rights.
In 1992, K.W. Lee wrote for the front page column of the Korea Times Weekly English Edition, “The mainstream media’s ignorance and sensationalism in black [sic]-Korean coverage has had a life-threatening impact on many fearful Koreans, contributing to the Lebanonization of the City of Angels, polarizing the two misunderstood groups, rather than healing and calming tensions.” Today we can remember these ideas as we examine conflicts with a more critical, vigilant eye.
Before the L.A. Riots, Korean Americans largely saw themselves as removed from mainstream society, firmly placed within their own communities, and uninvolved with what was taking place around them. The riots forced Korean Americans to reexamine their place as a minority, a recurring theme with the rise in racism against Asians due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Furthermore, the riots pushed the Korean American community together. 30,000 people, most of them Korean, marched in peace rallies to quell the tensions that remained after the riots ended.
The world has evolved with the rise of the internet, globalization, and the development of technology. People are more connected than ever before. In 2020, Asian Americans are growing as a political bloc, and politicians are beginning to reach out to them. In this time of civil discourse, it becomes urgent that oppressed people are given a platform to vocalize how the majority can aid in the cause or repair ancestral traumas that hinder healing and growth. The calls of BLM are calls that empower all Americans to strive to fight against historic systematic oppression and inequality.
There are many lessons from the L.A. Riots that can be applied to the Black Lives Matter movement of today, such as creating advocacy groups for minorities, unifying to combat mutual obstacles, and identifying the causes of systematic oppression. If the Korean community can adopt these lessons, then lasting change and unity can become a reality. If we as a multicultural society can harness them today, we can begin to make a difference for the future too.
For more information or to get involved in racial justice with Asian Americans, see the links below for various organizations to contact.
- The Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit
- Asian American Advancing Justice
- The Letters for Black Lives
- Asians for Black Lives
- Talking to your Asian immigrant family about race
- Black and Asian American Feminist Solidary
Writer: Sarah Smith
Editor: Angel Xavier
Copy Editor: Sarah Jane Singer
Translator: Hyeree Ellis
Korean Copy Editor: June Green Yang