The LA riots, 25 years laterA quarter-century has passed since South Los Angeles went up in flames on April 29, 1992. I still vividly remember the day. The peaceful summer city was beset by mass riots, looting and fires as if it were a war zone. The city streets were at the mercy of unruly rioters and looters due to the absence of police.
The acquittal of police officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King triggered riots by the African-American community. The riots were joined by Latino looters and stretched to Koreatown and as far as the Hollywood. The Korean-American community was made the primary target, especially after a Korean shopkeeper who had shot a black customer to death also received a light sentence. Of the $100 million in total property damage, 40 percent centered on the businesses of Korean immigrants.
What went up in flames along with their stores was also their American dream. The Korean-American community, which had kept to themselves without any endeavor of raising their political voice, got little help from U.S. law enforcement officers.
Some shopkeepers had to arm themselves to protect whatever was left in their stores and fired blank shots in order to keep away looters. The scenes came under the spotlight of U.S. media outlets, which painted them as troublemakers instead of victims.
The April 29 incident became a watershed moment for the Korean-American community. The year also marked a century since the first Korean immigrants arrived in the United States. The incident changed the fundamental mind-set of the Korean-American community.
The U.S. media has been issuing special editions to look back on the LA riots. To them, the event was mostly a problem between the black and white communities. Korean-Americans, who had been the biggest victims, were still neglected and regarded as potential dangers arming themselves to protect their shops.
Racial discrimination and flawed capitalism triggered the riots in Los Angeles. It was the first and biggest civil and multiracial disturbance in the United States in which Koreans were deeply involved, yet the mainstream media still looks back on it as fundamentally a conflict between black and white.
By the 1980s, Korean-Americans occupied most of the commercial districts that had traditionally been held by African Americans, and conflicts between the two populations emerged as a serious problem. Korean shops became primary targets of looting and were damaged by violence. After the smoke cleared, many never recovered and had to move to other regions. Their neighborhood has now been filled by other Asian, Middle Eastern and Latino populations.
Because many of the Korean-owned stores were severely damaged by burning and looting, African-American residents also suffered. They had to drive many miles to procure simple necessities like milk and diapers. The loss of Korean-American shops raised awareness of their role and place in the community and called for different attitudes and perspectives toward one another. Korean-American shopkeepers also realized how they had to learn to get along better with other community members.
Koreatown has survived this nightmarish crisis and turned into a tourist destination for visitors from all regions and countries. The younger generation has become deeply involved in multiracial alliances and campaigns, leading to the victory of David Ryu, the first Korean-American and second Asian-American elected to the Los Angeles City Council.
Korean-American immigrants had to experience challenges and conflict in a multiracial society. Korea itself is increasingly becoming multicultural and should draw lessons from the LA riots. If the Seoul government maintains its superficial approach and policies toward multicultural households and society, racial conflict and violence could one day surface just as it did in LA.
Many children of multiracial households leave school because they cannot endure the prejudice and discrimination against them. When they grow up isolated and find themselves stuck in poverty and deprivation, their anger and frustration could turn on society.
A small incident can trigger violence. The Korean government must immediately draw up a realistic outline and approach toward multiracial communities to prevent misfortune like the riots of Los Angeles.
Translated by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 27, Page 33
*The author is a professor of ethnic studies and founding director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at the University of California, Riverside.
Edward Taehan Chang