The Lessons of 4/29: How the LA Riots Transformed the Korean-American Community
May 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
Last week’s anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots brought a flood of programming, all of which helped to bring the chaos of 1992 into historical perspective. Like others who lived through the events, I found myself remembering things I had suppressed during the intervening years, when moving on seemed more important than dwelling on the violence and terror of those days. One vaguely recalled memory, so frequently overshadowed by the Rodney King verdict, was the Riots’ other inciting incident: the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, a Korean convenience store owner, in March of 1991. Although Soon claimed self-defense in shooting the girl, an African-American high school student she had accused of stealing a carton of orange juice, she was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter in November of that year. The jury recommended a 16-year prison term, but Judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Soon to 5 years probation, with 400 of community service and a $500 fine. Outrage over the absurdly lenient sentence set the stage for violence. The King verdict the following April was like a match tossed on a pool of gasoline, and the city erupted.
Not surprisingly, Korean-owned businesses were heavily targeted by rioters. These included not only convenience stores in South Los Angeles but stores throughout downtown Los Angeles and Koreatown, particularly along Western Avenue from Pico to Beverly. At the time, I lived on the eastern edge of Hancock Park, at 6th and Bronson. Six blocks away, a half-dozen fires raged at strip malls along Western, including the one pictured above. Many stores that escaped the fires were vandalized and looted. Those of us who lived nearby were under curfew for several days, during which National Guard troops arrived in tanks. Heavily armed, they patrolled the streets and used the Masonic Temple on Wilshire as a garrison.
Amid the strangeness of this quasi-war zone, we resumed our daily lives. The kids went back to school and everyone adopted a keep-calm-carry-on attitude. One day several weeks later, my son and I visited a shoe store in the mini-mall at Wilshire and Grammercy, one that carried all the latest sneakers. It was owned by a young Korean couple, and the husband had gone out of his way to be friendly and kind to us. Now we were shocked to see him emerge from the stock room with a bruised face and broken arm, injuries suffered at the hands of looters. He seemed remarkably unembittered, but the business never recovered and closed six months later.
Among the commentary I heard last week, a statement by a Korean-American professor had particular resonance. Before the Riots, she said, Koreans immigrants in Los Angeles always referred to themselves as Koreans. Afterwards they began to refer to themselves as Korean-Americans, seeing themselves as part of the multi-cultural fabric of the city instead of a separate community. Though I hadn’t registered the shift, I remember a series of post-Riots meetings between Korean business owners and members of the African-American community, in which long-simmering cultural differences were discussed for the first time. One source of friction was the Korean store owners’ practice of putting their customers’ change on the counter instead of in their hands. That their customers universally regarded the practice as rude and racist was a revelation to the store owners, who were simply doing what they had done in Korea.
20 years later, it’s hard to describe the mood of distrust that simmered before the Riots, because it no longer exists. This is not to say that the different racial and ethnic communities live in perfect harmony: resentments still abound, but in a much more open and integrated atmosphere. If post-Riots Los Angeles had a civic motto, it would be We’re All In This Together.
For the Korean community, the Riots–still referred to as 4:29–were a shattering experience, but they also served to speed the inevitable and necessary process of assimilation. At the end of my block in Hancock Park, there stood an apartment building that was entirely occupied by Korean immigrant families. As I walked by with my dog each evening, I could hear–amid the sounds of household chores and music practice–kids screaming as their fathers administered stiff corporal punishments. As the ’90s went on, the music lessons continued unabated, but I no longer heard the beatings. Like the bullying my son endured at the hands of his Korean classmates, such punishment was a thing of the past.