The George Floyd Protests in Los Angeles, And Memories of the 1992 Riots

June 22, 2020 § Leave a comment


After George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, large-scale protests began in Hollywood, the Fairfax district and downtown Los Angeles. These were met by a heavy police presence that failed to prevent looting and burning, and by May 30 Los Angeles was locked down by curfews that continued until June 4. The screenshots above, from the June 1 protest on Sunset Blvd. between Vine and Gower Streets in Hollywood, show large formations of police in riot gear advancing on protesters. Because all of this took place only a couple of miles from my house, watching it on TV was frightening and surreal. It was also gut-wrenchingly familiar.

Because I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over thirty years, memories of of the LA Riots came rushing back. But this time felt different, because it was different: in contrast to 1992, the outrage was national, and even international. And the fact that this year’s protests and property damage were spread across Los Angeles County made it impossible for people in places like Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles to ignore them and their cause: police brutality against people of color.

In 1992 I lived in a different neighborhood: Hancock Park, a wealthy HPOZ with a high crime rate and an atavistic Frederick Law Olmstead plan: sweeping front lawns with no front fences or gates allowed except on Rossmore Avenue, a major thoroughfare. Even in the best of times Hancock Park is surrounded by gang territory, and its location–flat, centrally located and well-served by public transportation–is a magnet. Hancock Park also lies on the borders of Koreatown, which in April of 1992 erupted over the unpunished murder of the teenaged Latasha Harlins by a Korean liquor store owner. Korean-American stores were looted, fires broke out, and for days my young son and I listened to gunfire and smelled acrid smoke. Aside from the fear and uncertainty, what I remember most vividly are the phone calls from Westside friends lamenting our “dangerous” neighborhood and inviting us to shelter in their “safe” ones. Because this us-against-them sentiment was widespread and the physical damage from the Riots was not, Los Angeles soon returned to business as usual.

This time, as the plywood comes off the buildings and the protests wane, Los Angeles has another chance to change. Mayor Garcetti’s decision to divert $150 million for the LAPD’s budget and redirect the money toward housing, health care and gang intervention is a step that should have been taken in 1992, when reforms consisted of weeding out the most egregiously violent cops and hoping the younger ones didn’t follow in their head-cracking footsteps. If, going forward, mental health and homeless problems are handled by social workers, police officers will be able to fight crime instead of tackling crises they weren’t trained for, with sometimes fatal outcomes. At any rate, that’s the idea. As a citizen whose encounters with LAPD have been met with indifference at best, and who has never had a crime against her pursued despite pleas and ample evidence (fingerprints, video footage, license plates, and positive identification), I welcome any signs of progress.

Related post:
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-lessons-of-429-how-the-la-riots-transformed-the-korean-american-community/

The Lessons of 4/29: How the LA Riots Transformed the Korean-American Community

May 6, 2012 § 4 Comments

A Burning Mini-Mall at Western Avenue and 6th Street, April 29, 1992/Copyright Hyungwon Kang

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.

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