Posted on May 4, 2020

‘This Was America’s First Multi-Ethnic Riots’: 1992 in LA Remembered by Eyewitnesses Through Lens of Race

Andrew Buncombe, Independent, May 4, 2020

Kim Park was aged 12 and worked as a cashier in a bullet-proof booth at her mother’s petrol station in Compton when the Los Angeles riots erupted.

After her father died and her mother decided to sell a number of his franchises, she decided to hold onto the one in the historic black neighbourhood, south of the city centre. It survived, but only narrowly.

“The racism and the events leading up to the riots were multi-faceted,” says Park, now aged 40. “The riots were America’s first multi-ethnic riots. Prior to this we were always looking at things from a black-white paradigm.”

While the role on the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King in triggering the riots is well known, less widely appreciated was the impact of the shooting dead of a black teenager, Latasha Harlins, by a Korean-American storekeeper on 16 March, 1991, less than two weeks after video was broadcast of the beating of King.

Tensions between the Asian-American and black communities had been worsening for decades, says Park. The passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act made it much easier for people from Asia to move to the US, resulting in many cities seeing large demographic shifts.

In Los Angeles, as Park details in her 2017 book Memoir of a Cashier: Korean Americans, Racism, and Riots, Korean-Americans had faced discrimination from African Americans because they were seen as a “buffer” between blacks and the hegemonic white community.

She says the racism that prevented African-Americans rising in the corporate sector also stopped Korean-Americans. Instead, pressured to pursue the “American dream”, many opened businesses as an alternative, including in a number of traditionally black neighbourhoods. “They come in and they set up their shops and there are cultural differences and there’s miscommunication,” she says.

She adds: “They were being basically blamed. And they took the brunt of this blame. And when the LA riots broke out, this was the frustration that was vented towards the Korean community, whose businesses were targeted and torched and burnt down and damaged.”

In the violence that ensured after the April 29 court ruling, says Park, of 4,000 business that were destroyed, around 2,300 belonged to Korean-Americans. Of the estimated $1bn of damage perpetrated, 40 per cent was inflicted on Asian-Americans, who armed themselves and formed self-help groups as the police failed for days to stop the killing and looting.

Edward Chang, professor of ethnic studies and founding director of the Young Oak Kim Centre for Korean American studies at the University of California, Riverside, says “Korean-Americans suffered disproportionately high economic losses”.

Park, herself a researcher at the University of California, says among her most powerful memories of the period was phoning a friend one night who lived near their petrol station to see if it was still standing.

“She was like, ‘Well, let me look out the window’. And I could see her being very cautious because you know, you don’t want to get hit by a random bullet or draw attention to yourself. And she looked out the window and she said ‘It’s still there, but it looks like something across the street is burning’.”

Park says the relationship with African-Americans has altered as the demographics of Compton and other neighbourhoods have shifted and become more Latino. Another reason is that Korean Americans have become more politically active.

“Prior to the LA riots, Korean-Americans were not as visible. They were not as politically active. He did not have a voice. But after the riots, we realised we must have that voice. And that meant getting involved with politics, coalition building,” she says.

“Today if you look at the Korean-American community, we are visible. We are in politics. David Ryu is the fist person of Korean descent on the LA city council.”

Other things, she say, remain unaltered.

“When we come to talk about racial strife, has that changed? I would say, in general, no, we have not learned the lessons of racism. Structural racism, institutionalised racism, and all these various things within our communities,” she says.

“If you look at our current climate, especially given the pandemic, and the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, that gives us all the answers we need. We are just going back to the days of yellow peril, when we viewed Asian-Americans as a threat. So has racism changed? No. I think it’s still an issue and we have a long way to go before we can actually fix this.”