Family and Friends of Eddie Lee, the lone Korean American fatality of Saigu, marched at the Korean American peace rally the Saturday after the riots carrying Eddie’s portrait. Photo credit: Hyungwon Kang
‘IF YOU DON’T SPEAK UP, WHO ELSE WILL?’
Respected veteran journalist K.W. Lee, long dubbed Korean America’s community conscience, tasks the grandchildren of 4.29 with their generational mission.
by K.W. LEE
Twenty springs ago this month, for three days and nights South Central L.A. and the neighboring Koreatown burned, choked and wailed.
Come April 29, it’s that awful déjà vu time again, when I, as one-time editor of the lone English voice of Koreatown, the Korea Times Weekly, return to the fiery mob siege of the L.A. riots.
I was literally born again in the ashes of this nation’s first media-fanned bogus race war pitting minorities against each other in the seething inner cities of Los Angeles. At a time of escalating drive-by gang wars, I received a donor’s liver, a “perfect young liver” belonging to a local homicide victim. As I gained a new lease on life, I felt a new calling, inspired by 18-year-old Eddie Lee, who died answering the call of Korean merchants under siege and ignored by police on the second night of the riots. I hear Eddie, a child of Koreatown under siege, beckon, “If you don’t speak up, who else will?”
Hear me out, you twentysomething generation, grandchildren of post-Saigu.
Korean Americans call this urban conflagration Saigu (translating as 4-2-9) to commemorate their baptism by firebombing, looting and mayhem in their adopted country. Saigu, if nothing else, remains but the latest reminder of recurring ethnic cleansings and scapegoating that six million overseas Koreans have suffered in the century-old diaspora stretching north to Manchuria, Siberia, Tashkent and the Sakhalin and across the seas east to Hawaii, the mainland U.S.A., Mexico’s Yucatan Territory and Cuba. How easily time and the people of han (everlasting woe) forget.
Long gone with the L.A. smog is your immigrant grandparents’ generation who watched their elusive American dream go up in smoke overnight, along with your parents’ generation, the children of Saigu, still in their tender years.
It doesn’t matter where you were, young or old, here or there across the ocean; today’s diasporic Koreans are all bound together by, and mocked by, our unacceptable palja (fate).
Of all places on earth, they met their own latter-day pogrom in the City of Angels. Saigu wrecked more than 2,300 mom and pop businesses, and uprooted 10,000 plus immigrant lives, to the tune of almost half of the city’s $1 billion loss in property damage alone—a rush-job estimate by nongovernmental service agencies that administered immediate relief. If ever honestly computed, total damages to Korean Americans including human costs should easily reach a billion or more.
No matter. These struggling and stumbling urban grunts with no voice or power were burned out, maimed, robbed and—to add insult to the wounds—blamed, harassed and punished for the firestorm as “mean, greedy and gun-toting Korean merchants.”
Hear me out, grandchildren of 4.29.
Upon sobering reflection, I dare say that our Saigu didn’t explode on that date.
Long before, since the 1980s, these impassive Korean mom and pop storekeepers, along with their long-suffering, stoic black and Latino neighbors, have been living dangerously every waking hour, seven days a week, all year around in America’s own killing fields. The year prior to the eruption, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, the Koreatown district recorded 2,500 robberies, 48 murders, 2,165 assaults, 6,270 auto thefts and burglaries, and 1,937 general thefts—one of the most violent police districts in the state and the nation.
As the editor of both Koreatown Weekly (1979-1984) and Korea Times Weekly (1990-1992), both based in L.A., I’ve covered too many hourly shootings and robberies and attended too many funerals not to be outraged, awed and, above all, renewed by these newcomers who seemed to thrive on adversity without rancor.
Sitting on the smoldering volcano for decades, the powers that be—City Hall, the LAPD, the district attorney, courts, County Sheriff and the media complex—were utterly unprepared for the multiethnic, multiracial and multicultural explosion, signaling a radical departure from the enduring black/white paradigm since the start of this republic. Equally swept into the man-made Katrina were the established leaders among the communities of color—black, brown and yellow—who had stubbornly refused to break out of their own tribal box in the city’s volatile there’s-no-ethnic-majority chemistry.
What’s worse, they are still in denial when it comes to redressing the 4.29 lessons, despite their perennial public posturing and resolutions.
Remember, grandchildren of 4.29. It was the English-speaking children of 4.29 victims, in their teens and 20s who, along with their voiceless immigrant parents, almost overnight organized the nation’s largest Asian rally and march of more than 30,000 demonstrators, with a sprinkling of young blacks, Latinos, Asians and whites the weekend following three days of fires, chaos and violence.
Where were the established Asian American leaders in governments and advocacy organizations? Where were the so-called African American civil rights leaders? The much vaunted pan-Asian unity turned out to be empty rhetoric. Little wonder, both blacks and Latinos still remain in the dark as to the subterranean predicament of their Asian immigrant neighbors.
In this vacuum, Saigu marked the power structure’s knee-jerk divide-and-rule way of successfully diverting black anger in the aftermath of the acquittal of the four white cops from their Rodney King beatings charges, to the single “black-Korean conflict” in the most diverse metropolis of the globe with 100 different ethnic/language groups.
Even before Korean and African Americans had a chance to get to know each other, with their common struggles and sorrows of the past, both groups watched themselves pitted against each other as unpaid players in the Roman arena of shouting sound bites and screaming “Black-Korean conflict” headlines on the TV screens and the almighty Los Angeles Times.
Since the launching of the English-language Korea Times Weekly in 1990 to help avert the gathering fire storm, I came to bear witness to America’s first media-fanned urban mob assault on a seemingly thriving tribe of “all-look-alike” Asian newcomers in the poverty-crime-ridden districts.
Every time the “Black vs. Korean” headlines in the newspaper and sound bites on TV screens coughed, the wretched Korean storekeepers caught the deadly gunfire and firebombs. A University of Southern California study identified up to 30 hate crime cases where Koreans were the victims and the suspect was black. The total number of cases peaked in 1991. “In no case could we locate any documentation of the reversed hate crime (black victim, Korean suspect),” the study said.
Yet, following the 1991 shooting death of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American customer, by Soon Ja Du, a Korean immigrant merchant, at Du’s liquor store in South Central L.A., how many times were TV viewers subjected to the same videotaped snippet showing Du shooting Harlins in the back, but not the violent scuffle between the two that preceded the shooting, in the days, weeks and months following the incident?
The lenient sentence of probation handed down to Du by a white judge would precede the acquittal of the LAPD officers in the King beating, and surely, that case proved a factor in the targeting of Korean-operated businesses on 4.29.
It was our man-made urban Katrina, yet 20 years later, it has simply vanished from the local and national memory in the aftermath of the natural Katrina, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ongoing stubborn recession. Simply ignored at all government levels were dire relief measures and findings from two federal commissions and several legislative hearings. The fervent recovery pledges from presidents to local politicians to civic and corporate leaders proved short-lived and empty.
Today’s Koreatown movers and shakers are in utter denial, too: Perish the thought of tens of thousands of these abandoned victims. And what’s so ominous is the deafening disengagement of the American-educated, first- and second-generation elites secure in their professional fields when it comes to the lives of struggling fellow grunts in the tense urban trenches. To fill this void, only the painfully familiar faces of a splendid few professionals would share the burden of thankless community service and critical coalition efforts.
More troubling is the state of mind of our third generation. Most of your peers don’t even know or care what Saigu is or means. It’s too late to lay the blame on any party but our unacceptable palja. Koreans may be admired for our work ethic, drive and stamina, but we stand guilty of a lack of collective memory and consciousness.
Since Saigu, I’ve been on the road, sharing these haunting 10 questions with thousands of students and activists in classrooms, summer retreats, conferences and workshops, and at age 83, it is my parting shot, to you who carry the 4.29 legacy:
1. At the time of the riots, L.A. County Sheriff Sherman Block (now deceased) and the local FBI chief publicly vowed to prosecute alleged massive civil rights violations against the Korean victims, but nothing happened. Why?
2. The LAPD (under the command of the late Police Chief Daryl Gates) refused to respond to desperate pleas for help from merchants and residents under attack for the first crucial two days of the riots. Instead they chose to draw the line of defense along the back of Koreatown in the affluent West Los Angeles. Why?
3. The LAPD (today’s reformed LAPD is day-and-night different from the old) knew through its extensive anti-gang task force sources—and it was open street talk—that several gangs, especially Crips, Bloods, Mexican Mafia, 18th Street Gangs, were plotting to wreak havoc on Korean stores in South Central and Koreatown to exact revenge for the 1991 shooting death of Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, if the officers accused of beating Rodney King were found “not guilty.” Why didn’t the LAPD pursue these intelligence reports on the targeting of Korean merchants?
4. The LAPD prepared contingency plans in case of the acquittal of the four cops in the King beating trial. What happened to those plans?
5. During the violent few days of 4.29, the LAPD herded rampaging mobs like stampeding cattle into Koreatown through Western, Normandie and Vermont. LAPD guardians just watched the mob looting and shooting, but arrested armed Korean defenders who were under assault. Why and under whose orders?
6. Which party (the LAPD, the District Attorney’s office or TV news outlets) altered the surveillance videotape from Empire Market (owned by the Du family) to show only the last few seconds of the tape, in which Du was seen shooting Harlins in the back, but not show the previous three blows to the grocer by Harlins, who knocked the storeowner to the floor each time? The LAPD released the year-old incendiary tape to the news media, despite objections of the city’s human relations commission.
7. The chilling video of the store shooting rolled on in fits and spurts in tandem with the videotaped King beating right up to and during the riots. Who was responsible for showing only the shortened version? Many Korean storekeepers were killed in the previous years, but they were ignored in the local news.
8. Many Korean riot victims were insured by offshore firms, with no sufficient assets to pay and by non-admitted carriers, not subject to the State Department of Insurance’s supervision. More than half of them were either underinsured or insured by such off-shore insurance firms. The department did little or nothing to probe numerous complaints by the victimized or help recover claims. Why?
9. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) was a big joke among the victims. Only a fraction of the applicants were helped, and many victims lost their homes and businesses through foreclosures and repossessions. How did FEMA get away with helping so little?
10. Only a fraction of the looted or burned convenience stores were able to reopen their shops through the hearing process after the L.A. City Council imposed prohibitive conditions on re-applicants for licenses. What happened to those who couldn’t reopen their stores?
Fear not, grandchildren of Saigu. Not all is gloom and doom for the people of han.
Throughout my marathon journey of beating the Saigu drum for the victims, I’ve run into a handful of young people steadfastly engaged in coalition efforts in major Koreatowns across the continent. I see a spreading network of young activists of all colors in hoods, churches and campuses working beyond the traditional ethnic boundaries for their common goals. I am proud to call them the magnificent “One Percents,” to borrow iconic black liberator W. E. B. DuBois’ mantra “Talented Tenth” of America’s freed slaves at the dawn of the last century.
Come the fire next time, your third (samsae) generation is destined to become the first and last line of defense for the immigrant generation of silence and sacrifice, as your older English-speaking generation demonstrated in the last fire of Saigu.
Your generational mission calls for restoring the truth, the honor and the humanity to the nameless and faceless 4.29 victims, as did the grandchildren of the Holocaust and the Japanese American grandchildren of the (internment) camps in the 1980s.
It took more than 40 years of dogging the trails of the Nazi murderers and digging the Nazi archives to set the record straight for the whole of humanity to witness. Their undying legacy: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the nation’s capital and a network of memorial museums of tolerance across the nation.
So did a handful of sansei (grandchildren) activist lawyers, exposing the government cover-up of the fact that Japanese Americans were never engaged in subversive activities prior to Japan’s sneak Pearl Harbor attack. Their marathon truth quest led to the historic 1988 Civil Liberties Act and a national apology from Congress and President Ronald Reagan. Its crowning jewel: the Japanese American National Museum in the heart of L.A.’s Little Tokyo.
I’ve practiced my trade as an investigative reporter for a half-century. I feel it. I sense it. The Saigu truth has been buried deep in the bowels of local, state and federal bureaucracies.
Seeing is believing. While L.A. County’s sprawling government apparatus slumbers in its post-4.29 collective amnesia, a tiny 10-member band of college interns in recent years sounded an alarming wake-up call with its eye-opening “Remember Saigu” roundtable report on the unresolved issues of the riots. The overwhelming message: Nothing or little has been addressed since a post-riots victims’ assessment by the Korean American Inter-Agency Council 19 years ago.
This research team led by Allen Kim, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Irvine, emerged from an annual summer program called the Korean American Youth Leaders in Training to prepare future leaders toward improving the quality of the post-riots inner cities. The program—founded by One-Percenter Do Kim, a son of Saigu and now civil rights attorney—remains, dare I say, one of the few institutionalized legacies of 4.29.
This team of young people has initially found little or no information in its search for critical data on far-ranging fronts. The next mission: uncovering the 4.29-related secret records through state and federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
If the past Jewish and Japanese American experience is any indication, it spells a long, tortuous drive for your generation. But I can only hope that you, too, hear our fallen Eddie Lee beckoning: If not you, then who?
K.W. Lee, whose award-winning careers spans 50 years as an investigative reporter, editor and publisher in mainstream and ethnic journalism, writes from Sacramento, Calif. Lee will be speaking at an all-day symposium on Saturday, April 28, sponsored by the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies. Click here for more info.
This article was published in the April 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!