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KoreAm Archive: On Forgetting and Remembering 4.29

Photograph by ©Hyungwon Kang.

To mark the 22nd anniversary of the Los Angeles riots this week, KoreAm has been releasing related stories from our archives. This story comes from our April 2002 issue.

MEMORY TRACE: ON FORGETTING AND REMEMBERING 4.29

A decade has passed since Los Angeles bore the nation’s largest social upheaval of the 20th century. It’s a time most of the city would rather forget.

by JOHN LEE

In the spring of 1992, Los Angeles shook in anger and fear as residents citywide did as the disaffected do when all hell and legal constraint break down and out. Prompted by not guilty verdicts in the trial of four white LAPD officers who beat into submission a troubled African American motorist named Rodney G. King, an enraged few in south Los Angeles and the city center vented their frustrations with the inequities of L.A. life.

During three days and nights of firebombing and looting, combatants also took to pummeling hapless victims who were snatched from sidewalks and traffic thoroughfares, and broke off the harshest street justice dealt by the fists and heels of fellow humans. Others took what they could as police forces stood down citywide.

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Separate terms have been applied to this moment in time by laypersons, street soljas, politicos and social scientists. Whether you identify with the concept of riot or civil unrest or insurrection or even urban rebellion, there is at least one truth that goes uncontested. Namely, that from April 29 to May 1, 1992, for the second time in the latter 20th century, Los Angeles imploded socially upon itself. And more than any other singular cause, the finger of blame extended toward what collectively we have come to know all-too-well: the city forgets.

 

Sure, memory snaps back once the ransacking commences. Visions of Watts in ’65 come racing. Or even the summer of ’66, which saw violent spasms in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and 40 other cities. Likewise Newark and Detroit in ’67. The following year, 1968, the same could be said of Memphis and 124 other urban centers, which burned after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. To be fair, it’s not just Los Angeles. At a given time, it seems, the entire nation has fallen susceptible to long-term memory loss.

As recently as last spring, a violent public response flared in Cincinnati under circumstances disturbingly familiar to the segment of American public that enjoys television access. An unarmed, 19-year-old African American man was shot and killed by a white officer. Yet the same set of concerns — police -sponsored violence and misconduct aligned with a racially suspect verdict in court — somehow eluded Cincinnati’s civic agenda. Until rioting broke out April 9, 2001.

As one city is illuminated by flame and blanketed by arson smoke, memories can just as soon form a flood.

Few people would deny an important aid to unlocking memory, if not ambivalence, has been the acceleration of TV news’ influence, both in the rapid transfer of information and the desensitizing effects of such unchecked transmission.

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Arguably, what contributed to the escalation of L.A.’s rioting was the fact that news crews were better equipped technologically, and, perhaps more than ever before, provocative footage was broadcast in its raw and unadulterated form, with the most compelling shots looped over and over.

The technological advancements were not always accompanied by cogent commentary. More often than not, mind-searing images were met with verbalized utter disbelief by those charged with reporting the events. Difficult as it might be to imagine, the less-than-informative, spot news, stand-up reporting was consistent throughout the vast majority of newscasts and among respective “anchors.” These same broadcast journalists, who fumbled with ways to meaningfully term the mayhem, represented what much of the city knew, or cared to know, about the all-but-forgotten ’hood. These are areas long deemed unnewsworthy but for the detached crime blotter banter about murky and seemingly random jackings and slayings.

Veteran investigative journalist K.W. Lee, widely considered the unofficial dean of Asian American print journalists, contends that news reports during and prior to the Riots fed the violence and destruction of 4-29.

LIFE IS CHEAP

What distinguishes the 1992 conflagration is the depth to which despair had descended in the city’s most neglected residential area, the much-feared and institutionally sidestepped South Central L.A. Also of significance — it should be noted that the media initially reported the violence as being fueled by a conflict between African and Korean Americans — the reality was the Riots represented the first multiethnic “eruption of discontent” in history, as University of California, Riverside, ethnic studies professor Armando Navarro wrote in a 1993 issue of Amerasia Journal.

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Not only was race a factor in this riot, but native-versus-immigrant and interethnic immigrant dynamics were at work as well. Or as the pop-demographic journalese of the time referred, the “browning of South Central” was taking place. And none too many people were happy about it. And it showed.

So, as street skirmishes broke out at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, those earliest antagonists who first cast stones did so with a force and trajectory the likes of which had not been witnessed. At least not by as wide an audience as on that verdict day, with competing news helicopters roaming the sky and capturing unprecedented amounts of violent footage from scenes unfolding at ground level. Rebels made themselves heard, indeed.

Although particular causes of Los Angeles’ unrest ranged widely ten years ago, many would say it came down to 56 baton blows, supplementary boot stomps and taser jolts visited on Rodney King’s felled body, having been pulled over in his Hyundai Excel in suburban north San Fernando Valley during the wee hours of the morning on March 3, 1991.

As 21 officers joined in the drubbing or tacitly watched — all failing, to a person, to report any possible misconduct — the tape-recorded scene exuded an eerie business-as-usual air. Unbeknownst to the swarm of officers who gathered for King’s infamous roadside traffic citing, an amateur videographer named George Holliday captured the arrest from the balcony of his Lake View Terrace residence. Eighty-one seconds of videotape show a beating as chilling as any delivered in the pre-civil rights era, footage Holliday later sold to a local news station. It was telecast the following morning in Los Angeles, then picked up hours later by cable news and beamed around the world.

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When L.A.’s days of violence finally drew to a close, 55 people were dead. According to one count, 2,383 people were injured. Immediate property damage touched 15,000 homes and businesses, totaling some $850 million. All told, these tragic results garnered the 1992 upheaval the ignominious distinction of the nation’s worst civil unrest, as has been often noted, since the Civil War.

In a not-so-parallel tangent, it will probably never be known how many of the thousands of assaults on person and property were inspired by the repeated airing of truck driver Reginald O. Denny’s hapless plight the evening the verdicts were issued.

Denny was pulled from the cab of his big rig at 6:45 p.m., bludgeoned by a claw hammer, a plastic oxygen tank and a brick, then spray-painted black. Four men were eventually convicted in connection with the assault. What we do know now is two of the four people who came to the trucker’s rescue knew to do so because they saw the attack on television.

AFTEREFFECTS: A CITYWIDE HANGOVER

Among the many consequences of the King beating and the police department’s handling of the Riots has been a decade of scrutiny fixed on the LAPD. All efforts to regain the department’s reputation as one of the nation’s preeminent forces have been hampered by mishap, including a corruption scandal involving officers in the department’s Rampart Division and the infamous O.J. Simpson case, in which homicide detective Mark Fuhrman perjured himself under oath. In the Rampart imbroglio, five officers were indicted for lying under oath, falsifying police reports, planting and stealing evidence, and shooting an unarmed suspect. Thousands of cases underwent review and more than 100 convictions have been overturned during an investigation into the Rampart corruption.

Of the major figures from the Riots, few survived untouched by fallout. Fewer still remain in the public eye. In addition to the ouster of chief of police Daryl Gates, the Riots also presaged the demise of Mayor Tom Bradley and District Attorney Ira Reiner. After a failed foray into hip-hop impresarioship and between therapeutic surf sessions, Rodney King, now 36, has quietly faced different criminal charges in court every year since his arrest in 1991, the latest of which transpired in Pomona, Calif., October 2001. King pleaded no contest to charges of driving under the influence of PCP.

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Months after the Riots, Reginald Denny granted a single interview to the L.A. Times Magazine and made a TV appearance on the Phil Donahue Show, during which he assured the public he had recuperated physically, and moreover that his psyche remained intact. Denny went so far as to say that he sympathized with his attackers, and might have felt similar anger had he been African American. Just as Denny stunned viewers with an unparalleled capacity for forgiveness, he then announced his intention to retire from media view. As of this writing, Denny has kept to his word.

Days after the Watts Riots in 1965, state appointee John A. McCone, a former CIA director, led an eight-member commission on an inquiry into the causes of those Riots. Issued in December 1965, the 101-page McCone report still stands as a valuable source of recommendations to address social blight that persists today. Sadly, to review the report now gives a reader insight into the city’s truncated attention span. In its nascence, the report underscores a dismal reality: conditions leading to riots 35 years ago loom over the same neighborhoods. As in the ’60s, those issues have still gone largely unaddressed.

On a final bleak note, the unparalleled destruction that occurred during the 1992 Riots was based largely on reports by business and property owners. These assessments seldom accounted for the loss of income and livelihood suffered by thousands of wage earners for whom little or no emergency relief existed beyond unemployment welfare. So, as cycles go, a pattern of neglect in Riot-torn areas began anew. What with a submerging underclass spiraling further through the ashes, the newest group of have-nots were destined, almost upon arrival, to be forgotten just the same.

This article originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of KoreAm Journal. The special issue was dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the L.A. riots. 

4-29 L.A. Riots by Hyungwon Kang.

KoreAm Archive: Angela Oh’s Views on L.A. Riots, Five Years Out

A fire rages during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. ©HYUNGWON KANG

This week, as we mark the 22nd anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, a seminal event in Korean American history, we are posting relevant stories from our archives. This commentary was published in KoreAm Journal in April 1997, upon the five-year anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. Its author Angela Oh served as a vocal community advocate in the weeks, months and years following the crisis. 

A Fleeting Moment

by ANGELA E. OH

Just five years later, the thunder of Korean American voices after the L.A. Riots has subsided to a whisper.

The desire to bury a painful part of Southern California history is especially strong among Korean Americans. The spring of 1992 will remain one of the most devastating seasons in memory to Korean Americans across the country. We were unable to prevent the loss of thousands of small family-owned enterprises to racial bigotry, economic desperation, media panic and political ignorance. With the passage of time, things have changed, but without consolation or relief.

Korean Americans have paid the price all racial and ethnic minorities in the United States eventually must pay. “Sa-i-gu” (4-29) commemorates those who sacrificed their lives so the message of our permanence in this society could be delivered. What impact did the 1992 implosion in Los Angeles have on Korean Americans? Where are we headed as we approach the Third Millennium?

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Korean Americans in Los Angeles experienced a brief moment of unity. Some 40,000 people from all parts of Southern California gathered at Ardmore Park the week after order was restored during 1992, in the city of Los Angeles a march which took its course through the area known as Koreatown was moving, unified, strong and defined. The message was clear: Korean Americans in Los Angeles (along with many others), from all walks of life, will come together to ensure the suffering inflicted uponthousands of innocent families will be eased. We have failed.

As one among many who could see the reasons why Korean families were hit especially hard in 1992, I was both saddened and enraged at the circumstances facing Los Angeles and newcomer Korean families, in particular. The reasons for the destruction among Korean-owned businesses were immediately apparent, and research since that time has confirmed the crisis was the result of an explosive situation created by a downturn in the economy, high unemployment, a lack of public trust in the police department, the general neglect of the infrastructure of Los Angeles, a lack of representation in the media, a lack of appreciation for the changing demographics of the city, and political leadership that failed to see the value in playing a facilitating role in resolving the intense community conflicts in Los Angeles.

Korean Americans received the brunt of community resentment and destruction because of several additional factors: failure to be informed about events and circumstances beyond the Korean community (like the trial of Rodney G. King and the shooting of Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du), failure to pay attention to developing business customs being served, ignoring race relations and the tremendous impact it has on people who in diverse communities like Los Angeles, and forgetting that material wealth is little more than an illusion.

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In trying to find solutions to the immediate and long-term challenges which faced our community, many lessons have surfaced. First, Korean Americans now realize what it means to be politically insignificant. Despite unprecedented organizing, community education and mobilization in the political area, meager relief has been brought to those families affected by the 1992 destruction. Families forced to accept additional debt funding in order to rebuild their small businesses face a new set of problems—deeperfinancial distress, civil lawsuits, criminal investigations and in some circumstances suicide. The advocacy taken up on behalf of these families have not brought relief, Small business owners and their families are entirely justified in feeling deep disappointment and cynicism.

Second, Korean Americans realize organizing is extremely difficult. But we also recognize that all communities experience similar difficulties because of political factionalism, inter-generational factionalism, apathy and petty jealousies. We know the Korean American community is no different from others, we just know more of the details and the personalities within our community have been able to create a unified voice. Yet, there is a constant cry for a “unified” Korean American voice. Why? It seems fairly obvious this dream is one which will forever elude us—as it has for more than 20,000 years.

Third, many of us in the second generation believe there are a new set of progressive principles which must be adopted in our efforts to go forward as Korean Americans with a new vision. Those principles emphasize concepts of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, compassion rather than criticism, and a constant push toward social change for justice—not just for Korean Americans but for all people. These are lofty notions, requiring extremely intense individual commitment. As we work, spend time with friends and families, worship, involve ourselves in civic and community-based organizations, the challenge of living by these values is constant. No, it is unrelenting. This is so because there is always more than can be done, there is always more that should be done. And there are never enough people, no is there ever enough time to complete the tasks before us. Korean Americans in Los Angeles have been trying for five years to be heard so some of the problems which surfaced in the aftermath of losses suffered in 1992 might be resolved. We are still struggling as a community to articulate the values that will guide us.

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Finally, where are we headed? It seems everyone is trying to assess what has been accomplished in five years. Really, very little can be concluded after only five years. Books have been published, research is being done, surveys are being taken, statistics are being gathered. All of this is valuable but, we must realize the data will never keep pace with the reality of the unfolding Korean American story. The data will never capture the daily struggles encountered by families who were affected by the riots. For example, how can we ever document the unique problems which arise when language barriers, cultural barriers, community disunity and anti-immigrant hatred provide the backdrop for trying to rebuild a small family-owned business? Who will want to help the newcomers who arrived after April 1992 and unknowingly invested in businesses previously owned by other Koreans looking for a way out? Where will we find counselors and resources to deal with those families who have problems with their children because of the trauma which resulted from watching their stores burn or their families deal with personal ruin? How can we even begin to memorialize what will happen as Korean elders feel the impact of welfare reform in a time when their children are struggling to “rebuild”?

The impact of the riots on Korean Americans is emerging every day. It will take at least a generation to penetrate the institutions that serve as the foundations of our society and to weave the experiences of Korean Americans into the consciousness of this country.

The most meaningful thing Korean Americans can do during the fifth anniversary of the riots is to acknowledge that little relief was brought; and, to commit ourselves to staying informed and involved in our community. While this may sound unimpressive (certainly not as glorious as holding a rally or hosting a huge ceremonial event), it is without a doubt the most difficult path to walk because there are so many reasons not to remember the pain, humiliation and price paid by more than 2,500 Korean American families in 1992.

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