1992 Los Angeles Riots: Finding the Korean-American Identity in Chaos

After the emergence of a grainy video depicting four police officers savagely beating Rodney King, the country was dismayed to see the officers involved be acquitted of many charges. Meanwhile, the black community felt that it only uncovered an ongoing, suppressed history of continued institutional racism to the general public.

Enraged at the seemingly unending political and social injustice perpetrated against African-Americans by governmental institutions like the police department, thousands took to the streets of Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. Concentrated in predominantly minority neighborhoods, violence spread as thousands of businesses were looted and set aflame. With the chaos brewing, Americans, watching the events occurring on their televisions, were perplexed to see that much of the provocative coverage was focused on Korean merchants, who were fending off looters. As images of gun-wielding Koreans defending their stores and four Korean-Americans shot on the sidewalk from the riot were repeatedly broadcasted throughout the United States, they became ingrained into the emergence of a new Korean-American identity.

Although consciousness of Korean-Americans was only recently brought to the forefront in the 1990s, friction between the Korean and black community had already been stirring in urban centers across America. As certain cities like Los Angeles continued to urbanize, black neighborhoods, hoping to secure financial stability, encroached on once predominantly white neighborhoods. This shift to racial diversity led to many store owners wanting to escape what they perceived to be a process of “ghettoization,” and many sold their stores for lower rates. Taking advantage of the situation, hundreds of Korean merchants bought stores in these areas.

Despite owning stores in the black community, many Koreans, in fact, did not live in the surrounding area. Due to this, the revenues earned did not go back into the community it was serving but into the neighboring Korean community. Also, after changes in the Immigration Act of 1965, thousands of Koreans were permitted to immigrate to America. With the influx of Koreans, Korean store owners opted to offer the new migrants positions in their stores instead of African-Americans. Due to these factors, Anti-Asian resentment in the black community grew, as Korean store owners were seen as greedy and linguistically-limited foreigners who were exploiting the black community.

Distrust between the two groups would only get worse with increased media coverage. The black community increasingly felt ignored by the Los Angeles government, while Koreans would receive increased attention. As the Korean community grew exponentially in Los Angeles, many South Korean officials came to visit the biggest Korean community outside of Korea, and the officials would often receive the key to the city by the mayor. Meanwhile, many African-Americans felt that news outlets were putting too much of the spotlight on the officials instead of rising issues in the inner city. Additionally, after the death of Latasha Harlins, media coverage primarily focused on Harlins struggle for a box of orange juice before being fatally shot. The shooter, a Korean store owner, was later sentenced to only five years probation, which many African-Americans perceived as evidence of a rigged judicial system that favored the Koreans and whites.

On the other side, Korean-Americans thought the media unfairly covered the death of Latasha Harlins, as the media would only broadcast a shortened version of the security footage. The clipped video excluded Harlins attacking the Korean store owner and berating her with racial slurs. Though it did not justify Harlins’ death, Koreans thought the heavy media coverage demonized Korean merchants while ignoring the dozens of Korean store owners killed or robbed every day.

Racial tensions only worsened as on the March 3rd, 1991, Rodney King, a paroled felon, led police officers on a high speed chase before surrendering himself. Intoxicated, King resisted arrest and was brutally beaten by the police officers. Unbeknownst to the officers, a bystander was filming their savage actions with a personal video camera. The recording caught the police officers repeatedly kicking and hitting King, despite King no longer being able to resist. The footage immediately went viral as every mainstream media outlet broadcasted the graphic recording, which sparked an investigation on all officers involved. The officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon, excessive use of force, aiding and abetting, and filing false reports. However, due to widespread public outrage, the judge moved the trial outside of Los Angeles County, where the police officers were cleared of all charges. The acquittals set in motion the most destructive civil disturbance of the 20th century.

The tension of racial disparity would come to an explosive climax on April 29, 1992, as rioters, outraged over the acquittals, decided to head to the streets. Traffic was held up as rioters attacked dozens of motorists on the streets, including Reginald Denny, who was dragged out of his truck and almost beaten to death. Capturing the whole event, a news helicopter broadcasted the chaotic scene, as the police were slow to arrive. With violence quickly proliferating throughout Los Angeles, the California governor called in the national guard and set up a curfew, hoping to quickly subdue the riot.

Though the riot was able to be contained to particular areas of the city, violence continued as rioters began to loot and set businesses aflame. Later uncovered through extensive FBI reports and interviews, it was concluded that hundreds of Korean-American businesses were selectively targeted by rioters. Despite the fact that Koreans had no relation to the beating of Rodney King, the riots became a vehicle of anger towards racial inequality. Also, the chaos gave many individuals an outlet to project their discontent on a wide range of topics, including Anti-Asian sentiments explained above.

Initially, many Korean-Americans were hopeful, as they expected protection from police officers and the national guard, but they soon realized that protection would not arrive. Instead of assisting the minority families in the midst of a riot, police officers had been ordered to line across certain streets to contain the violence to predominantly minority neighborhoods. Realizing that they were trapped and could not count on government support, many Koreans frantically called Korean radio stations to broadcast their calls for help. Their calls would not be unanswered, as Korean-Americans, many of whom never previously held a gun, headed to what seemed to be a warzone to protect their sources of living.

With the footage of Koreans shooting at roaming looters being prevalent across mass media, the controversial actions carried out by the Koreans defending their stores were perceived as vigilante justice by many viewers. Despite this, Korean-Americans continued to defend their stores, even after it was announced that the national guard and police would be sent in to assist, as they now did not trust the police to properly protect their property. Their intuition would be found correct, as Korean-Americans continued to receive little aid from the police, because of their low social status and inability to communicate effectively in English. David Joo, a manager of a store, described it as follows: “I want to make it clear that we didn’t open fire first. At that time, four police cars were there. Somebody started to shoot at us. The LAPD ran away in half a second. I never saw such a fast escape. I was pretty disappointed.”

Finally, on May 4th, the National Guard was able to secure the city and relieve the Korean store owners. Even so, the six day riot had already left thousands injured, ten-thousand arrested, and sixty-three dead. Additionally, thousands of buildings and jobs were lost, and the cost of damages caused by the incident was estimated to be around a billion dollars. Being hit the hardest by selective targeting, Korean businesses represented a quarter of all structural damages. Property damages were estimated to be around 350 millions dollars, despite the fact that Koreans only represented 1.6 percent of the city’s population.

In the aftermath, Korean-Americans not only felt bitter towards the police department but also the mass media. Locking out the Korean perspective, the media instead favored a narrative that emphasized that racial matters were more of a black-white phenomenon. Because of this, many Koreans felt their voices were being left out in the discourse of the riot, even though some of the most gripping images portrayed by the media displayed Korean-Americans. Instead, the media chose to interview more African-Americans and whites, skewing the public interpretation of the event to one side. The Korean-Americans were outraged to see that even Westside residents had more of a voice on the matter, even though the wealthier Westside communities were unaffected and residents saw the riot as more of a spectacle.

Before, Korean-Americans did not apprehend the social hierarchy on racial terms, due to the fact that Koreans were used to a homogenous society that was concentrated on nationhood. But as a result of the physical and emotional damage, Korean-Americans realized that it would take more than financial success to gain equality in the United States. In response, a cultural movement sparked and development of new ethnic agendas and organizations that aimed to protect Korean-Americans’ constitutional rights and culture became more prevalent. A week after the riot, over 30,000 protesters took to the streets –the largest Asian-American protest ever– to advocate for peace. With this new movement, new leaders emerged, as second-generation Korean-Americans spoke for their less fluent predecessors. Wanting to ensure that another riot based on misunderstandings would never occur again, they worked to understand and connect with other communities in Los Angeles. Despite the tremendous step forward and the dedication of many Korean-American activists, the significance of the riot on the formation of the Korean-American identity is mostly unknown to the public, including the Gen-Z Korean-Americans.

This article was written by DK💦 from @asianamericanpolitics (IG)


Works Cited:

Abelmann, Nancy, and John Lie. Blue Dreams Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

History.com Editors. “Riots Erupt in Los Angeles.” History.com. Last modified March 3, 2010. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/riots-erupt-in-los-angeles.

Ikemoto, Lisa C. Traces of the Master Narrative in the Story of African American/Korean American Conflict: How We Constructed “Los Angeles”. Los Angeles, CA: University of Southern California, 1993.

Kim, Kwang Chung. Koreans in the Hood: Conflict with African Americans. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Lah, Kyung. “The LA Riots Were a Rude Awakening for Korean-Americans.” CNN. Last modified April 29, 2017. https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/28/us/la-riots-korean-americans/index.html.

Min, Pyong Gap. Caught in the Middle: Korean Merchants in America’s Multiethnic Cities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Mydans, Seth. “RIOT IN LOS ANGLES: Pocket of Tension; A Target of Rioters, Koreatown Is Bitter, Armed and Determined.” The New York Times. May 3, 1992.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s. New York, NY: Routledge, 1994.

Sastry, Anjuli, and Karen Grigsby Bates. “When LA Erupted In Anger: A Look Back At The Rodney King Riots.” NPR. Last modified April 26, 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots.

Zong, Jeanne Batalova Jie, and Jeanne Batalova. “Korean Immigrants in the United States.” Migrationpolicy.org, Last modified March 2, 2017. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/korean-immigrants-united-states-2.

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