What you call the events in Los Angeles that began 20 years ago Sunday says something about your view of the world. To Leftists and black activists, it was an “uprising”; white liberals prefer to call it “civil unrest”; many others call them the L.A. Riots. But Koreans simply call it Sa-i-gu, or April 29. The date lives in infamy in the hearts of Southern California’s Korean-American population, which bore the brunt of rioters’ rage and paid a lasting price. L.A.’s Korean immigrant community sustained nearly half the riots’ $1 billion in property damage; the dreams and pride of more than 10,000 Korean shopkeepers and their families were reduced to ash in the conflagration, including 2,300 predominately Korean-owned businesses in South L.A. alone. Many of those businesses never returned, casualties of the riots’ political aftermath.
In David D. Kim’s new documentary film, Clash of Colors, the L.A. attorney and civic activist points an accusing finger at those who may not have started the fires personally but certainly helped collect the kindling. Kim, who emigrated to the United States when he was 12 and arrived in Los Angeles in 1986, blames the media, an indifferent political class, and anti-immigrant hostility within the black community. When the riots began, the Koreans found themselves at the mercy of black and Latino street gangs. With no one to depend on—including the police—they organized and defended themselves.
Koreans began arriving in the United States en masse after the liberalization of American immigration laws in 1965. The highly educated immigrants arrived with little more than a work ethic, having left behind economic stagnation and, prior to 1987, military dictatorship and political repression. They adapted quickly, however, and soon came to dominate the corner grocery stores in South Central and downtown L.A. Many blacks openly resented the newcomers’ success and worried aloud how the Asian minority’s growing presence would reshape their neighborhoods.
Still, the mom-and-pop run establishments found much to love in America, or as they called it, Mi Gook, “beautiful country.” The hitherto insular group—Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries on earth—began reaching out to its customers to help smooth race relations. Thinking that they needed a leader in the black community who could relay their concerns, they even helped elect Mark Ridley-Thomas, now a Los Angeles County supervisor, to the city council. Kim, a past vice president of the L.A. Korean Chamber of Commerce, helped lead many of these outreach efforts. He founded the Black-Korean Alliance to urge Tom Bradley, the city’s first black mayor, to take an interest in the issue. The mayor didn’t.
The Los Angeles Times took an interest, however, and, in Kim’s telling, increased the tension by casting it in terms of racist Korean shopkeepers harassing black youngsters. The Times had nothing to say about the persistent shoplifting the Korean storeowners faced or the violence to which they were subjected. A UC Berkeley study of hate crimes published in 1992 identified at least 30 serious crimes—including armed robbery and assault—against Korean merchants by black assailants in the five-year period leading up to the riots. The press chose to focus on one tragic incident that occurred within days of the Rodney King video becoming a national sensation. On March 16, 1991, Soon Ja Du, the owner of Emperor Liquor, shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl whom she suspected of trying to rob her. Finally, the L.A. media had what it sought: a Korean villain and a black victim. The media replayed the security-camera footage of Du shooting Harlins seemingly in cold blood and repeatedly mentioned that Du, a naturalized citizen, was Korean-born. But the stories usually didn’t mention that Harlins—whom Du had seen place an orange juice carton into her bag without paying for it—had struck Du in the face three times. Du was eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter and received a suspended sentence with five years’ probation, 400 community service hours, and a fine—much to the anger of the black political community, already outraged over the King beating.
When the rioting began in South Central, Crips and Bloods who had been killing each other days before set aside their differences and joined forces to pillage Korean businesses. The Koreans believed they had little choice but to band together in self-defense. Many South L.A. shops plastered signs reading “this is a black-owned business” on their windows with the hope of discouraging looters. In retrospect, it’s clear that the Korean stores were deliberately and systematically targeted. The LAPD began arresting gang members and looters, but it lacked the jail space to house them all and opted for a strategy of containment. In certain instances, the LAPD confiscated business owners’ weapons and actually arrested some of them for fighting the fires the arsonists had set. The police argued that the Koreans’ guns threatened to inflame an already incendiary situation.
Unfortunately, Kim’s film doesn’t do enough to emphasize the heroes of the riots—perhaps because he was one of them. Indeed, the mild-mannered attorney may have saved countless lives when he advised one of his clients, Radio Korea, to broadcast a message urging defiance of the LAPD’s gun crackdown and full exercise of Second Amendment rights in defense of property. Koreans, most of whom had served their obligatory three years in the Korean military, mustered a citizens’ militia and began doing for themselves what the government wouldn’t: police their neighborhoods.
The shopkeepers donned their old uniforms so as not to be mistaken for the roving gangs. They used nonlethal force, shooting into the air or at looters’ feet. As Richard Rhee, famously pictured returning fire at gang members shooting at him in his store, explained in the aftermath of the riots: “We didn’t shoot them, we shoot to scare them. Some of them shoot back.” Rhee organized 20 fellow business owners into an ad hoc militia. “We had to do it, otherwise they would have burned down this one.” Rhee, who had survived the Korean War and the Watts riots in 1965, wasn’t willing to see all that he had worked for reduced to ash. “Burn this down after 33 years? They don’t know how hard I’ve worked,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “This is my market and I’m going to protect it,” Rhee said. “It’s just like war. I’ll shoot and worry about the law later.”
Three years later, the law did catch up with Rhee, only not as he expected. In 1995, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement cited him with nearly 6,000 violations, including paying cash and ignoring overtime and minimum-wage laws. In 1997, the L.A. District Attorney claimed that Rhee, who had built a multi-million-dollar grocery chain, owed the city more than $4 million in back taxes. Rhee contested all of those charges, but died of lung cancer late that same year. Fifteen years after his death, Rhee remains a beloved and venerated figure in the community. To this day, his defenders insist the city’s claims were retribution for his unapologetic defense of his business and his neighbors.
After the riots, Rhee’s California Market was one of the few still standing in Koreatown. Other Koreans hadn’t fared so well, and they remain reluctant to discuss their ordeal 20 years later. One former business owner I called said the events were simply too painful to talk about. Another told me candidly that she didn’t trust non-Koreans to report the story honestly and then hung up. Still others expressed wonder that a non-Korean would be interested in their story. Many victims of the L.A. riots had moved away to cities where they could start anew. According to a Times survey conducted within a year of the riots, around 40 percent of Korean-Americans said they were thinking of leaving Los Angeles. Many left for Orange County, home to a thriving new Korean community.
Today, L.A.’s Koreatown looks much different. Many of its once omnipresent liquor stores are now cafes, and its tenements have made way for condominiums. But Kim and others in the community remain resentful about the way city and state officials treated them after the fires died down. Ridley-Thomas and Karen Bass, a former state legislator who now represents Culver City, Baldwin Hills, and Ladera Heights in Congress, opposed extending Korean business owners certain permits—including liquor licenses—effectively preventing them from rebuilding. Bass bragged about shuttering liquor stores throughout Koreatown on NPR, pointing out that only a few dozen reopened. What the arsonists started in 1992, the politicians finished.
As for the media, racial conflict between Koreans and blacks is no longer much of a story. Instead, the Times and other media outlets tend to ignore the Korean community entirely. Korean-Americans worry that the riots could happen again, especially if they are taken for granted politically. “We learned that the Great Society Movement of the 1960s had failed to prevent a repeat of the Watts riot some 25 years later,” Kim explains. “What is more disturbing is that there is no assurance that it will not happen again.”