Written by Forrest Maynock
April 29th, 1992, a riot starts in Los Angeles, California. In the wake of the infamous Rodney King court case outcome six days of riots would shake Los Angeles to its core. The Korean community in particular was more adversely affected than any other, and in the face of angry looters and with little to no help from the Los Angeles public system, this community would come together to protect their livelihoods and push back against the “system.” This loose social movement resulted in the largest ever Asian-American protest in the weeks following the riots. The rise of this social movement can likely be connected to two key points: First, the stated racial tensions formed through grievances and the possible view of the Korean-American community as an intruder, and second, the role that the public institutions of Los Angeles played in the riots.
In the years following the Watts Riots, many large merchants left the city, and Los Angeles became a place of business opportunities for the US Korean population of the city (Constante, 2017). In her book titled The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State, Patricia Fernández-Kelly states that “[g]lobalization and industrial recomposition dramatically recast the options of working-class people, both in the United States and abroad” (Fernández-Kelly, 2016, p. 66, pdf). Because of the financial successes of the Korean-American community in Los Angeles there may be a case to make that globalization strengthened the Korean immigrants moving from abroad, but also created friction within the other minority communities towards “foreign” outsiders that ate up potential job and business opportunities for their own weakened communities. Fernández-Kelly continues saying: “As the twenty-first century advances, the effects of international economic integration seem positive among those endowed with professional standing and education, regardless of national origin” (Fernández-Kelly, 2016, p. 66, pdf); this idea of international economic integration reinforces the possibility of Korean immigrants becoming merchants in American cities. The Korean-American community in Los Angeles can then be compared to Ferdinand Tonnies’ idea of the “merchant” class where he states that “[t]his merchant class is by nature, and mostly also by origin, international as well as national and urban, i.e., it belongs to Gesellschaft [society], not Gemeinschaft [community]” (Lin, 2013, p. 18). This position of “merchant” that the Korean-American community was in at the time of the 1992 Riots could explain why they were specifically targeted and received the brunt of the financial and physical damage of the riot; over 2200 businesses destroyed, and over $400 million in damages (Constante, 2017). Because the Korean-American community had so much capital invested in the area, and because they may have been viewed as “outsiders.” As professor Edward Chang states to NBC News:
“‘Merchants and customers have built-in conflicts in relations,’ Chang noted. ‘Customers want bargain sales, merchants are going after profit margins. When buyers are poor minority clientele and sellers are very limited English speaking merchants, then that conflict will intensify because of the relation’” (Constante, 2017).
This slow building conflict over time came to a boiling point on April 29th, 1992, and what came of it was a community united in protecting their interests.
As the riots raged and damage was dealt to the Korean owned businesses many cases of police officers sitting back and watching the looting ensue were reported. One Korean-American business stated: “We felt betrayed by our local law enforcement that’s supposed to protect and serve. They literally abandoned us and left us pretty much on our own” (Constante, 2017). Another business owner named Jay Rhee states: “‘We have lost our faith in the police,” he said. “Where were you when we needed you’” (Dunn, 1992).
Looking at cases like this where a public official refuses to do their job, one can conclude that that official is either unable to perform their duty, or is using some form of “distorted” treatment on the individuals involved. In her book Fernández-Kelly discusses the idea of distorted engagement, and later discusses liminal institutions saying that she is using liminal “in reference to public agencies, departments, or offices that operate on the implicit or explicit assumption that their claimants are likely deceitful and undeserving; therefore, they must be subjected to special treatment” (Fernández-Kelly, 2016, p. 146, pdf). This lack of police intervention mixed with the previously discussed racial tensions came to a boiling point; the community had to respond. During the riots one business owner stood out:
“Mr. Joo was one of those who took matters into his own hands, firing his own pistol outside a Korean-owned jewelry shop after he said a large number of looters had begun shooting. ‘The L.A.P.D. ran away in half a second,’ he said in an interview two days afterwards. ‘I never saw such a fast escape. I was pretty disappointed’” (Mydans, 1993).
Actions like this resulted in many other Korean-American business owners taking to the roofs and store fronts armed with guns to protect their properties. Many others joined the fight:
“Koreans from throughout the area have rushed to Koreatown, spearheaded by a small group of elite Korean marine veterans, heeding a call put out on Korean-language radio stations for volunteer security guards” (Dunn, 1992).
In the face of adversity, an ethnic community came together and protected each other, and in the days after the riots they made their voice heard.
While gathering weapons and protecting stores from looting can be considered a social movement on its own, what happened after is the more important aspect of this particular movement. One week after the conclusion of the riots Los Angeles had its largest ever Asian-American led protest with over 30,000 individuals, mostly Korean-Americans, gathering in the streets of Koreantown decrying “the lack of police protection during the riots and to call for racial harmony in the city” (Chang, p. 321). In the wake of the riots, the Korean-American community also increased their political presence and empowerment by getting members elected to office and pushing for increased voter registration (Chang, p. 322-326). Korean-Americans also began to work together as a united community with members from all generations coming together to rebuild the Korean-American community in Los Angeles (Chang, p. 327-329). In addition, the Black-Korean Alliance was formed in Los Angeles to help mend issues between the two communities (Chang, p. 333), and the foundation of groups such as National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (Chang, p. 325), and political organizations like Korean American Republican and Korean American Democratic Committee occurred in the years following the 1992 riots (Chang, p. 324).
In Patricia Fernandez-Kelly’s book, there is a biographical chapter of an African-American man named D. B. Wilson who is put under a lot of pressure, but is able to use his family and traditional values to fall back on. His story reminds me of the Korean-Americans in Los Angeles; they faced a cataclysmic hardship that shook their entire community, but in the process united and became stronger as a community by utilizing their “collective” strength in protest, political empowerment, and communal values. D. B. Wilson was fired from his long time job, but maintained composure and landed on his feet because of the people around him and his experience (Fernández-Kelly, 2016, p. 58, pdf). The Korean-American community of Los Angeles faced utter devastation, but united to rebuild itself, and in turn grew stronger politically and socially.
A long time has passed since the 1992 riots, but many of the racial tensions and similar issues remain within the Asian-American community. Most recently there has been a rise in Anti-Asian violence in the US which can most likely be connected to COVID related discrimination. In places like New York (Parascandola, 2021), Baltimore (Smink, 2021), and San Francisco (Ngô, 2021), Asian-American individuals have been beaten on the street with little to no reason other than their racial profile. What has changed since 1992 is the response of the “system.” In response to the rise in Anti-Asian violence, the US congress was quick to respond with an Anti-Asian hate crime bill which was met with overwhelming support from both political parties (VOA, 2021). While the case of the Korean-American community coming together in Los Angeles may be a more localized social movement, we can see the value that comes from uniting as a community to push for positive social and political change.
This essay is originally written for professor Haruna Miyagawa’s course of Urban Sociology, term 1-2, 2021.
Chang, E. T. (n.d.). Los Angeles Riots and Korean-African American Conflict. Retrieved from https://s-space.snu.ac.kr/bitstream/10371/88557/1/10.%20Special%20Address%20%20Los%20Angeles%20Riots%20and%20Korean-African%20American%20Conflict.pdf
Constante, A. (2017, April 28). 25 years After LA Riots, Koreatown Finds strength in ‘saigu’ legacy. Retrieved May 06, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/25-years-after-la-riots-koreatown-finds-strength-saigu-legacy-n749081
Dunn, Ashley (May 2, 1992). “King Case Aftermath: A City In Crisis : Looters, Merchants Put Koreatown Under The Gun : Violence: Lacking Confidence In The Police, Employees And Others Armed Themselves To Protect Mini-Mall”. Los Angeles Times.
Fernández-Kelly, M. P. (2016). The hero’s fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the shadow of the state. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lin, Jan and Christopher Mele. 2013.“Community and Society”. The Urban Sociology Reader. London, UK: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Mydans, Seth (April 10, 1993). “Korean Shop Owners Fearful Of Outcome of Beating Trial”. The New York Times.
Ngô, A. (2021, May 05). Shocking surveillance video shows a black man repeatedly punching an Asian man pushing a stroller in a random, unprovoked attack in San Francisco. Sidney Hammond was arrested. he was recently released after getting arrested for Burglary. #stopasianhate pic.twitter.com/2f2qfblnjx. Retrieved May 06, 2021, from https://twitter.com/MrAndyNgo/status/1389853241387618304
Parascandola, R. (2021, May 05). Asian woman slapped by teenage stranger on brooklyn subway train who tells HER, ‘you don’t belong here’. Retrieved May 06, 2021, from https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ny-asian-hate-crime-brooklyn-subway-slap-teen-suspect-20210505-lmbt2isxaraijln63qskr75hme-story.html
Senate overwhelmingly passes ANTI-ASIAN hate crime bill. (n.d.). Retrieved May 06, 2021, from https://www.voanews.com/usa/senate-overwhelmingly-passes-anti-asian-hate-crime-bill
Smink, W. (2021, May 04). Arrest made in Robbery & assault on 2 store clerks in West Baltimore. Retrieved May 06, 2021, from https://foxbaltimore.com/news/local/arrest-made-in-robbery-assault-on-2-store-clerks-in-west-baltimore