Monday, April 30, 2012

Rodney King riots plus 20

April 29 (which is today in Hawaii and California, but yesterday in Korea) marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the worst outbreaks of domestic violence in modern American history.

Three years ago, I wrote about as thorough a post as I care to about this terrible event, so just go there. It also addresses Cho Seunghui and the Korean-American (and South Korean) reactions to that mass killing:
White cops beat down a Black motorist.

White cops acquitted despite being videotaped.

Angry Blacks riot and target Korean stores.

I'm somewhat simplifying things, of course, but there's a point: Prior to that, the only conceivable connection between Rodney King and anything or anyone Korean was that he was driving a Hyundai Excel (supposedly at 100 mph).

Given how badly the Los Angeles area Korean-American community was blindsided, I'd say it was prudent for kyopo across America (and other Asians, as the JACL said) to be at least a little concerned about a backlash against Koreans following the Seung-hui Cho massacre, though that sentiment was roundly mocked in the K-blogs two years ago.
Some other bloggers also have posts about twentieth anniversary, including the always thought-provoking The Korean. His includes a link to a KoreAm piece on oral histories of "4.29" (culturally and linguistically Koreanized as sa•igu) and a map of "destroyed and looted" businesses (which, methinks, should be two separates maps). 

One of the KoreAm links includes a statement by Angela Oh, whom I'd skewered in that three-year-old link. And while what happened to the Korean-American businesses was a tragedy and a wake-up call (on many different levels), a year or so after the fact they were saying that forty percent of the businesses that were destroyed were Korean-owned businesses, which made up thirty-seven percent of all businesses. 

That represents, statistically, near parity when it comes to destruction of Korean-owned businesses versus businesses owned by others, which calls into question how severe the "targeting" of Korean businesses actually was. (Yeah, yeah, that kind of statement is not going to win me any points with anyone.)

In other words, the angry crowd that was hell-bent on venting their anger and rage was rather indiscriminate in its self-infliction. (And since many of the accounts say that outsiders in various neighborhoods were doing the damage, how would they know which businesses outside of Koreatown were owned by Koreans and which were not?)

Elsewhere in the K-blogosphere, ROK Drop also has an anniversary post that also addresses that damage to the Korean-American community and the role the Latasha Harlins shooting death (at the hands of store owner Soonja Du) played in fueling anger between Blacks and Koreans. [UPDATE: The Marmot's Hole has a short post on 4.29 that actually links to this one.]

The Los Angeles Times has an excellent video interview of staff photographer Kirk McKoy, who was at ground zero (the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues) during the riots. The LAT also has an op-ed on the epic failure of the LAPD to protect and serve as the violence started and spread. 

The LAT also has a list of the dozens of dead from the three+ days of rioting, along with a description of what happened. These details belie the claim made by self-appointed Korean-American community leader Angela Oh in the KoreAm piece that "it was very specific to Koreans... Not to Chinese, not to Latinos, not to African Americans... It was just really clear that it was specifically toward Koreans," since the deaths include loads of Hispanics and people like 25-year-old Thanh Lam:
Lam was leaving his family's market in Compton, which had been looted and burned the night before. The traffic signal at Willowbrook Avenue and Alondra Boulevard had turned yellow, and Lam slowed to a stop.

A car bumped him from the rear and pulled up in the next lane. At least two gunmen leaned out with handguns and began firing. One bullet shattered the truck's window; a volley of shots ripped into the cab. Four bullets hit Lam, and within minutes he was dead.
The one Korean-American death was the tragic shooting of Edward Song Lee:
Edward Song Lee, an 18-year-old Asian man, was shot and killed Thursday, April 30, 1992, in Koreatown. Lee, a Korean American, was attempting to protect shops near 3rd Street and Hobart Boulevard when he was apparently shot by fellow Korean Americans who mistook him for a looter.
In fact, Edward Lee was the only Asian person killed in Koreatown. The others were White or Hispanic, people like thirty-year-old Patrick Bettan:
Bettan, a security guard at a Koreatown mini-mall in the 2700 block of West Olympic Boulevard, was accidentally shot by a co-worker during a looting incident.
Don't get me wrong, even though I believe careless gun handling contributed to these people's deaths, Mr Lee and Mr Bettan and the others were exceedingly brave for being where they are and their deaths ultimately fall upon the heads of those who had come to do damage and harm.

The 1993 South Korean film Western Avenue, starring Kang Suyŏn (강수연), later depicted the riots from the South Korean version of the Korean-American point of view.

As a California native with one foot in the Korean-American community and a few toes still in Compton, I still find the whole thing just so depressing. The warning signs were there long before, but people ignored them. All sides have some serious soul-searching to do, but instead we still get a lot of finger-pointing. 



  1. a year or so after the fact they were saying that forty percent of the businesses that were destroyed were Korean-owned businesses, which made up thirty-seven percent of all businesses.

    That represents, statistically, near parity when it comes to destruction of Korean-owned businesses versus businesses owned by others, which calls into question how severe the "targeting" of Korean businesses actually was.

    Even with parity, there was a definite targeting of Korean businesses. I even saw some people post "black owned" or "not Korean owned" on their shops. This was on the news. And some said that being "black owned" saved them from being targeted. There was also many random lootings, but to be sure, there was a blatant targeting of Korean businesses.

    When they are talking about damage, they are talking about damage to the business community. Of course, individuals should be included as part of damage from the riots, but the main focus in the news has been on how it affected BUSINESSES.

    I think the only ones who are to blame are the rioters and the LAPD and government who were irresponsible in their handling of the riots. Some Koreans may not have liked blacks, but I find it very difficult to believe that they would treat them in a racist manner when they are there to make money and Koreans take that VERY seriously. I could see how transporting Korea-acceptable behaviors like following a customer could be seen as uncivil, but that is certainly different from being racist, etc. What some Korean owners needed to learn was American manners NOT how to be less racist to customers.

  2. What I don't get is the knee-jerk response to take sides, in this case African-American versus Korean-American. Instead, I want to ask if there is such a zero-sum situation where one group can only prosper at the others loss. How much of this perception in both communities a consequence of bad politics at the city and state level, or bad policing? I think the lesson 20 years on is, that race is how America, where until recently class was not a factor, does revolution.

  3. For Korean business owners, it was not a zero sum game, but simply doing business to support their families. There is no basis for that assumption as far as the Korean community goes.

    For the black community, there have been leaders that have suggested that it was a zero sum game, that immigrants were sucking money out of their community. But a lot of it is just ignorance. You grow up in a neighborhood where people aren't doing so well and you see immigrants come in and set up businesses. You ask yourself, How come they can do it and we can't? Because you don't see others like you doing the same, you assume that it is due to unfair benefits when it really has to do with the fact that many in your community are not equipped to set up such businesses mentally and emotionally as well as resource wise. The problems that plague those areas are great and make it understandable why there aren't more black businesses in those areas. When you are dealing with drugs, gang violence, and broke families, and struggling to do so, how can you possibly expect to have the skills and know-how to set up a business? People in those areas just need to get their life in order before they can even THINK of setting up a business.

    Race has ALWAYS been a factor in the history of America when the first white settlers met the Indians.

    There were rioters, most notably from specific groups and it is not a "knee jerk reaction" to acknowledge that. People need to take responsibility for their own actions and thoughts.

  4. Your emphasis on responsibility reads like callous disregard for quantifiable discrimination. For instance, African-Americans are less likely to start businesses because of lower personal wealth and lack of access to loans. How does that compare to government subsidies and tax breaks awarded to other lobbying groups? Ironically, historical segregation incubated local business and fostered community. You conveniently ignore these political and economic factors because you believe you and your group benefit.

  5. Where is the "big" Korean lobby and what government loans/tax breaks do Koreans get to start their businesses? Wealth is created and many immigrants, including AFRICAN immigrants either save up money or borrow from family/friends to start their own business. You conveniently ignore that to support your own agenda promoting black victimology. Victimology doesn't help anyone, not even the victim. If you want to help people, you should acknowledge their personal responsibility and help them realize that. Equality of opportunity DOES NOT equal equality of outcome. That's where personal responsibility comes in.

  6. I'm very late to this post, but I'm I've been interested in the dynamics of the riots for some time - particularly the possible targeting of Koreans. It seems to me that much ıf the damage was caused by fires it could mean that the Koreans were still targeted.

    If most of the damage was fire it doesn't rule out targeting of the Koreans because fire doesn't discriminate - if you set fire to a Korean property it will spread to neighbouring properties. From what I remember, the fire dept. wasn't responding to calls for much of the riots.

    On the other hand looting losses might present a more accurate picture of who was or was not targeted - if looting losses were unreasonably higher amongst Korean stores then that could indicate targeting.

    I haven't seen any stats or reports that detail the specifics of the damage and losses from the riots.

    1. Ben, I think this is something that would be very difficult to demonstrate, one way or the other. Unfortunately, we couldn't have sociologists handing out questionnaires to the looters/rioters and Survey Monkey didn't exist then.

      In the end, I would not be the least bit surprised if some people deliberately targeted Koreans, but in the end I think most Korean businesses were attacked because of where they were rather than who they were.


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