(Mis)interpretations and (In)justice: The 1992 Los Angeles "Riots" and "Black-Korean Conflict"

By Cheung, King-Kok | MELUS, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

(Mis)interpretations and (In)justice: The 1992 Los Angeles "Riots" and "Black-Korean Conflict"


Cheung, King-Kok, MELUS


"Can we all get along?" asked Rodney King during the Los Angeles civil disturbance in April 1992. This essay attempts to shed light on interracial conflicts by focusing on (mis)in-terpretations in the legal and cultural realms. I would like to re-visit one event preceding the urban unrest by discussing "The Court Interpreter," a short story by Ty Pak, a Korean immigrant writer, alongside the legal scholarship surrounding the uprising. The story is a fictionalized version of the trial of Soon Ja Du, the Korean liquor storekeeper who killed fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins, an African American. Harlins, suspected of walking away with a gallon of orange juice, attacked Du when the latter confronted her; the teenager was shot dead by the Korean woman. The incident took place only thirteen days after the beating of Rodney King by four white LAPD officers. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to "probation with prison time suspended, a small fine [$500], and a requirement of community service" (Gotanda 379). The court ruling incensed the already wounded and antagonized African American community, and "Latasha Harlins soon became virtually synonymous with the 'black-Korean conflict'" (Lie & Abelmann 75).

Pak adheres quite closely to these events. He, of course, changes the names of all the principals: Soon Ja Du becomes Moonja Joo and Latasha Harlins becomes Natasha Brook. Furthermore, because "The Court Interpreter" is presented from a limited first-person point of view, the narrator's perceptions must be distinguished from those of the author. There are times, however, when these two perspectives do conflate, as will be shown. The narrative is recounted by the title character, who has been asked to interpret for the Korean proprietor by her defense lawyer. The narrator deplores the shooting of the black teenager, but bristles at the way the national media and the African American press lump all Korean Americans together as abhorrent. He therefore decides to do his best to help the defendant during her trial by making her sound educated and eloquent; later, he believes his superb performance as court interpreter accounts for the lenient sentence received by his client. The fictional trial--as was Soon Ja Du's trial--is followed in the narrative by the controversial police-brutality trial in Simi Valley, with the not-guilty verdicts and the initial acquittal of the four white police officers accused of beating Rodney King, and by the ensuing eruption that ravages Los Angeles. Countless businesses are looted and burned, and the narrator's brother-in-law is killed while guarding a store during the uprising. (1)

I find "The Court Interpreter" both illuminating and troubling, especially in its depiction of the tension between blacks and Koreans. The story magnifies the various obstacles to sound judgment, most notably with regard to people of color, and reveals traces of what legal scholar Lisa Ikemoto describes as the "master narrative": "white supremacy's prescriptive, conflict-constructing power, which deploys exclusionary concepts of race and privilege in ways that maintain intergroup conflict" (1582). (2) I would like to extract from Pak's narrative several issues of both legal justice and quotidian judgments made in a pluralistic society. How can we--as readers, viewers, or jurors--exercise judicious judgment amid media distortions and racial stereotypes? How can we avoid the burden of representation and knee-jerk identity politics? How can we avoid unfairly judging or being judged on account of skin color, gender, class, or language? How do we negotiate the subjective assessments that occur in the courtroom (and in the narrative) at every level--from the court interpreter, to the witnesses, to the attorneys, to the judge? Above all, how can we extricate ourselves from the ideological web of the master narrative?

As the narrator's court interpretation makes all too clear, what passes for objective description is invariably subjective construal. …

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