An Issue of Time and Place: The Truth Behind Korean Americans' Connection to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots

By Oh, Angela E. | Asian American Policy Review, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

An Issue of Time and Place: The Truth Behind Korean Americans' Connection to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots


Oh, Angela E., Asian American Policy Review


The Los Angeles riots of 1992 marked a watershed moment in American history, with Korean Americans playing a central role in the events. Since that time, the Korean American experience in politics has shifted in many ways. This article describes my perspective on these events based on my own personal and work experiences, which range from active engagement in the formal political process (involving fund-raising and campaign strategy), to service as an Asian American adviser to the U.S. president, to work at the local level with community groups, to my position as a commissioner of the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. In each situation, my training as an attorney who worked as a trial advocate in the fields of criminal justice and civil rights proved to be invaluable.

In Los Angeles on 29 April 1992, a jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers accused of assault in the 1991 videotaped beating of African American Rodney King following a high-speed pursuit. The verdict sparked several days of looting, burning, and vandalism that caused damage to more than two thousand family-owned businesses, the vast majority of which were owned by Korean immigrants. In the aftermath, there were tremendous community mobilizations to repair the physical damage, to build relationships among divided communities, and to reflect together on what happened that spring. During all of that, Korean Americans entered a new era of social, cultural, and political activism.

Almost twenty years later, the events of April 1992 are all but forgotten among many in the Korean American community. For some, it is simply a desire to move on with their lives. For others, it is important to remember and to learn from what happened. In this essay, I hope to contribute to the lessons we learned.

LOS ANGELES, 1992: WHAT HAPPENED?

In the months and even years before the implosion of Los Angeles in 1992, conditions in the region were ripe for disaster (Oh 2002). It had been a few decades since previous burning and protests among poor people in Los Angeles, specifically since the Watts neighborhood burned in riots in 1965. Those riots were about brutality by the police in the face of the poor trying to build a civil rights infrastructure that was finally codified both at the federal and state levels (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders 1968). By the 1990s, things came full circle and more. Now the fact of the interconnectedness among all people (and places) was raised (Abelmann and Lie 1997).

In the early analysis, the destruction and frustration that manifested itself in Los Angeles in 1992 in the several days of burning, looting, and theft was initially attributed to poor race relations between African Americans and ethnic Koreans. The shallowness of this analysis was eclipsed only by the utter lack of cultural awareness on the part of the mainstream mass media.

Time and again, the mainstream English-language news covered only those incidents that highlighted the conflicts involving Korean immigrant family-owned businesses and local residents, many of whom were African American. In its own way, the mass media contributed mightily to the implosion in 1992 by cultivating intolerance, suspicion, and antipathy between and among residents of the economically depressed parts of Los Angeles. (1) While the metro section of the Los Angeles Times reported inflammatory stories about the insensitivity of Korean immigrant "merchants," the Hankook Ilbo (Korea Times) reported on the assaults and killings of small business owners at the hands of hostile and often intoxicated local citizens. It was the perfect illustration of how people who occupy the same geographic space can live their lives in entirely different worlds. For non-Koreans, the problem was the Korean immigrant population itself. There were stories of greed, foreign invasion into local neighborhoods, and rudeness by foreigners taking money from struggling local residents. …

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