by Rachel Tao, AsAmNews Intern
As the 30th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots approaches, one organization has made the decision to reclaim that painful moment in history and call attention to the way the riots impacted the Korean American community.
Faith and Community Empowerment (FACE), a Korean American, Christian nonprofit in LA, has established the SAIGU 30 Campaign which will call attention to the multifaceted impact of the riots. The press release explains that “saigu” in Korean means 4/29, and SAIGU stands for Serve, Advocate, Inspire, Give, and Unite. The subtitle of the campaign name reads, “Rebuilding the American Dream, Together.”
In 1992, Americans watched South Central Los Angeles, California erupt in literal flames, as tensions in the area reached a pivotal level. Multiple incidents of racial violence against Black residents in the preceding months had created an air of hostility. The tipping point came on April 29, 1992, when the four LAPD officers who brutally beat Black American Rodney King were acquitted. The riots began on the 29th and lasted for six days. Sixty-three lives were lost, 12,000 people were arrested, 3,000 businesses were destroyed, and over a billion dollars in property damage were incurred, reports FACE’s website. Looters and arsonists targeted many local businesses, causing the Korean American community of Los Angeles to suffer disproportionately. 65%, or 2,300, of all businesses destroyed were Korean-owned, and 40% of the property damage was incurred by Koreans.
The Significance of the Riots
Asian American Studies Professor Edward Chang of University of California, Riverside asserts that the riots were a turning point in Korean identity.
“Prior to 1992, Korean immigrants considered themselves Korean,” he told NPR. “But after 1992, they began to call themselves Korean Americans.”
Professor Christine So, who teaches Asian American Studies at Georgetown University, also noted the riots’ importance in wider history.
“It’s such a complicated moment, one which ignored the long standing histories of racism against African Americans and Asian Americans, and in fact redeployed them all over again,” she wrote to AsAmNews. “It’s important precursor to #blacklivesmatter and #stopasianhate and unfortunately contains much of the same violence that sparked both of those movements.”
Hyepin Im, the President, CEO and founder of FACE, called the riots a defining moment for the Korean American community.
“It was definitely a defining moment for the Korean American community and a rude awakening, in fact, that the policies of America, of justice and protection, were not applied to all. For the Korean American community, they realized they were in the not-applicable category,” Im said in an interview with AsAmNews.
To her, it seemed the Korean American community was abandoned by the police and government in their moment of need; a perimeter was created by the police that left Koreatown to fend for itself, creating the phenomenon of “roof Koreans” with guns that remains an urban legend.
She commented on the riots’ origin with Rodney King, too, saying, “As a member of the public, it seemed unbelievable that these officers were acquitted. That was something equally shocking, and again, the promise of justice for all did not seem to apply.”
The Influence of the Media
Im firmly argues that the lack of visibility of the Korean American community deeply affected the riots’ perception in media. One of her fellow board members from Portland told her there was no coverage of the Korean storeowners in Oregon. Im said many Americans, both locally and nationwide, have been shocked to learn of the extent of the devastation of Koreatown. However, Im felt the media was quick to report on the killing of 15-year-old Black teen Latasha Harlins by Korean American shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, who fatally shot the girl because he thought she was shoplifting. He received no jail time afterwards.
Im contends that the media’s fixation on Harlins erases the many examples of great relationships between Korean storeowners and their Black customers.
“In that way, they superimpose and amplify something that they call the Black-Korean conflict,” Im said. “These myths are perpetuated that put storeowners in the category of evil, and when you do violence to evil, you’re a hero.”
“I believe the media played a significant role in fanning the flame of that tension all year long leading up to the [Soon Ja Du] verdict. And I believe that really instigated the level of anger that was released, which led to that great devastation. And that narrative still continues, even today, with all the increased anti-Asian violence and the optics of Black-on-Asian violence.”
Im also believes the media failed to cover the unfortunate realities of the storeowners’ job. Seventeen to nineteen grocers were killed by customers that season, and shoplifting was common, so the job was dangerous. Additionally, the career was not financially rewarding in the low-income areas where the riots took place. Im feels that because the typical convenience storeowner’s life was full of long hours and little profit, acts of following customers around that were perceived as discriminatory by Black customers were acts of desperation. The narrative that storeowners were profiteering, exploiting, or targeting the community is incorrect, she told AsAmNews.
“They’re just humans responding in a human way to human conditions that have been created by a racist system that keeps people, especially underserved communities of color, in poor economic conditions,” she said.
She feels the media should have approached the situation with a different perspective.
“Instead of blaming these storeowners, perhaps a new strategy would be to ask, ‘What do they need? How can we help?'” posited Im.
FACE is seeking to change that perspective.
“These myths need to be dispelled, and I believe the media has played a poor role in lifting up these truths,” Im said. “So some of the work that we’ve been doing as an organization is to lift up these truths and dispel these myths, and it seems to be working in opening eyes and opening hearts.”
The Response of the SAIGU Campaign
This lack of Korean American perspective is what inspired the SAIGU campaign.
“When our community was kicked down and crying, there was no one to cry with us. Not only were we victimized by the fires and the riots, but then, we were revictimized and further oppressed by leaders and systems that should be there to help,” observed Im.
The depiction of storeowners that vilified Korean Americans persisted even at the 10th anniversary. When former President Bush came to LA to commemorate the riots, he did not visit Koreatown or acknowledge the Korean community at all, which upset Im. Additionally, the media failed to reach out to the Korean American community in their coverage of the anniversary.
“Our stories were erased and marginalized, which caused the same dynamic as in the original coverage,” Im recalled.
She made a promise to herself during that anniversary.
“I don’t know where I’ll be for the 20th anniversary, but I’m going to do my part to ensure that our community’s narrative and experience is properly told in history and not vilified, marginalized, or erased. And that’s part of the reason we started the SAIGU campaign,” she explained.
Building Black and Asian solidarity by combatting these media narratives with truth-telling is a key priority for both the broader FACE organization and the SAIGU campaign in particular. Im referenced the model minority myth, arguing it robs the Asian American community of both resources and solidarity opportunities with other communities of color.
“That has been a big push as an organization, and even more in our SAIGU campaign in commemoration of the 30th anniversary: creating bridges of understanding, working with multiethnic, multicultural leaders and organizations to do this together, to rebuild the American Dream together,” Im said.
She believes having a diverse coalition join the campaign would greatly increase its social impact.
Those involved in the SAIGU campaign represent many backgrounds. Campaign co-chairs include two Black Americans (Faithful Central Bible Church Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, Managing Director and Group Head of MUFG Union Bank Julius Robinson), three Asian Americans (Im, Bishop Grant Hagiya, Councilmember John Lee), and one Jewish American (President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Noah Farkas). The press release for the campaign contains quotes from these co-chairs as well as Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Congressional candidate, a professor, a Hispanic leader, a documentary producer, a journalist, and others. The campaign is also sponsored by banks, nonprofits, religious organizations, and even Starbucks.
When weighing the importance of this diverse representation, Im said, “Perpetuating myths keeps us pitted against each other.” To her, there is a clear response – to rebel against the way the dominant power has set the gameboard. In her words, “That’s what we need to do: open our eyes to the truth, don’t play the game, and help each other because we’re all on the same team.”
Her ultimate goal is to have discussions with other leaders about better solutions for the unacceptable problems both communities face.
“How can we look at the bigger picture and work together to affect policy, to implement programs that will be more productive?” she asked.
The Successes of FACE’s Efforts
Im has seen progress since the first SAIGU campaign, which occurred around the 20th anniversary ten years ago.
“In the spaces that we’ve touched, I see a glimmer of hope,” she said.
For her, wins include the multicultural coalition FACE’s created, the mainstream media starting to spread the Korean American version of the story, and the Black and Asian communities’ ability to call the incidents “riots” as opposed to “unrest” or an “uprising.”
There is one achievement that she is especially excited about.
“From what I’ve seen with Black Americans and leaders, in the spaces where I’ve been able to help dispel and combat these narratives that vilify the storeowners and the Asian American community, I’ve seen them really make a huge shift in terms of coming alongside with us,” she reflected. “Many have said that they’ve been fighting for justice all their lives, but they’ve come to realize that they were fighting for justice only for people who look for them and that justice for the Black community can’t happen without justice happening for the Asian community and so many other communities.”
This shift is unprecedented for her, unheard of in prior years.
“I believe that our truth-telling campaign and these hard conversations have been instructive and instrumental in opening eyes that open hearts,” she said.
One moment stands out in her mind. A few weeks ago, at a town hall with mainstream media and several notable figures, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Black community leader acknowledged the suffering of the Korean American community.
Black activist and Executive Director of Project Islamic Hope Najee Ali publicly stated, “Thirty years later, I’m here to say I’m sorry. I apologize for the role I played in not calling for unity and peace 30 years ago. We were angry about the murder of Harlins, and we had a right to be, but we didn’t have the right to turn on our fellow L.A. citizens. There was so much property damage and hurt and pain. I’m all about healing today.”
Im expressed gratitude for Ali and was especially honored to have the occasion covered in LA’s leading Black newspaper, The Los Angeles Wave.
She was also able to connect with Latasha Harlins’s cousin, Shinese Harlins-Kilgore. According to Im’s account, their conversation included laughs. In particular, Im recounted their discussion of Korean storeowners’ harsh working conditions, which Harlins-Kilgore resonated with. Harlins-Kilgore will be one of the honored guests at the Closing Commemorative Service of the SAIGU 30 Campaign.
However, Hyepin Im is not quite satisfied yet. Evaluating recent news coverage, she said, “The Korean American community’s impact is still a marginalized version of the total impact, the disproportionate impact that we had during the riots. We were a scapegoat, and even though there was this astronomical damage, I still feel the news coverage does not do justice to that. And I hope that our continued campaign will help change that.”
When asked about the goals of the campaign, Im professed her desire that “whenever coverage of the LA riots happens, our disproportionate pain and impact gets disproportionate coverage and focus.”
Of course, the true purpose of the campaign goes further.
“The real win is that we will be able to work to improve the conditions upon which the storeowners work and the conditions upon which the customers are able to receive service, and at the end of the day, all of us end up better, beyond just the storeowner and customer but as a wider society, that all of us, each community, has the opportunity to reach their full potential, to be blessed and to give to this country,” I’m said.
She concluded by proclaiming, “The story and the pain of the LA riots is not just a foregone history; it has continued to play out, and I believe the new strategy of opening eyes to open hearts is a better strategy to achieve justice and solidarity.”
SAIGU 30’s month-long campaign, which launched on the steps of the LA City Hall on April 5, will culminate with the Closing Commemoration Service this Friday evening, the anniversary of the onset of the riots. Find more information about the available events and the mission of the campaign here.
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