LA Riots unified once-invisible Korean community

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“It was only after the LA riots where our [Korean American] community was left to fend for itself and was cast aside, that many leaders realized we have to be mainstream,” says former LA City Councilman David Ryu (R). Photo courtesy of David Ryu.

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the 1992 LA Riots — six days of unrest following the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King. The incident was a perfect storm of existing tensions and economic inequality that quickly turned into chaos, violence, and arson. Businesses in Koreatown were targeted, and store owners were left to defend themselves

The riots ignited a national conversation about socioeconomic disparities and the use of force by police. The unrest also birthed what’s known as the “Korean-American identity,” according to Edward T. Chang, a UC Riverside professor and the founder of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies.

"April 29 is a socio-historical turning point, a wake-up call and watershed event for [the] Korean American community," Chang explains.

Former LA City Councilman David Ryu is one of the many Korean Americans whose world views permanently changed during the riots. 

Ryu says he remembers being glued to the TV as civil unrest unfolded across town. Eventually, the violence hit Koreatown, and he and his family weren’t sure how to proceed. 

“I was scared. I didn't know what to do. My parents didn't know what to do. Obviously, they did not let me out of the house. And it was just a very confusing time.”

Ryu, the first Korean American to hold a seat on the council, says the LA Riots pushed him to become a dispute-resolution mediator. Since the unrest, he worked with Korean business owners and Black and Brown customers in South and East LA. Ryu pulled from his time growing up in a predominantly Latino community, where he saw many of his neighbors experience economic and racial inequities. 

“Helping others meant helping those who were more disadvantaged than us, which tended to be Black and Brown communities. And that's why I wanted to go work in South LA and that's what I did. But while working there, I realized — irrespective of the color of your skin, white, black, brown, yellow — poverty is poverty.”

Korean identity and integration

Ryu and Chang both say that before the LA Riots, many Korean American immigrants weren’t fully integrated into the community.  

"In 1992, nobody knew anything about the Korean American community. We were invisible. We [were] voiceless, and nobody cared,” says Chang. He adds that Korean immigrant business owners sustained 40% of total damages during the civil unrest.

According to Ryu, it took the violence and chaos for the immigrant community to realize that it needed to get more involved.

“Very few Korean Americans who were integrated mainstream could speak English [and] could speak for our communities. Like most immigrant groups — whether it be Korean, Russian, Vietnamese or Armenian — they tend to congregate among them amongst themselves.”

Many Korean Americans refer to the riots as “Saigu,” a Korean word pointing to the day that civil unrest broke out. The term doesn’t just honor the Korean American identity that emerged but is a catalyst to unite communities. 

In the wake of the LA Riots, local Korean American leaders have established the SAIGU (Serve, Advocate, Inspire, Give and Unite) Campaign to build bridges between the communities affected by the events. 

Chang says more education needs to be done to inform the next generation of what has happened during the events. 

"We still don't have any historical monuments that can be used as a site to commemorate, understand [the] historical significance of Saigu. It's important to not only have a personal story, but also we need to commemorate as a community as a whole.”

The LA Riots weren’t a Black-Korean issue

Ryu says that on the surface, the violence in Koreatown looked like it was about Blacks versus Koreans. But he argues that the riots were merely an extension of already-existing tensions between immigrants and native residents, worsened by the lack of opportunities, jobs, and education.

He references the 1965 Watts Rebellion, which saw violence between Italian and Jewish store owners and Black residents. 

“If you saw TV, you thought it was a Black-Korean conflict, when in reality, it was not a Black-Korean conflict. Koreans happen to be the ones on the ground. It was a merchant-consumer issue.”

The former city councilmember says there’s been progress since 1992, but not enough change has happened. And he believes the George Floyd protests breaking out in 2020 illustrate the same frustrations from the LA Riots and Watts Rebellion.

Community members are fed up with history repeating itself and hungry for immediate change, according to Ryu. 

“It's literally 27, 28 years apart from 1965 to 1992 to 2020. Now in another 27 years, is it going to happen again? We are in that moment where more of society is awoken to the fact that change must occur. And it's not just defunding the police. No, it's not about the police. It's about poverty.”