This essay first appeared on KoreanAmericanStory.com on Sunday, 15 April 2012. Race(ism) 101 - Reflections on the Sa-I-Gu LA Riots.
“The ultimate world-historical significance–and oddity–of Los Angeles is that it has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced civilization.” — Mike Davis, City of Quartz
April 29, 1992
I was driving home, listening to 92.3 The Beat, a hip-hop radio station, when the acquittal verdict for the three police officers charged in the Rodney King beating was announced by the DJ. This was a year or two before the takeover of The Beat by DJ Theo Mizuhara, his silky voice becoming synonymous with all things hip-hop. I wonder if he would have been able to calm the rage of his listeners, whether his Japanese-American background would have meant anything for those calling in to voice their outrage and pain. I can remember how the ever-present sun made it necessary for me to put down the sun visor even though I was wearing sunglasses. It’s funny how you remember such tiny details.
My car became an echo chamber as listeners called in, expressing their rage, disbelief, and more profoundly, powerlessness in a world where the definition of justice was meant for others and not for them. The acquittal of the three police officers was the final insult, the final denouement, you could say. Soon Ja Duk’s acquittal in the shooting death of Latasha Harlins was a wound barely scabbed over for those living so many miles south of the 10 Freeway. Their lives were as removed from the glitter and fairy dust so synonymous with the other zip codes. Metal bars across every window and door in their neighborhood served as a reminder of being shut out from the endless possibilities of invention and reinvention and being shut in to their dead end lives. It’s a sick irony the prison industrial complex reigns so prominently and dominantly in this state where the instinct for self-protection, to keep the world out, was not just symptomatic of tough neighborhoods, but was endemic to this suburbanopolis of perpetual sunshine, Pacific Ocean, and the dream factories of Hollywood. Every house, no matter how simple or grand, whether in Compton or Bel Air, resembled a prison with bars or fortress-like walls and electric gates.
That afternoon, as more and more listeners called in, a new current of connection crackled between Rodney King’s beating, Latasha Harlin’s death, and the eventual acquittal of Soon Ja Duk. Each caller seemed to be drawing a line between these three discrete dots, creating a picture of such ugliness, so far removed from the dot-to-dot pictures of ponies and clowns from our childhood. As my car cruised up Beachwood Drive, heading to my bungalow apartment underneath the mythical Hollywood sign, there was no way I could have predicted what would unfurl just a couple miles from my apartment over the next four days. There was no way to foresee all of the disparate lives, colliding and colluding in this city of half-realized or more likely battered dreams, were now standing on a chasm about to break open all around us, laying bare the heartache that the ever-present sun seemed to obscure in its brilliance.
My friend, a fellow Asian-American writer, had been over for dinner, both of us oblivious to violence sparking here and there just south of us, sporadically enough to resemble the intermittent glow of fireflies during a summer’s night. Our dinner was interrupted by my neighbor, one of those Soap Opera actors so prevalent in my neighborhood, a guy devoid of the usual actor’s mien of drama and urgency. Perhaps it was seeing my neighbor’s usual Minnesota steadiness so visibly shaken, which prompted my friend to leave without finishing his dinner. I remember my neighbor and I wishing him a safe drive home, the 2 miles between my Hollywood apartment and his West Hollywood condo as rife with the dangers faced by those crossing the prairies in their covered wagons.
It’s funny how time seems to expand whenever a disaster strikes, how the insignificance of the ordinary fades to black with such breathtaking speed, how our paralysis unites us so definitively, and how machines like the radio, or in our case, the TV takes over so completely in a way so wholly different from the usual where they’re turned on to replace the emptiness. I can’t help but wonder how our current world of texting, instant messaging, twitter, and Facebook would have impacted the Riots. Would it have helped fuel the anarchy that bulldozed the perceptions of the city as a place of eternal youth, beauty, and glamour with greater, faster, rapidity? Or would some rational voices have been able to shout above the din of this primordial scream, perhaps quelling the anarchy that raged and devastated during those four days?
Much like the cacti that somehow survive the drought of the desert, my own personal rage about the helpless and hopeless in the city turning on each other grew roots. Each newscast turned the unfolding story into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions where blacks and Koreans drew swords against one another. Those of us living in Los Angeles knew the real deal: the burning and looting in Koreatown was not committed by black people living in Compton or South Central. The city’s geography, not to mention the citywide curfew and the fact the public buses had stopped running after the beating of the truck driver, Reginald Denny, prevented those in South Central from traveling beyond their own decimated neighborhoods. In essence they became confined within the imaginary and real demarcations, between those who have and those who are forever yearning. Unable to go anywhere, they turned their rage inwards, destroying the few businesses that made their lives manageable. I kept wishing for a different sort of cavalry to charge into South Central, to whisk busloads of black people to the pristine streets of Rodeo or Montana, aiding them in turning their tsunami-size rage outwards, perhaps finally getting the attention of those with the power to help them.
More than anything, I wanted to stand on Western Boulevard with a sign directing the mostly Central American looters in Koreatown to head west, to urge them to stop destroying the livelihoods and dreams of their Korean immigrant counterparts. I wanted to explain to each looter that the Korean storeowner’s hold in this city was as tenuous as theirs. In spite of the brick and mortar housing the 99-cent store, electronics boutique, Kalbi restaurant, or dry cleaners, each business owner sweated just as profusely as the El Savodorean gardener with a leaf blower strapped to his back, everyone united in their effort to better their children’s futures and their own. I wanted to shout at each mother, father, running through stores taking whatever they could fill in their arms or shopping carts, that the fastest way to get heard and noticed by the powers that be would be to loot and burn those institutions meaningful to those living behind walls and gates. A burning Spagos, Gap, or Neiman Marcus would have surely had the national guard arriving after the first match was set instead of the four days it took before their arrival?
My own frustration was fueled by the fact my apartment was sweltering in the 80-degree heat since every window was sealed shut in an effort to keep out the smoke from the burning buildings now blowing out the smog as it traveled north and west. Unable to withstand watching any more news, I finally left my apartment the next afternoon to drive down the hill to Gelson’s market. The parking lot was more packed than usual as people rushed to stock their apartments and gated homes with every day essentials. As I arrived home with the haphazard items I thought I would need to survive however many days this unfolding disaster would last, another neighbor, a man who had been in a famous 80′s band, offered me protection with his shotgun, just in case the rioting and torching of buildings traveled up Western to our enclave of bohemia. I remember being more upset by the sight of his gun than the idea of our neighborhood burning down to the ground.
More than my neighbor’s gun, it was my mother’s hysterical call from suburban Philadelphia that made my anger harden into a Sister Souljah moment for me as a new militancy about race and injustice took shape. It wasn’t as though my 70′s childhood, as one of the first Asians in our suburban town, wasn’t tainted by the standard chink and gook name-calling. It was just that I had never equated the scars from my childhood to the greater racial injustices inflicted on African-Americans and so many others, all of it so intricately woven into the tapestry of this country’s history and reality. “Why are those napoon black people burning down Korean stores?” my mother shouted loud enough to cover the 3,000 miles separating us, her hysteria serving to remind me how and why I had fled to a city I was coming to loathe. I stopped myself from hanging up on her, an immature act I admit, and something that occurred with frequency during those years. Trying to display a new maturity and now blazing awareness about race in this country, I tried to explain calmly that the looters were not black, but were in fact mostly Central American, Mexican, and even white. I explained very few black people actually lived in Koreatown since the city made sure to ‘cage’ black people in real prisons or behind imaginary bars and gates, corralling them to ‘their neighborhoods’ way down south on the 110 freeway. Her disbelief at what I was trying to explain made me want to hang up on her, but also to yell that Koreatown was much too close to the old money of Hancock Park and mid-Wilshire, an area controlled by families with last names like Chandler, for black people to be permitted to live there. I wanted to scream, Beverly Hills, one of her favorite places in the city next to Koreatown, had been created by wealthy, Jewish families, prevented from buying the grand homes in Hancock Park.
It’s funny how oblivious my mother and I were about this conversation serving as the allegro to our full-blown family symphony where race would be the major, if not, the only theme. Neither she nor I had known then I would meet and fall in love with my husband a year later, a man who is African-American. Or, that we would have a child, whose mocha-colored skin is kissed ardently and frequently by his Halmoni—perhaps this serving as the greatest balm for my family, more than any other. My Sister Souljah moment was just an introductory 100 level course in understanding the complexities and nuances of race in this country. I have now entered the 400 level ranges as I raise a brown child in a world that is not as Post-Racial as everyone purported after the election of President Obama. My only hope is it will become a bit more so, especially for my son.
After the National Guard arrived within the city limits, some semblance of calm was restored. The frequent shriek of fire trucks and other EMT vehicles seemed to quiet, as if an imaginary hand had turned down the volume of the city’s stereo system. My friend and I drove down to South Central with a carload of diapers and baby formula, having heard the plea from African-American families that the few markets in their neighborhoods had been destroyed or were completely barren from the looting. Seeing the National Guard soldiers on top of roofs, strolling back and forth with large weapons in their arms, was surreal. I remember not being comforted by them, but instead feeling so sad about why it was they were in South Central patrolling the rooftops of the few remaining buildings that had not been destroyed. A few days later, there was a parade down Western Boulevard to show unity between African-Americans and Koreans. I hadn’t driven down Western until the day of the parade, too scared to witness the destruction of so many familiar stores and buildings I had frequented. I cried that day, sobbing as my car slowly passed destroyed building after building after building, each charred structure a testament to another family’s hopes, aspirations, and dreams so utterly decimated. More than the financial loss, the far greater toll was the lasting emotional scars from those four days, still felt and experienced by the Korean storeowners and their children, perhaps even today.
Los Angeles, being the capital city of reinvention, did reinvent itself, although I can’t say it was with a new deeper, more profound understanding about its history and future. Buildings in Koreatown were rebuilt, although my guess is that these new businesses were now occupied by others and not by the original owners. Korean business owners, with stores in predominantly black neighborhoods, had learned change should be handed over to their black customers and not put on the counter. Black customers, who frequented Korean owned stores, had learned to not be offended if the cashier put their change on the counter. See, those few cross-cultural symposiums held helped to foster such seminal discussions. The apartment buildings fanning around and in Koreatown are still dominated by families from Central America and Mexico. The one change of note after the riots was the rise in Central Americans working in Korean-owned establishments. In the city’s reinvention, you now heard Korean cashiers speaking a strange hybrid of Korean, English, and Spanish Korenspanglish, as I called it, to their Central American baggers, who were as likely to be bagging tortillas along with soy sauce for either their Korean or Central American customers.
For my family, well, these intervening years have taught each of us a tremendous amount about race. My husband, son and I finally left the city of Angels, settling in the other metropolis of dreams, shattered and realized. It is a question each of us tackles every single day as we maneuver the world individually and as a bi-racial, bi-cultural family.