By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
On April 29, 1992, Koreatown in Los Angeles was a scene of chaos. Businesses were being looted and burned. Unable to rely on the police, Korean American merchants armed themselves to keep rioters at bay.
When the unrest sparked by the verdict in the Rodney King case subsided, the Korean American community had suffered approximately half of the $1 billion in losses.
Twenty years later, the atmosphere in Koreatown was calm as community leaders gathered at Robert F. Kennedy School to present a statement of unity. Held in conjunction with the “Diversity Is Our Strength” 4.29 Center Essay Contest organized by the Korean American Coalition, this was one of several events marking the anniversary.
The statement noted that “mutual cultural misunderstandings in the African American and Korean American communities led to heightened tensions,” exacerbated by the fatal shooting of Latasha Harlins, an African American girl, by Soon Ja Du, a Korean American shop owner, who was convicted of manslaughter.
The riot had “a devastating impact on both the African American community and business owners in Koreatown,” the statement said, and “a delay in response and a breakdown in communication at the outset of the riots … led to a perception that law enforcement was unable to keep or restore order.”
The statement honors those who lost their lives, property and livelihoods; recognizes the work that civic organizations and the LAPD have done to rebuild and heal the community; pledges to “continue to work together to create a harmonious community”; and vows to “stand up to the bigots, the haters and the xenophobes” and “denounce hate crimes of all kinds because a hate crime targeting one segment of our community does harm to us all.”
Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the statement was the result of months of work that began last November. “Our Asian-Jewish Initiative … came together and started planning what we could do to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the L.A. Riots. The thought was that we would bring people together, not only the African American and Korean American community but perhaps even some members of law enforcement, since people felt that the LAPD at the time had reacted in a way that didn’t help the situation.
“So the thought was to put this piece together that we would agree upon, and to make a pledge for going farther and going forward in unity … What started as a small thing grew into quite a large initiative with 13 different signing partners from all different communities — the Mexican American community, the gay and lesbian community, and most importantly, our LAPD brothers and sisters, who I think today stand with us as leaders of the community, models of community policing.”
While “different people had different perspectives of how things should be worded,” she said, the final draft was “universally acclaimed and accepted.”
Addressing an audience of mostly Korean American students — born after the riots or too young to remember — Blair Taylor, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League, said, “This was one of the most serious days in the history of this nation 20 years ago. More than 50 people lost their lives … One of the good things that came out of that was a reconstituted LAPD, and we are grateful for what you have done, not just to lower crime across the city but also to engage with communities of color. There are more LAPD officers and command staff of color today than ever before.
“That came as a direct result, I think, of like-minded people uniting and saying the Los Angeles Police Department can do better. They are policing better, the outcomes are better, and I’d like us to give a round of applause for the work they’ve done.”
Taylor pointed out that the school was built on the site of the Ambassador Hotel, where presidential candidate Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. “These grounds have been rebuilt, they’ve been reconstituted, and something really beautiful has come out of what was otherwise a location that was commemorating death and destruction … All of the things that Bobby Kennedy’s dream and vision was about are taking place now on this area where he lost his life.
“I would submit to you that we have the same opportunity in other parts of the city. We have the opportunity to look at ways to rebuild together … Diversity in this city is our greatest strength that we have. If we get to know each other and we tear down barriers, we will be stronger because of it.”
Recalling a trip that enabled Crenshaw High School students to meet their counterparts in China, Taylor urged everyone in the audience to make a “person-to-person connection” with someone from a different ethnic group during 2012.
Rev. Eric P. Lee, president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King), said, “With the many diverse cultures and ethnicities that we have in Los Angeles, we are bound to have some conflict. But the key is: how do we resolve conflict? … If we can set the model for how we interact and engage one another and have that filter throughout the city, then we can have the beloved community that Dr. King was talking about.
“It’s important for us to understand that we all share Los Angeles. We share the same space, we share the same dreams, we share the same hope and desire for a better future for our children. So we must get it right for our children’s sake … What it is about is cultural preservation, but cultural preservation to the point that we respect each other’s culture and there’s mutual benefit in everything we do in Los Angeles, that we all win.”
Grace Yoo, executive director of KAC, was in Koreatown during the riots. “I remember chaos and just fire and smoke and ash smell,” she said in an interview. “I felt a huge loss and devastation and just complete, utter disbelief that something like this could happen.”
Standing on stage with LAPD Assistant Chief Michel Moore, Yoo said, “Twenty years ago, let me just say, LAPD was … not our friends. But today we can definitely say that LAPD is our friend … Koreatown is so very proud of LAPD Olympic Station, so I want you to know we’re delighted to say 20 years later that we have certainly moved in the right direction.”
Speaking for LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who signed the statement along with Susskind, Taylor, Lee and Yoo, Moore acknowledged, “Twenty years ago today, this was a much different city and it was a much different police department. It was a police department that had lost the trust of the public … As an officer 20 years ago, a sergeant actually, I worked the riots and saw the death and devastation, saw lives lost.”
To the students who “were just a glimmer of thought in somebody’s mind 20 years ago,” Moore said, “You’re looking at what happened here in Los Angeles and making a commitment that it will never recur.” He cautioned them to never “take our eye off the ball” because “there are still forces that want to pull us apart, and we must pay attention to those forces and we must immediately address them … so that we stay united, we stay committed to the peace and welfare of every citizen of Los Angeles and to the youth of tomorrow.”
The statement was also supported by leaders of the ACLU, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, Los Angeles Police Commission, NAACP of Los Angeles, and New America Alliance.
The winners of the 4.29 (Sa-i-gu in Korean) essay contest were announced, including grand prize winner You Mee Kim of East Los Angeles College, who received $1,000.