By WARREN FURUTANI
On April 29, 1992 I was the president of the Los Angeles School Board when the “tinder box” called Los Angeles exploded. The incendiary device that acted as the fuse was the innocent verdict for the four police officers who beat Rodney King, and that act was caught by a video camera and then played on television for all to see.
The kindling stacked up in spring of ’92 consisted of a variety of factors. First and foremost was another downturn in the economy. Another mini-recession was at hand. Unemployment was on the rise, public services from education to social services were being cut, race relations were tense because of changing demographics with the growth of the Latino and Asian American communities in areas where they had not traditionally resided, and the relationship between some communities and the police had not really improved since the Watts Riots.
As an elected official whose responsibility was the city’s schools, I traveled throughout the area checking on their status. Our schools had not suffered any discernible damage but as I traveled from my home in Gardena to downtown L.A., the landscape throughout southern part of the city was a sorry sight to see.
Although the initial news reports kept referencing Watts, as if a code word for riots (and who was rioting), what I saw was different. Plumes of smoke rose up from throughout the landscape. It was as if a bomber flew over all points south of downtown and indiscriminately dropped its payload.
Sirens could be heard from all directions and television newscasts abandoned their Watts reference quickly as their vans darted throughout the area covering incident after incident. Like in any riot or disaster scene when there is looting, the cameras always catch people breaking store windows or pushing merchandise down the street in a shopping cart. In the spring of 1992 these people were not all black by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, the common denominator was that they were all poor.
As the days of the riot unfolded, I started to notice a trend in how law enforcement was responding to the crisis. Maybe lack of response is a better description. The LAPD leadership was roundly criticized during and after the unrest. Then the National Guard moved in and there was an obvious “game change.”
Rather than bouncing from one incident to another, a new tactic of containment seem to emerge. So priorities were established as were perimeters. Areas were cordoned off and clearly the powers that be didn’t want the rioting to come downtown or go too far west. The problem was if you were a community caught within one of those perimeters, you had to fend for yourself — which brings me to Sa-i-gu.
Although Florence and Normandie may have been ground zero and the infamous attack and beating of Reginald Denny the worst offense of the episode, other communities were caught in the mayhem. One of them was Koreatown. The genesis for the Korean word Sa-i-gu is April 29 and the days that followed it.
Korean immigrants came to the United States seeking the American dream. With hard-earned savings in hand, the word had spread that one way to achieve that dream was to buy a small business. Like the Chinese immigrants before them and Japanese as well, they found a niche where they could get started.
In this case it was not laundries or gardening routes; it was every small business you could think of within the growing Koreatown area and beyond. They also followed another typical immigrant pattern, which was to cluster together where a community economy and ethnic neighborhood could thrive both economically and culturally.
In this case, Koreatown started putting down roots in an area that was already an ethnic enclave. Vermont to Normandie avenues with Olympic Boulevard as its backbone was the ground zero for this growing dynamic new Koreatown. It was also the fading Japanese American neighborhood called “Uptown.”
With Saint John’s Episcopal Church as its spiritual center and Father John as the shepherd of this flock, this Japanese American enclave had passed on once before when the Japanese were put into camps during WWII. But they came back and rebuilt and resettled. A few decades later as ensuing generations left the area, the community started to lose its vigor and Korean immigrants came along to buy the remaining shops, gas stations, nurseries, homes and other properties. This was the beginnings of Koreatown.
As Koreatown grew and pushed its boundaries outward, maybe a jealousy or envy took hold with some in other ethnic communities. How come they could buy these stores and businesses? Where did these immigrants get the money to buy within their neighborhood?
Whatever the motivations and community dynamics on April 29, 1992, the gasoline had already spilled on the floor from many sources and all that was needed was an inadvertent spark to inflame the seething anger. An explosion took place and Los Angeles was the scene of the largest urban riot in the history of the United States.
In an attempt at limiting the damage, a political concept called damage control, the strategy of containment came into play. Unfortunately, Koreatown was deemed an acceptable loss or too far gone, so it was left to its own devices to survive as Korean Americans found themselves within one of those containment zones.
The news shots and newspaper pictures of armed Korean American store owners on top of the roofs of their stores or behind makeshift barricades are a vibrant image of that time. But what recourse did the community have? Asian Americans had no political clout at any level to intervene, let alone the Korean community. At the time I was the only API elected official in the city.
So the community fended for itself and did what was necessary to protect their life’s investment, but much was lost and burned to the ground. Sa-i-gu challenged and changed the trajectory of not only Koreatown but the Korean American community. New voices started to be heard.
The first-generation immigrant community leadership needed to bring in the younger generation that was more savvy to the political ways of Los Angeles and America. So Korean voices with no accents started to vocalize their views and challenged the powers that be. They pointed out the failings of the city leadership relative to protecting all communities and boldly stated their resolve that this would never happen again.
So 20 years later, Sa-i-gu was and is a history lesson and so much more. It is becoming a righteous manifesto that pledges that what took place will never happen again. Most all, our communities have that life-changing event that altered the course of our community’s history and development, and Korean Americans have Sa-i-gu.
Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.