By Ray Richardson
LOS ANGELES — Thirty years after the Los Angeles riots tore apart minority neighborhoods and businesses, a coalition of community and civic leaders is pledging unity during preparations this month to commemorate one of the darkest moments in the city’s history.
Racial tensions and violence between Korean and African-American communities was a dominant theme in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict in April 1992, which led to six days of rioting, 63 deaths and more than a billion dollars in property damage. Sixty-five percent of the businesses destroyed in the unrest were owned by Korean-Americans.
“We still carry that pain from 30 years ago,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a City Hall press conference April 5. “We still feel the sting of racial injustice and prejudice and the struggles to run a small business. How do we get rid of this trauma? By talking about it and building something better.”
Garcetti joined numerous community and civic leaders to outline plans for a month-long commemoration of the 1992 L.A. riots and to promote a push for healing among minority communities that were tragically affected by the unrest.
The events begin with a prayer breakfast April 8 at the Wilshire United Methodist Church and conclude with a closing commemorative service April 29 at Tapestry LA. The LA riots began on April 29, 1992 after a Simi Valley jury of 10 whites, one Hispanic and one Korean-American acquitted four Los Angeles police officers on all charges in the King beating that took place in March 1991.
Hyepin Im, president and CEO of Faith and Community Empowerment (FACE), the lead organization in planning the 30-year commemoration, said more than 300 people are expected to attend the closing service. The invitation list includes local, state and national elected officials, celebrities, law enforcement agencies, business and community leaders, ex-gang members and victims of the rioting.
“So much of the current narrative pits our communities against each other,” Im said. “We’re trying to put an end to that. We’re all in the same economic wheelchairs.”
Thirteen days after the videotape of King’s beating by the four LAPD officers surfaced, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was fatally shot by a Korean-American owner of a convenience store as she attempted to walk out. The owner, Soon Ja Du, thought Harlins was attempting to steal a bottle of orange juice.
Outrage gripped the African-American community after Ja Du was given what was perceived as a light sentence — five years probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine. With Harlins’ shooting still on the minds of African-Americans after the not-guilty verdict in the King case, Korean and Asian businesses were heavily targeted during the LA riots.
Television coverage of the unrest showed many Korean and Asian business owners poised to shoot rioters attempting to loot or destroy their stores. Some TV images captured Asians on rooftops of buildings in crouched positions with their rifles aimed.
Najee Ali, executive director of Project Islamic Hope, offered a public apology to the Korean-American community during the April 5 press conference.
“Thirty years later, I’m here to say I’m sorry,” Ali said. “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.”
Ali’s words were heard by several Korean-Asia community leaders and business owners. Im, a Korean-American, assembled many leaders and business owners from Asian communities to attend the press conference. The gathering served as a show of solidarity among minorities working to move past the conflicts that boiled over in 1992. Leaders from Hispanic, Latino and Muslim communities were also present.
“We want to bring peace for all L.A. citizens,” said Mahomed Khan, president of American Muslim Strategies. “No community should become a scapegoat for another community’s pain and suffering.”
Korean-Asian leaders expressed support for FACE’s unity initiative and appear willing to work with the coalition to help resolve the cultural issues among minority communities.
“Since the riots, many Koreans have put in effort to build friendship and trust among diverse communities in Los Angeles,” Youngwan Kim, consul general of Korea in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “The Korean Consulate would like to contribute to make harmony in L.A., home to more than 600,000 Koreans. We are pleased to join FACE in this important work.”
Ali said “complete healing” between the Korean and African-American communities has not been achieved, but he has seen signs of progress. The key area has been interaction with customers in Korean establishments.
“In the past, when you had change coming from a purchase, most of them would just put the money on the [counter] for you to pick up,” Ali said of Korean store owners and their staff. “Now, they’re handing you the money. It might seem like a small thing, but it’s a positive sign and something to build on.”
To help promote the 30-year commemoration, Im and her staff have put together a theme entitled ‘SAIGU 30.’ Im said SAIGU stands for “Serve, Advocate, Inspire, Give and Unite.” The term will be displayed at all events this month and on promotional material.
There is also a hashtag to keep up with events and developments this month on social media: ‘IAm#FACEofLA.’ More details are available on the website at www.facela.org.
Ray Richardson is a contributing writer for The Wave. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.