Jay Kim, center, then-mayor of Diamond Bar, inspects a location in Los Angeles, Calif., in May 1992, where rehabilitation work was underway after the LA riots. / Korea Times file
By Jay Kim
The 1992 Los Angeles riots occurred when I was in the middle of my campaign for the June congressional primary. It was the first major test of my political life ― the worst riots in American history, and they happened in the middle of Los Angeles’ Koreatown while I was mayor of a city located only 20 miles east.
I was afraid that my campaign would be adversely affected because it was obvious that the media would have scores of interviews with Korean-American merchants all across national television news broadcasts.
The riots opened the eyes of many Korean-Americans to how vulnerable Koreatown was, situated alongside Olympic Boulevard, a dividing line between white and black communities in downtown LA.
Even though it seemed that most of the rioters were black, many of those that stole merchandise from the Korean-owned stores seemed to be Hispanic, and possibly were illegal immigrants.
On April 29, the day the riots began, I was in the Diamond Bar City Hall talking to my staff about the upcoming council hearings. In the middle of our conversation, I received an urgent call from the CFO of the engineering design company that I owned and operated.
He asked me to come back to the office as soon as I could because we did not have enough money in the bank to cover the payroll.
Just as I was about to leave, my city manager informed me that there were more than a dozen unhappy citizens waiting to see me with some complaints about street sweeping and garbage collection.
As there was no back door to the office for me to duck out of and avoid them, I had no choice but to meet them. They confronted me and asked me, What are you doing as mayor? Why are our streets not cleaned and our trash not being picked up? You need to come with us immediately and see how bad the situation is.”
While I was apologizing to these folks and preparing to go out and see what the situation was, my secretary ran up with an urgent call from the police chief. The call was to inform me that a riot was occurring in downtown Los Angeles.
I pulled myself away from the townsfolk in order to set up an emergency meeting about the situation, due to the close proximity of the riots. Pomona, a city nearby, was also seeing riots and sporadic fires.
As I was saying to myself “what an unlucky day,” I looked at the calendar and was reminded it was April 29. Suddenly, the April 19 Revolution of Korea came to mind.
I remember watching it in Seoul when I was young, seeing college students running in the streets while shouting slogans about fighting the autocratic government of President Syngman Rhee.
I remembered the suicide-style murder at the hand of his own son, as well as the murder of the whole family of Speaker Lee Ki-bong, the right hand man of President Rhee. Although the 1992 LA Riots and our April 19 Revolution were quite different, I was reminded by the similarities of popular foment.
After a quick meeting, I rushed to Koreatown. This was during the peak of the riots and there was fire and debris everywhere, people running with TVs, radios, and even refrigerators in their arms. It was a mess.
As I arrived, several Korean-American community leaders recognized me and welcomed me. They were all wearing Marine uniforms, with “Korean Marine” bandanas, and were carrying air rifles.
I was so proud of them for defending their own community, with the police nowhere to be seen thanks to Police Chief Darryl Gates’ “let Koreatown burn” attitude. This was an unconscionable decision because Koreatown, due to its close proximity, was an obvious target for rioters.
The Korean shopping district mainly consists of shops that use cheap Hispanic labor, including restaurants, dry cleaners, and gas stations. Hispanics and Koreans had coexisted peacefully in that area for many years; however, the news showed footage of Hispanics, not African-Americans, destroying Korean stores to steal beer, clothes, televisions, and other items during the riots.
I remember TV footage showing Koreans in Marine uniforms protecting Korean stores by firing air guns from the rooftops of buildings. It was like watching the street-to-street fighting of the Korean War.
Was this America? Many Americans could not believe what they saw on TV. However, despite my fears, the American public greatly praised those brave Korean-Americans who tried to protect their homes and stores with their own hands.
I was also lucky enough to be treated as a hero just like those brave Koreans, and my campaign gained momentum as a result. I still cannot believe that the riots, which had caused grievous psychological damage to the Korean-American community, had helped catapult me onto the stage of national politics.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).