The 20th Anniversary of Sa-I-Gu (L.A. Riots)

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Rally held in Los Angeles on May 2, 1992

When the Riots happened, I was only 3 years old and on the other side of the country. Only until I was a freshman at UCLA did I understand what had happened on April 29, 1992, and its effects on the Korean American community.

Here in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by students who were the children of the Riots. I heard stories about their parents and relatives leaving with guns to help their neighbors protect their stores. They told me how they hid in their dark homes, afraid that they were going to die.

These accounts were eye-opening, especially since I was someone whose knowledge of the Riots was limited to brief excerpts from history books.

The shooting of Latasha Harlins and the beating of Rodney King, incidents that occurred within 13 days of each other, were decisive factors that led to the Riots. To many, storeowner Soon Ja Du had received a light sentence of probation, a fine, and community service after shooting 15-year-oldLatasha Harlins on the suspicion of stealing. Five months later, the four police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King were acquitted, igniting outrage within the Black community and ultimately sparking the Riots.

Hyungwon Kang / Los Angeles Times

Korean American shopkeepers were left to defend their livelihoods once it became apparent that the police could not and would not provide protection from looters. In the end, 54 people died, thousands were injured, and over $1 billion of damages left Los Angeles crippled.

One year after the Riots, a Los Angeles Times survey revealed that 40% of Korean Americans were considering on leaving LA. Those who stayed began to rebuild what had been lost. Today,Koreatown, with all of its delicious mom-and-pop restaurants and nightlife glitz, appears to have emerged for the better.

However, Korean Americans continue to lack a voice in Los Angeles politics. Most recently, the Korean American community lost its battle against a city motion that splits Koreatown into two separate districts, chipping away more of Korean Americans’ already meager political clout. In response, Koreatown activists are in the works of filing a lawsuit against the L.A. City Council.

A lot of emphasis has been placed on remembering the events and honoring the martyrs who fell during this tragic time. And though undoubtedly important for this 20th anniversary, I can’t help but wonder what will come next. The past can be remembered, but it can also be a platform for action. Though the Riots happened in Los Angeles twenty years ago, I’ve come to realize that time and place shouldn’t limit the impact that these events could have on others and myself.

I, too, am a child of the Riots. We all are. And as a duty to those before us, we must continue to fight to be heard not only in Los Angeles, but all over the country.

In memoriam of the LA Riots, Korean Beacon has collected the following articles to inform readers of issues—both past and present—that are a direct result of the LA Riots, otherwise known as Sa-I-Gu.

Riots in Los Angeles: Pocket of Tension; A Target of Rioters, Koreatown is Bitter, Armed and Determined (May 3, 1992)

Just days after the Riots erupted, the New York Times provided insight into the then current state-of-mind of Korean Americans who had suffered losses. One owner asked, “What am I going to do? Just sit down and die? I am going to protect my store and my family and myself.”

Read the full article here.


South L.A., Twenty Years Later

With the support of a reporting grant from the Rosenberg Foundation, writer and social justice lawyer E. Tammy Kim revisits the Riots and sheds light on the ongoing race, class, and economic issues/struggles in South L.A.

Read the full article here.



L.A. Riots, In Our Own Words

KoreAm Journal‘s April issue is dedicated to the L.A. Riots. One of the feature articles includes an oral history featuring testimonies from all perspectives (shop owners, local residents, reporters, councilmembers, etc.). This mosaic of firsthand accounts paints a vivid picture of events from before, during, and after the Riots. Read the full article here.

Mapping the Riot Damage to Korean-run Businesses

Though the media presented Koreatown as the main scene for the Riots, Korean American businesses, stretching from Gardena all the way up to Hollywood and from Miracle Mile across to Chinatown, were directly affected.

See the full map here.


The State of Korean and Black Relations Post Latasha Harlins and the ’92 Civil Unrest

Former councilmember Mike Woo and Korean American Business Association President Jong Min Kang discuss the current status of race relations between the Black and Korean community since the LA Riots. The talk is available online at and for download on iTunes.

Read the full article here.

Riot Victims Can Suffer From PTSD Even Now

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was originally diagnosed for war veterans who had participated in combat. However, studies done on Riot victims reveal that many Koreans suffer from PTSD even after twenty years.

Read the full article here.



K.W. Lee Challenges the Grandchildren of the LA Riots

Now at the age of 83, K.W. Lee (“Godfather of Asian American journalism” and founder of The Korea Times English edition) calls upon new generations of Korean Americans to break their silence and rise above political apathy.

Read the full article here.



LA Riots: LAPD tried to Displace its Racism Problem and ‘Put it On a Korean Merchant’

Former LA Times Reporter John Lee gives his take on how the LAPD and the media surrounding the shooting of Latasha Harlins contributed to riot violence against Korean businesses. Lee states, “The way the media simplifies things, it was pointing an arrow at Korean merchants.”

Read the full article here.


How Koreatown Rose From the Ashes of L.A. Riots

Though many  found themselves displaced and dejected after the Riots, Korean Americans have remained resilient and, in fact, have begun to facilitate friendly relations with other ethnic communities in the area.

Read the full article here.


Sa-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives

Okada House in Stanford, CA will be screeningDai Sil Kim-GibsonChristine Choy, and Elaine Kim’s compelling 1993 film Sa-I-Gu on May 1st. The documentary gives a rare glimpse into the perspectives of Korean American women shopkeepers. Co-producer Elaine Kim will be present at the screening. For details, click here.

You can watch the full documentary below.



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