The riots that were sparked on April 29, 1992 put L.A.'s burgeoning Korean American population in the spotlight.
It seems that for every generation, a group of immigrants gets picked for no-holds-barred hatred, and Koreans in 1992 were it. John Lee covered the community and the riots for the Los Angeles Times back then, and he argues that the LAPD, under fire for the Rodney King beating, wanted the focus to be on his people.
Shortly after the uprisings, Lee, a longtime friend of this reporter, left the paper, bitter about his experience. He looks back:
Some have forgotten that another spark for the riots was the shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins less than two weeks after the police beating of King.
A South L.A. store owner, Soon Ja Du, pulled the trigger. It was March 16, 1991.
Lee covered the aftermath of the shooting and the ensuing manslaughter prosecution of Du, who claimed self defense. The story line often cited was that Harlins was shot over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice she had stuffed in her backpack.
He interviewed Latasha's aunt, Denise Harlins, who raised her. “She dealt with me as human being and not as a Korean L.A. Times reporter,” Lee says.
Latasha Harlins quickly became the Trayvon Martin of her day. Orange juice was her Skittles.
Harlins, it turned out, intended to pay for the juice, and died with $2 in her hand after scuffling with Du and being shot in the back of the head as she attempted to leave the store.
The Korean's family gave security video to the LAPD, hoping it would vindicate Du. But the department instead released it to the media. Lee thinks that the LAPD was trying to deflect attention away from another video — that of King being pummeled by four cops.
There was already bad blood in the black community: African Americans felt they were treated badly by a wave of Korean merchants that had come into South L.A. to open liquor stores, markets, clothing boutiques and wig shops. Lee was assigned to cover the Harlins story with African American colleague Andrea Ford:
I had had that conversation with Andrea, about how Korean merchants treated black customers. We were aware of the climate. There were a lot of incidents of disputes.
He thinks the LAPD capitalized on this:
My concern was that we were taking wholesale what the police were feeding the media through this very calculated press conference [Monday after the weekend shooting]. The calculation was to take away from the Rodney King incident and to displace their racist beating — to displace some of that shock of the racism — and put it on a Korean merchant.
Korean merchants were already walking a fine line of being characterized as oppressors to African American clientele.
That day the department called for “Murder One” — a premeditated homicide charge — against Du, which Lee says was extraordinary because cops aren't responsible for bringing charges; the District Attorney's office is.
What followed, he says, was coverage that focused on the shooting of an unarmed black girl and not what happened before the gun went off.
Lee says that after police released the videotape, many news outlets edited it to show only the shooting:
Harlins actually punched Du two or three times in the face after the store owner grabbed her backpack and demanded payment for the juice that was hidden away in her bag.
Du's family contended that the weapon had been stolen and recovered and was modified, unbeknownst to the merchant, to have a hair trigger, a fact that cops seemed to corroborate.
But the story line didn't change much. It was an unprovoked shooting by a racist Korean store owner over a $1.79 bottle of juice. People were pissed and, Lee says, coverage of the incident didn't help:
It was probably the incident that fueled people's anger in wanting some retribution. I feel that retribution was taken out on Korean merchants. The Times I think had a part in it. This case was put on this Korean family who barely spoke English and were not in a good position to defend themselves.
In November 1991 Du was convicted of manslaughter, but a judge sentenced her to probation: No time would be served. Lee:
I do feel like the portrayal of how Latasha Harlins was killed and how the trial went down contributed to people's righteous indignation and fueled a lot of [riot] violence directed at Korean merchants. The way the media simplifies things, it was pointing an arrow at Korean merchants. Whatever grievance you have with the justice system, this is your enemy. Here's your target.
When the riots erupted on April 29, some people burned Korean stores in the name of Latasha Harlins, the case still fresh in the minds of many in South L.A.
By that time Lee had been reassigned to the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times, but soon enough, as one of only a few Korean American reporters at the paper, he was called up to cover the uprisings.
The paper had a system of suburban satellite editions in places like San Diego, Orange County, Ventura County, the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.
While some of the best journalists ever to work at the Times (author Michael Connelly, former Weekly editor Drex Heikes, national correspondent and sometime overseas reporter John Glionna) came out of the 'burbs, they were also known as the place where young minorities got their feet in the door.
And thus, when the riots happened, the paper, severely lacking minorities based out of its downtown Metro section, “called up” all the people of color it could get, even if they didn't know much about South L.A.
In a surreal twist that rings true for almost anyone who remembers the savage beauty of that warm spring, Lee, a San Diego native, says he had gone surfing the day the riots started.
I caught perfect south Bird [Rock], 4-6 feet northwest swell. Definitely probably one of the best days ever surfing that spot. It was a total trip to leave my hometown. I went from paradise to palm trees on fire.
He says he drove up from San Diego that week with an African American colleague:
She was not from L.A. or Southern California. They didn't call her up for her experience or knowledge of the area. It was because she was African American.
Back then there were very few reporters on the city desk who spent any time in South L.A. A lot of them didn't know that Florence was an east-west street. It gave rise to this criticism that they were bringing in reporters from the 'burbs who would have better access to the riot areas.
As he was deployed to Koreatown, Lee says the media's story was once again off.
Korean store owners were portrayed as almost feral in their armed plight to save their merchandise, he says: They had itchy trigger fingers and would shoot those who trespassed.
Often untold, however, was the fact that rioters would drive up to Korean American stores and open fire with automatic weapons. It happened at the BiF furniture store at Vermont Avenue and 8th Street, he says, a place he witnessed as it was fortified with refrigerators to create foxholes.
Also untold: Those Koreans who laid down their weapons, locked up their stores, and tried to avoid violence.
A year after the riots, Lee had left the Times and was working at LA Weekly while freelancing for the New York Times.
The second trial, this one federal, of the four officers in the King beating had been underway, and the story line was that Korean Americans were once again arming themselves to prepare for the worst.
The media descended on the one licensed gun seller in Koreatown, Western Guns, noting that a dozen or more weapons were heading out the door on a good day, Lee says. The image there was of an emboldened, macho Korean merchant class ready for battle once more. But a gun shop on the Westside was selling more than 150 weapons a day.
Lee interviewed a merchant who decided to downscale his merchandise to 99-cent-store-style items, leave his guns at home, and lock up. There would be no armed confrontation this time.
He was like, if people want to loot it, that's on them, and I'm not going to lose my life over it — and I'm not going to take somebody's life over it. That nuance was never covered in any other place. I tried to get that story out there.
Lee says he sent 250-inches of printed notes to the New York Times for its riot anniversary story, including facts about the Westside gun store and the store owner who was choosing peace.
“They ended up doing their own story,” Lee says, exasperated. “They went to Western Guns.”
Read our cover story about the riots, “Then & Now,” here.