A Photojournalist’s Account of the 1992 LA Riots

When we talk about the Rodney King riots of 1992 – the multi-ethnic race riots that rocked Los Angeles, California, for six whole days – most people only seem to remember the looting in South Central LA. The sudden explosion was instigated by the acquittal of two police officers on brutality charges and involved countless acts of violence that were concentrated among inner-city communities.

Both during and after the conflict, the popular media focused its attention mostly on black neighbourhoods, and occasionally Hispanic, but the violence inflicted on LA’s Asian population is often forgotten. At the time, Hyungwon Kang was the only Korean-speaking journalist on the LA Times staff. He covered the havoc from his unique perspective: through the eyes of his friends and family in Koreatown, who had their shops disproportionately attacked, looted, and burned and their children murdered in the streets. In this video from Reuters TV, Kang discusses the experience then, and how its effects are still being felt today:

In all, the rioting cost 53 lives, 2000 injuries, 1,100 burned buildings, and up to $1 billion in damages. Los Angeles has been festering with racial tension since its creation, during the great California gold rush of the 1840s. It is impossible to imagine the conditions that can breed a population that feels so utterly betrayed by the myth of law and order. There is no real reason that Koreatown and other Asian communities were specifically targeted (they suffered the brunt of the looting, with over 1,600 stores damaged), which can only make the ordeal more confusing and senseless to those affected.

The silver lining, though, is that the shock of the incident instigated a new wave of political involvement, in a bold and coordinated attempt to raise their collective standing, both among other minority populations as well as within the establishment.

rodney king riot koreatown

The incident that began the rioting was the case of the arrest of Rodney King, a young African-American man who was pulled over by a husband-and-wife police unit. King was on parole and feared the stop, fleeing in a high-speed pursuit across freeways and through neighborhoods. When the officers finally caught him, they tasered, kicked, and beat him for almost 10 minutes – an act which was caught on video by a local resident. They reasoned that he was on PCP – a claim which was later proven false.

With the officers’ acquittal of their assault and excessive force charges, minority residents believed that the law had turned its back on their suffering. The riots were historical in that they were the first large-scale civil eruption to get national 24-hour media coverage from several different sources. Korean-American media, particularly the Korea Times newspaper, was a very influential source for balanced reporting of the events.

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