Most of the country experienced the LA Riots — also known as the Rodney King Riots, the LA rebellion, civil unrest, Sa-i-gu — through an endless loop of chaos on the nightly news: protesters, burning buildings, looters, mob violence, and armed store owners firing into crowds on the street and from rooftops.
Beamed internationally, the news footage kept to a simple script: African Americans fueled a level of violence that was too dangerous for police intervention. TV news focused almost exclusively on blacks and latinos plundering through busted up shops in a party-like atmosphere. Korean immigrants were presented as alien aggressors with guns and long rifles who put their stores ahead of people’s lives. And though there were white looters too, the coverage focused on the near-fatal beating of Reginald Denny, who was pulled from his truck at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. Media representation of the “first multicultural riots” locked each group within its designated social construct.
Although looting and fires broke out from Hollywood to as far south as Long Beach, this project will focus on one neighborhood that often gets overlooked: Koreatown. Centrally-located a few miles west of downtown Los Angeles, Koreatown is a place full of contradictions — simultaneously designated a high-poverty “Promise Zone” by President Obama yet also touted in a New York Times 2016 feature as a hotspot for hipsters. With a population of around 250,000, most of its residents aren’t even Korean, but immigrants from Central America, Mexico, Bangladesh, and transplants from all over the U.S. in search of affordable rents. But how many of Koreatown’s current residents know what happened here in April 1992? How far has the neighborhood, the city, and the country come since the biggest civil unrest in American history? More importantly, what does it tell us about our future as a multiethnic society that is increasingly informed by the immigrant experience?