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L.A.'s darkest days

Ten years ago today, the worst race riot in US history erupted in Los Angeles. Here, the story is told in three diverse lives.

(Page 2 of 7)

L.A. has long been at the cutting edge of American culture, and in this it was no different. Its riots were the costliest in the nation's history.

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A number of neighborhoods were touched by the 1992 violence, but the epicenter was in South-Central. A decayed expanse of ticky-tacky stucco houses and aging factories, South-Central has long served as a door to L.A. for immigrant minorities. During World War II and its aftermath, blacks settled there, drawn by work in rubber plants and other industrial ventures. Later, black-owned retail in the area was bought up by Koreans who couldn't afford stores in more prosperous areas. And L.A.'s fast-growing Hispanic population began to move in, advancing block-by-block.

Fissures between minorities have long been a source of urban tension in the US. And the vast expanse of South-Central's diverse Asian-black-Hispanic mix was a tinderbox for multi-ethnic conflagration. Minority versus minority fighting in the riots was ferocious and unprecedented.

Even as the embers smoldered, city leaders began to wonder if the long-held American image of "melting pot" was a false one.

"We began to examine whether or not multiculturalism is a myth," says Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside. "The riots showed that perhaps white, black, Asian, and Hispanic are still all-too-separate, unequal societies."

Jang, Jurado, and Ali help explain how Koreans, Hispanics, and blacks, in particular, experienced the 1992 riots. All three were young in '92. All were seared by what they saw and heard during the days of violence. All have spent the years since trying to understand the point of view of both their own minority, and those of others – and why solid social progress toward reconciliation and rebuilding has remained elusive.

"Everyone's perception of 4/29 [1992] is totally different depending on where they stood then and stand now, what they saw and felt, and who they are," says Ali. "That's part of why this has been so difficult."

The acquittals in the Rodney King case sent blacks into the streets. The video depiction of the incident had shown King – stopped after a high-speed chase – lying on the ground while white policemen beat him. Many African-Americans simply didn't understand how a jury could have found the attackers innocent, given the video evidence.

But L.A.'s black community was primed to explode by an earlier incident. Several months prior to the King-beating verdict, Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl, was shot and killed by a Korean grocer in an altercation over a bottle of orange juice.

The grocer had been found guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the death, but received a sentence of probation. For many poorer African Americans, the verdict was an outrage, and became a symbol of what they considered decades of economic colonialism by Korean store owners who operated in black neighborhoods.

"The No. 1 enemy for us was Koreans, who we felt were oppressing us," says Ali.

Giving and getting racial hurt

Ali – then Todd Eskew – was a self-professed "gang-banger" who lived alone and hated his construction job. He'd watched as unemployment – due to an exodus of manufacturing from South-Central during the '80s – claimed the livelihoods of his friends.

Asians weren't the only ethnic group Ali disliked. He'd seen Hispanic immigrants flood L.A., competing with blacks for entry-level jobs and low-cost housing. But the Koreans edging in from the north were a case apart. They spoke no English – and used none on their business signs. Korean store owners in black neighborhoods followed customers around, and placed change on countertops, rather than in customers' hands. They kept to themselves and didn't participate in civic life, Ali says.