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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 3 of 7)

For him, in 1992, the riots were not riots at all, but a rebellion aimed at throwing off perceived economic and social oppression.

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"We wanted to hurt [Koreans] physically, economically, raise their insurance rates – anything we could for payback," says Ali.

Jurado knew blacks didn't particularly get along with Koreans, because he grew up in South-Central. He knew, too, that blacks didn't particularly like Hispanics, either. Crack cocaine had hit South-Central streets in the mid-'80s, creating gang turf battles in which homicides rocketed.

Race relations were so bad that when Jurado joined the police department Explorers – a group intended to recruit future officers – he became a victim of what he felt was abuse, when a white officer yanked his jet-black hair for no reason Jurado could see except that he was Hispanic.

A scholarship gave him a three-year "escape" to high school in Rochester, Minn., where he gained perspective on his hometown's troubles. When South-Central exploded in 1992, Jurado perceived that racial tension between blacks and Koreans wasn't the only reason for the rage.

There was growing unemployment and encroachment by Hispanics on traditionally black areas. Twenty-five years before, the 70-square-mile area of South-Central had been 80 percent black. By '92, it was 55 percent Latino.

"It was clear to us that residents of black neighborhoods were feeling the displacement of their numbers by immigrants from all areas south of the border," says Jurado. "Hispanics in general, and Salvadorans in particular, felt that blacks were blaming us for their downturn."

Because of this underlying tension, Jang was relieved that her parents had just months before the riots sold their South-Central hamburger stand. In 1985, when she was 7, Mira and her family had emigrated from South Korea to L.A.'s Koreatown, the largest concentration of ethnic Koreans outside the Korean Peninsula. Her parents had college degrees, but in America they worked at hard, low-pay jobs in bad parts of town, as dishwashers, cooks, and cashiers, in addition to running their own small business. For years her father worked a dangerous late-night shift at a liquor store.

"I prayed for their safety every day," says Jang.

Fortunately for her family, the riots came just months after they'd sold their hamburger stand in order to finance a move – for Mira's sake – into an affordable fringe of the safer but high-rent Beverly Hills school district. Many who lost shops and livelihoods were not as fortunate. Koreans suffered the loss of 1,800 businesses.

The incident is a defining American moment for Koreans. Like the common shorthand "9/11" used by Americans for last year's terrorist attacks, the Rodney King riots are referred to as sa-i-gu – literally "4/29" – by Koreans. The expression conveys a similar sense of victimization.

Jang says the rioting was fueled in part by police abuse and economic inequalities between blacks, Latinos, and Asians. But today she charges that something more was also at work. She claims the black-Korean conflict was more a "ruse" concocted by the media and supported by the government to steer blame away from the real culprits. The culprits, she believes, were government and corporate neglect of poor and underrepresented residents – and local TV outlets that wanted a return on their investments in new helicopter and mobile-based cameras and wittingly or unwittingly exploited the black-Korean conflict for ratings.

"Koreans became pawns in this game, as people of color fought for the crumbs rather than their due piece of the American pie," says Jang, now a 24-year-old field deputy to Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democrat whose district includes Koreatown.