Cultural Factors in the L.A. Riots

Julian Klugman

Former CRS Mediator, San Francisco Office

[Full Interview]

The Koreans had bought out the black tavern owners. There were very few Jewish owners of buildings anymore, since the Watts riots. The Jews got burned out in 1965 and they left. The Koreans came in, and they had bought up over half the taverns, liquor stores, and little grocery stores. It took me a while to understand Koreans. Koreans do not fit the Asian stereotype. In many ways they're aggressive. They're the bottom of the social ladder for some Asians. Korea's become industrialized in the last fifteen years. Before that it was mainly agricultural. So the Koreans came into L.A. There are three hundred thousand Koreans in L.A. and about thirty percent of them have a college education. Some Koreans are very blunt; they're like the Israelis. They are very direct. They became shopkeepers. They didn't hire blacks because they are family run institutions. They moved in and bought shops in black areas. To run a liquor shop in a poor area, black or not, you're going to have protection. You're talking about central L.A. where at that time there were more murders than anywhere else in the world. You're talking about drugs and gang warfare; it's a dangerous place. Here is where they have their shops. I don't think some black customers like them very much, and I don't think some Koreans like the black customers very much. It took me five years to get into the Korean community, being very patient. Once you're in, you're in. They trust you, but it takes a long time. They had a dozen robberies of Korean stores by blacks. There was an incident that was the turning point, though. A fifteen year old black girl went in with her girlfriend to a store and she got a couple cans of soda. She got into a fight with the older Korean shopkeeper, and the shopkeeper killed her. The woman claimed she wasn't paying. Fortunately or unfortunately, there was a TV camera there. What happened was that the girl came in, she got cans of soda and she had money in her hand. She came up to pay and there was a misunderstanding. They started shouting at each other and the girl threw the cans. She did push the woman, but she wasn't trying to steal the soda. She turned her back and she started walking out, and the woman took a gun and blew her head off. It went to a jury and the judicial system assigned the case to a new judge, who was a white woman. This was her first case. Nobody else wanted the case so they gave it to her. They found the woman guilty of manslaughter and the judge gave her probation. She never spent a day in jail. They left and went back to Korea. There had been a black and Korean merchant group using my problem solving approach. I don't believe in just dialogue, but the human rights commission set up a dialogue group. I got the leader of CALPAC (California Association of Taverns and Package Liquor Stores), a black woman who was a real visionary. My idea was to get together with KAGRO (Korean American Grocers Association). I got the two groups together and I wanted them to sponsor a program for training. I got them to co-sponsor a project for two things. First, we were going to set up a complaint system so black customers could register complaints and there would be a system to deal with the Korean merchants who were really doing things wrong. The other thing was that we would train. The woman who headed CALPAC was running two stores. She knew how to do it and she had a lot to teach the Koreans. And the Koreans had a lot to learn about how you deal with customers. I spent over two years trying to do a whole series of meetings and we couldn't pull it off. There was a lot of resistance from the black community, but this woman really was a leader. She was pulling her group along. But behind the scenes, she was paying the price for it. There was a lot of anti-Korean sentiment. The other thing was that the Human Rights Commission was undercutting the project.

How so? Were they doing something specific?

They had a Korean-black dialogue and the Koreans tend to respond to where they see the power is, and I couldn't produce the money. If I could have produced the foundation money to fund this we could have done it, but I could not pull it off; it was too risky. The county, through the Human Rights Commission had this other thing going, and they saw what I was trying to do. I could not do it through the county. So I had to set it up as a separate thing and they saw it as competition. But anyway, this trial had happened a year before which had a tremendous amount of publicity. We tried to work on that hostility between blacks and Koreans, but when that trial happened, that killed it. The feeling of the black community was so strong, because much of the Korean community would not acknowledge that there was anything wrong. They came to the defense of the merchant. It's true that it was dangerous to be a Korean merchant in a poor black or Hispanic community. But the woman had no right to kill this girl. They caught her in the lie and they had it on tape. The Korean community did not write her off; they tended to defend her. That just killed my effort. So it was the combination of the LAPD actions and the buildup of tension in the black community after the Rodney King trial, the fluid situation, the Korean- black thing. When the riot came every Asian store got targeted. It wasn't just Koreans, they went after. Unlike the later trials, we only had three hours notice. Later we had more notice. Nobody could believe the jury let them go. Maybe we should have known better. Also there was a vacuum of leadership in the LAPD, which became very obvious. I was on a plane when it started. As we were coming over LAX at about 6:00 pm, the plane was diverted. Usually they come over direct, but we diverted; we went further South. The pilot came on and said there were reports of rifle firing. That was the first day; that was April 29. I got a rental car and drove downtown and I set up a temporary command post at City Hall. I knew a woman in City Hall and she let us into her offices. By that time at Parker Police Center, windows were broken, and there were police cars burning; it was out of control. And of course the next day it got out to the Valley and it wasn't black anymore, it was Hispanic. First day was black, and there were some white politicos involved, but the second day became Hispanic. Unlike the Watts riots, within two days it was over a third of the city; it was even out in Hollywood. Somebody broke the windows of the sex store on Hollywood Blvd. You have to remember by this time L.A. had 300,000 El Salvadorans and 100,000 Nicaraguans, most of whom were there illegally. Crimes of opportunity, poor people who didn't have much, saw on TV that nobody was stopping the looting. It wasn't until the national guard came in the fourth day that the situation really came under control.