This week marked the 28th anniversary of the LA riots. In 1992, racial tensions in Los Angeles reached a tipping point following the death of a 15-year-old African American teenager who was shot by a Korean American liquor store owner and the acquittal of four white LAPD officers in the video recorded beating of Rodney King, sparking a civil unrest. Set off by the acquittal, the riots quickly spread from South Central Los Angeles to Koreatown.
Once the riots reached Koreatown, the LAPD stood aside and let the neighborhood burn. With no help from the LAPD, Korean American business owners and residents were forced to take matters into their own hands to protect their families and businesses.
During the riots, Chang Lee was a 35-year-old ex-aerospace engineer who left his engineering career to open three businesses in Koreatown. He described his first-hand account in an interview with CNN in 2017. “I truly thought I was a part of mainstream society,” said Lee, who immigrated with his family to the United States as a child. “Nothing in my life indicated I was a secondary citizen until the LA riots. The LAPD powers that be decided to protect the ‘haves’ and the Korean community did not have any political voice or power. They left us to burn.” Never did he imagine that he would be standing on a rooftop holding a shotgun while everything around him burned.
When the week-long riots were over, 65% of Korean owned businesses in the city of Los Angeles were vandalized. About half the $1 billion in damage had been sustained by Korean American businesses.
“Despite the fact that Korean American merchants were victimized, no one in the mainstream cared because of our lack of visibility and political power,” Chang said. “Korean immigrants, many who arrived in the late 1970s and early 80s, learned economic success alone will not guarantee their place in America. What was an immigrant Korean identity began to shift. The Korean-American identity was born.”
I remember watching the riots unfold on TV as a kid. I watched streets and buildings that I was familiar with, on fire and people shooting in the streets. I remember a friend in high school telling me how he saw people run past his window carrying stereos and clothes that they had just looted from a store. Him, like many other Koreatown residents at the time would move out to places like Orange County, Riverside and beyond.
Almost three decades later, Asian American businesses are under attack again, but this time it’s not just one place and one ethnicity, it is a global problem affecting anyone that looks Asian.
Asians around the world have experienced an increase in coronavirus fueled hate crimes. As the virus spreads, so does the xenophobia. Videos across the internet of Asians being spit on, verbal and physical attacks and reports of Asian businesses being vandalized have become a daily occurrence. Along with the increasing unemployment rate and fears of the government’s inability to contain the situation, Asians are once again left to fend for ourselves.
In the years prior to the pandemic, Asian American hate crimes were on a 15 year decline. In 2017, anti-Asian hate crimes made up only 1.8% of hate crimes in the United States. From 2017 to 2003, they were down 56%. In fact, there had not been an anti-Asian motivated murder in the United States since 2003.
That all changed in the spring of 2020. On March 16th, Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” which has since fueled anti-Asian xenophobia. Following Trump’s finger pointing, the FBI warned that there would be an increase in hate crimes towards Asian Americans. Asians are experiencing similar to what anyone of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent did post-9/11. The nonprofit group Stop AAPI Hate established a hate crime reporting center on March 19th. By March 25th, it had already recorded more than 1,100 reports of coronavirus discrimination.
In recent weeks, Asian owned businesses have been vandalized across America. Asian American business owners, who are already struggling to stay in business have found their windows smashed and messages like “Take the corona back you chinks” spray painted on their walls.
Even at a time where we need to band together more than ever, you would assume that at people of color would stand together. In many instances, other POC’s have been the perpetrator in these Asian hate crimes. A Hispanic man slashed a Burmese American family at a Walmart parking lot in Midland, TX. Dozens of videos of African Americans verbally or physically attacking Asian Americans have circulated around the internet. Even Asian American healthcare workers on the front lines aren’t immune to the hate.
Despite the increase of anti-Asian hate crime, the mainstream media rarely reports on it and the police aren’t doing much for our communities.
“People without a voice in the community are the ones who get victimized” said Richard Kim, a Korean American businessowner who survived the 1992 riots. Kim was one of the many armed Korean American business owners trying to protect their business from looters during the riots. The media called them as armed vigilantes. Kim says they were just trying to protect what’s theirs.
On March 11th, the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic. The same month, the NRA reported 2.5 million guns sold in the United States. Many customers included first-time Asian American gun owners.
A Chinese American gun buyer in Northern California spoke with the Sacramento Bee and noted the surging number of hate crimes across the country. “Racism has always existed, but it became worse after that (COVID-19). People now feel emboldened to do (discriminatory acts),” he said in Cantonese. “I cannot stall any more. I see the need to protect and defend my family, said another Chinese American first-time gun buyer.
In the years since the riots, Asians have become a bigger part of America. 30 years ago, we would have never imagined that Asian fusion food would be mainstream, an Asian American would run for president, win an NBA championship or that movies starring us would be blockbusters and sweep the Oscars. Just as we were making progress, the attitude towards Asian Americans due to the coronavirus sets us back to square one. All the years of progress and success still does not guarantee our place in American society. We’ve learned that the “model minority” myth only exists when you fit into stereotypes.
LA riot survivor Richard Kim says that silence is part of the problem. After the riots, he was reluctant to talk to the press. Now he realizes that his silence contributed to why Korean Americans were misunderstood. Now is the time to speak up against anti-Asian discrimination. It is often assumed that Asians don’t speak up, which leads to the victimization. The more we speak up and create more visibility and understanding in our communities, the more we can help minimize these cases.
What are your thoughts on the situation? Let us know in the comments