As protests erupted in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, some of the demonstrations were led by Asian Americans looking to the past to inform their activism.
The young activists recalled the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, which was sparked after a jury acquitted three Los Angeles police officers of use of excessive force for brutally beating Rodney King and failed to reach a verdict for a fourth officer, as well as the killing of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl who was shot by a Korean convenience store owner who said she stole a bottle of orange juice.
The shop owner, Soon Ja Du, was sentenced to probation, community service and a $500 fine, a decision that was upheld a week before the uprising. Much of Koreatown was then destroyed, with thousands of businesses looted, vandalized or set on fire.
Young organizers today say that until Asian Americans reckon with what happened in 1992, their communities will not be able to organize effectively in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
“It hurts us as a whole, not just the Asian community, but just people of color in general, essentially pitting ourselves against each other,” said Tom Ngo, an entrepreneur who organized an Asian American solidarity march.
Solidarity with Black lives
Ngo wanted to see more Asian Americans marching in the streets, so he took to social media.
“We were just putting out a call-out message, saying, ‘Hey, we need to come out and support, we’re going to show up on this day at this time, come out if you can,'” he said of the AAPI March for Black Lives, which he helped organize in Los Angeles on June 5.
The morning of the demonstration, about 1,000 protesters, most of whom were of Asian descent, gathered on the front steps of City Hall holding signs with slogans like “Asians for Black Lives” and “Asian Silence = Complicity.”
David Bryant, co-founder of the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee, addressed the crowd.
“Our Asian brothers and sisters, and particularly our Korean brothers and sisters, we would like you to know — history doesn’t have to repeat itself,” he said. “We can come together in unity.”
The legacy — and lessons — of the 1992 uprisings also inspired the activist Tyson Suzuki, who is half-Japanese and half-Black. For the past month, he has led daily political education sessions outside City Hall, where he frequently discusses what happened in 1992 and draws connections between past and present.
“Being shot in the head for orange juice divided the people, and sadly enough it sparked a complete divide among two racial minority groups that should have focused their aggressions towards the system of how they were being marginalized through police brutality,” he said.
“If we’re not white, we’re a marginalized race as a whole — the Black community just so happens to see more violent acts towards them than any other racial group when it comes to police,” he said. “It’s understanding that but also engaging in conversations about community policing and restorative justice.”
Healing old traumas
Some organizers say the Korean community is still holding on to trauma from 1992. Many business owners in Koreatown at the time had to fend for themselves as police protected wealthier neighborhoods during the uprising. Koreatown businesses — most of them owned by Koreans and Latinos — bore the brunt of the damage.
“I was afraid to see history repeat itself,” Koreatown organizer Nara Kim said. “I didn’t want to see Korean Americans arm themselves.”
So Kim, along with fellow organizers Cat Yang and Alan Antonio, created a group called Ktown 4 Black Lives and planned a June 6 solidarity protest in Koreatown called Yellow and Brown Folks United for Black Lives. They envisioned that the protest would be a place for people to discuss trauma stemming from the 1992 uprising and to get educated on how to move forward.
“It really should be on the folks that are in the community, in Koreatown, with Korean Americans to be able to hold space and really unpack that trauma with folks,” Kim said.
Learning from the 1992 uprising, the Ktown 4 Black Lives organizers wanted a space that would include all communities in Koreatown, including Latinos, who make up over half the neighborhood’s population.
Yang started gauging interest among Asian American protesters at Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles actions and then helped form a coalition mostly of Asian and Latino organizers.
Korean and West African drum groups performed at the event. Protesters donated supplies to groups like the Watts Community Corps and the Downtown Women’s Center, and volunteers distributed information in English, Korean and Spanish on Black Lives Matter and police abolition.
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Several speakers addressed 1992.
Haewon Asfaw shared her experience growing up half-Korean and half-Black in Los Angeles and called on both communities to resist efforts to pit them against each other.
“They played on loop that Korean store owner shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, and they got in our heads, and they played that game, and they turned us against each other,” Asfaw said. “This idea of scarcity and division is rooted in white supremacy, and we have to tear it down and rebuild.”
About 500 people attended the event, which surprised organizers.
“I saw former teachers, classmates, friends that live in Koreatown,” Antonio said. “It was overwhelming, but in a good way.”