The LA Uprising, a generation later : Code Switch : NPR



KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I’m Karen Grigsby Bates. April 29, 1992 – it was a memorable day for Los Angeles and the country.

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BOB EDWARDS: Good morning. A state of emergency has been declared in Los Angeles following a night of rioting in the city. I’m Bob Edwards.

GRIGSBY BATES: Some called it rioting. Others said it was an uprising. Either way, Los Angeles exploded. That’s because on that day, four LAPD officers were acquitted for having beaten a Black motorist named Rodney King the previous year. When the verdict was announced, the city erupted.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Whole blocks in LA’s Koreatown are still smoldering after a long night of violence.

GRIGSBY BATES: Across Los Angeles and even some of its suburbs, angry knots of residents gathered, and soon the sound of glass breaking was heard. People swarmed in to loot stores and began setting some on fire – and not just stores. The parking kiosk at the entrance to Parker Center, the seat of power for the LAPD, was torched as people protested police violence.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have a fireman shot. We have a fireman shot. We need help immediately.

GRIGSBY BATES: A lot of people in LA and watching across the country were appalled by the looting and burning and the fact that no one seemed to be doing anything about it. But for many others, especially in the city’s Black neighborhoods, the verdict, delivered by a mostly white jury in a distant suburb, was a slap in the face.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: These people are angry, and they have every right to be.

GRIGSBY BATES: Hadn’t everyone seen the same tape they had? they wondered. For them, the uprising was an understandable reaction.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The decision that was made was wrong. There was prejudice.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It is revolution time. It’s time for us to unite. A jury is still out, brothers and sisters. It is time for us to stand up and be men and women and do the right thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The LAPD is a gang itself, you know, and they are the biggest, best and most organized gang in the city. They’re totally treating people unjust. Who are they serving and protecting? Serve and protect who? We don’t feel that the blacks and minorities are being served…

GRIGSBY BATES: From the outside, all of this may have seemed like it blew up in one day, but the frustrations of Black Angelinos had been building for years before, and they were about more than just that verdict. Thirteen months before the verdict, a 15-year-old Black girl named Latasha Harlins had been shot and killed by Soon Ja Du, a Korean immigrant shop owner. Du accused Harlins of stealing a bottle of orange juice from her family’s liquor store. The two struggled briefly, and as the girl was leaving the store, Du shot her at close range in the back of the head. Store videotapes showed Harlins had money in her hand to pay for the juice when she was shot.

The outrage in the aftermath of Harlins’s death had been immediate. Soon Ja Du was tried and found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. People expected jail time, but the presiding judge gave Du five years probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine instead. What many Black Angelinos saw as a miscarriage of justice increased the tension between Black residents of South Central LA and the Koreans who owned shops both in South Central and in Koreatown.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: She got away with murder.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I damn sure hope so, that there would be all the hell in the Black community…

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I hope somebody would care about the death of a child.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: …That would stand up and see there’s this set of people – that’s exactly what it is (ph). Black people want to…

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: This is the murder of a child (ph).

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GRIGSBY BATES: So months later, the video of Rodney King being beaten was another message that Black lives didn’t matter.

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GRIGSBY BATES: Despite the fact that police brutality was the catalyst for what happened that day, all over the media, the rioting was framed as a conflict between Black people and Korean people. In fact, Koreans had a name for the date – Sai-i-gu, literally 4-2-9. LA at the time and still to this day has the largest Korean immigrant population in the country, so what happened on Sai-i-gu had a ripple effect among Koreans in the U.S. and those who still lived back in South Korea. Back then, many Koreans in LA were newly immigrated. They’d poured their savings into these businesses, most of which were located in poor Black and brown neighborhoods because that’s what they could afford. And when their stores went up in flames and when there was no help from police or the government, they were shocked.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: When we need them, they were there, not here. And we try to protect our property ourself. And they said, go inside or don’t carry gun around. Then how can we protect?

GRIGSBY BATES: Many historians have talked about this as a definitive moment in the creation of a Korean American identity.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Many Koreans see those ’92 riots as a turning point.

GRIGSBY BATES: I’ve been reporting on this day and following the coverage of it for the past 30 years.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2, BYLINE: As NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3, BYLINE: Karen Grigsby Bates lives in a part of Los Angeles that burned during those ’92 riots.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4, BYLINE: …Since the LA riots.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5, BYLINE: And Karen Grigsby Bates from our CODE SWITCH team.

GRIGSBY BATES: There isn’t a whole lot that hasn’t been said about it, but it took years for some essential truths to be reflected in the mainstream media, like the fact that the crowds that looted were not just Black. They were multiracial – Black, brown and white. Like the fact that Korean-owned businesses weren’t the only ones that were lost – the headquarters of the West’s largest Black savings and loan institution was burned to the ground. So were a number of small businesses along Crenshaw Boulevard, the spine of the city’s shrinking Black community. Like the fact that some Black and Korean residents who were assumed to be at war with each other were quietly helping each other survive this very hard week.

Enough time has passed that a second generation of LA Koreans have grown up since Sai-i-gu. Two of those people are Steph Cha and John Cho. Steph is a novelist who grew up and still lives in LA, and John Cho is also from LA. He’s probably best known for being an actor. You may know him from “Star Trek,” “Harold & Kumar” or “Searching,” but he’s also an author. They’ve each written novels that offer intimate looks into April 29 and its aftermath. Steph’s novel is called “Your House Will Pay.”

STEPH CHA: “Your House Will Pay” came out in 2019, and it is a reimagining of the Latasha Harlins murder of 1991. And it looks at some of the survivors of a potential version of that history in present-day Los Angeles.

GRIGSBY BATES: Her book pivots between the stories of two families – one Black, one Korean – who are connected by the shocking death of a young Black girl named Ava.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Reading) The woman let go of Ava’s sweatshirt. Her face was already swelling, and she raised her hands to touch it. Her eyes dry but enraged, crackling red. It was over.

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GRIGSBY BATES: John Cho’s “Troublemaker” is written with an audience of young people in mind – people like his kids, who weren’t even born when all this was happening but who need to know that it happened and why.

JOHN CHO: (Reading) The TV switches back to today. We’re looking at a dusty street. And I feel like I’m watching some kind of movie – bottles being thrown at cars, smashing against windows, trucks doing U-turns and peeling away like they can’t escape fast enough. Wait. I sit up straighter. Did he just say South Central? That’s where our store is.

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CHO: “Troublemaker” is about Jordan Park, a 12-year-old Korean kid. His parents own a liquor store in South Central. When he comes home, they’re discussing what to do about the Rodney King verdict that has just been read.

GRIGSBY BATES: I started by asking him why his book was written largely from the perspective of a 12-year-old, Jordan. He said that, for years, he had been wondering if there was a way to tell this story.

CHO: But it wasn’t until 2020 that I really thought about the experience from the vantage point of someone very young, and that was because COVID had locked my children up at the house, and we were watching all those events on the television – the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder and the reports of all the anti-Asian violence. And I guess my mind drifted to, you know, how were they processing this? And I also started to think about a very similar incident of police brutality from my youth, the Rodney King incident. And so I got the idea to imagine what it must have been like for a young kid.

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CHO: (Reading) Somewhere in the distance, I hear sirens. I stick my head out the window to look, but I don’t see anything. Wherever that siren’s headed, though, it reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing. Tonight’s not like other nights. Papa needs me. And when I bring him the gun, he’ll understand why I did what I did.

GRIGSBY BATES: Steph, your book centers on two families – one Black, one Korean. In the Korean family, we see events mostly through the eyes of one of the daughters, a young woman named Grace. Tell us about her.

CHA: You know, I’m an LA native, but I was 6 in 1992. I was – at the time of the uprisings. And so I didn’t have any real direct memory of that time. And so I wanted to explore those events, but I needed kind of a protagonist who would look at it with, you know, a little bit of distance but also that sense of community and connectedness and all the associated feelings, you know? Because when I read about Soon Ja Du, I felt this sense of guilt and complicity, which makes sense and doesn’t. I think it’s the way that marginalized groups feel connected to each other in this country. And so that’s kind of where Grace came from – this idea of what it means to kind of reckon with this American inheritance.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: (Reading) That was before, when she was just the second-generation daughter of two quiet, hardworking Korean immigrants who went to church, ran a store and raised a family, their lives as contained as a tended garden. Now she knew. They’d built their house on sand, and the rain had come down and the waters risen – a cold swallow of the real world.

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CHA: And I think also that particular time period for Asian Americans and particularly Korean Americans – you know, it’s one of the few times when certainly Korean Americans have been center stage in the political conversation in the U.S., which generally, you know, is not about Asians. And so I think that is just a moment of history that I had always been interested in writing about and exploring.

GRIGSBY BATES: Your two books are different, but they have common themes running through them, and one of the ones that struck me is the role of family in shaping how each character understands what’s happening at the time of the uprising. Can you each talk about the role your own family played in how you understood the violence? I mean, Steph, you’re saying that you were 6, and so assuming that nobody talked to you about it in any way at that time, maybe assuming that you couldn’t understand any of it. John, you’re a little bit older. Did your parents talk to you at all?

CHO: I think it was framed to me as a kind of, I don’t know, discrete incident. Like, it was such a tragic thing that happened, but we never talked about how we got there or the bigger forces that were shaping what the Korean American community looked like and the conditions we lived in. So that was kind of for me to figure out, and it wasn’t a lesson that my family taught me.

CHA: Yeah, I had the same experience, which is that I never really talked about it when I was growing up – not in my family. You know, and I think by the time that I was old enough to kind of be interested and ask questions about these things, my parents were not really the people that I was going to. And, you know, we didn’t talk about it as it was happening because I was too young. I think we see every day that there is a great resistance in this country to talking about, like, anything that happened in the past and connecting it to the present. It’s seen as this dangerous thing in American education. And, you know, just thinking about my parents’ generation, the people who came from another country and didn’t even get the kind of education that we were able to get as their children – you know, as constrained as that might have been, I don’t think there was that context to – and this need to examine these underlying causes.

GRIGSBY BATES: I’m wondering whether, as an adult, you’ve had any conversations with your parents to say, you know, this went on then and we’ve – you know, this is how it’s affected our lives or how did it affect your life?

CHA: Yeah, I have. I mean, especially when I was writing “Your House Will Pay,” I had these conversations with my parents. You know, I kind of tried to talk to anyone who was around at that time. My parents are not small-business owners, you know, so they’re not part of that demographic that was really hit. But, you know, as soon as we started talking about it, they had tons to say. You know, I found out for the first time that, you know, there was, like, a shop on Western where my mom used to buy my baby clothes, and she talked about how the owner of that store was shot in the stomach. And I found out the guy who – my, like, body-shop guy – one of his best friends was the one Korean American who was killed in the uprising, you know, shot by friendly fire, Eddie Lee. You know, so I just started understanding all the people who are around, you know, the Korean American community – they all have stories, you know? They all remember that time very vividly. You just have to ask.

GRIGSBY BATES: How about you, John?

CHO: We haven’t had discussions. And it’s funny. I haven’t been asked that. As you were talking, Steph I realized I probably haven’t asked them or prodded too much because I know of things – that they are small-business owners, and they have been robbed at gunpoint, and my dad was beaten by shoplifters. And I think I didn’t really want to take that Band-Aid off and start that conversation. I think I needed some distance to get to it. But it’s – I don’t know. I hope – it’s funny. My dad recently called me when he, you know, finished the book and said, oh – congratulated me, and he said he liked it. And he said, been making me think about a lot of things, about being a dad and stuff, what kind of dad I was. And I said, please explain. And he said, I’m not ready to talk to you about that yet. So I’m hoping that in time we’ll have that conversation on his own terms. So I’ll let you know (laughter).

GRIGSBY BATES: Since you both do have children, how you plan to or whether – in John’s case, whether you have ’cause your kids are a little bit older – talk to them about 4/29, whether it’s – whether this is – or if you haven’t, you know, how maybe you plan to explain that to them at some point.

CHO: You know, I think this is the first – reading my book was the first time we – that they’d even heard about it. I suppose my parenting style is to just sort of be open to questions. And I’ve stopped talking about things unprompted because I’m afraid that it might cause anxiety and fear, just having to sort of deal with the anti-Asian violence that’s started in 2020 in earnest and continues today. That was really tough, you know, because we were calling their grandparents and stuff like that. So I hope that maybe we can have more conversations off the back of the book.

CHA: My kid just turned 2, and, you know, we talk about stuff like describing the colors of things, you know, but not in a racial way.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

CHA: It’s just – you know. And I think that just by living in the city, stuff like this will come up, I think – also because it’s often at the front of my mind. You know, I also think that, you know, I’m raising boys who are also half-white. And, you know, I want them to be thinking about kind of their position in the world. And I think the kind of in-betweenness (ph) of being Asian American is just something that I often think about and that I think that it would be useful for them to have a vocabulary to discuss. That said, I don’t know when that comes into play yet. I think we’ll take that, you know, kind of one day at a time. But, you know, I can’t imagine that, you know, we won’t be having those discussions, you know, especially given what I tend to write.

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GRIGSBY BATES: When we come back, we’ll hear more from Steph and John about their books and what they want us to consider about that watershed week.

CHA: We as Americans kind of ignore what went into our own making and don’t choose to see the way that we’re connected to other people. And I think you can only do that for so long.

GRIGSBY BATES: Stay with us.

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GRIGSBY BATES: Karen – just Karen – CODE SWITCH.

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GRIGSBY BATES: Let’s get back to our conversation with Steph Cha and John Cho. Both John and Steph have each written books about what is often referred to as the ’92 riots.

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GRIGSBY BATES: Do either of you have anything you want readers to take away? I mean, is there something you really, really hope that people, after they close the back cover of your books, go, huh, and, you know, think about a little bit?

CHO: I feel like, especially in LA, when we’re in our cars and sequestered in our neighborhoods, it’s getting harder and harder to get to neighborhoods now with the traffic the way it is, and so people are very insular. And I suppose there’s this thing where you see people, people that look different from you, and don’t think about their interior lives. And I hope that people who read it go, oh, that’s – I hadn’t given much thought to what a Korean American family might be like inside those walls. And I hope they appreciate it.

CHA: I guess if there’s one takeaway that I feel like I want people to leave with, it’s that the division between what is personal, and what is political is completely artificial. And you don’t know it until it dissolves. You know, we, as Americans, kind of ignore what went into our own making and don’t choose to see the way that we’re connected to other people. And I think you can only do that for so long, you know? You’re very lucky if you can go your whole life behaving in that manner. But it’s all illusory. And that’s, you know, what I wanted to use this piece of fiction to kind of illustrate.

GRIGSBY BATES: I want to ask you a final question about empathy because a lot of what we hear still when we hear about April 29, 1992, is that everybody hated everybody else, and this is why the city blew up. And, of course, it’s more complex than that. The uprising did indeed raise the tension level between, say, the Black and the Korean communities in and around LA. But there was also a fair amount of reaching out and trying to mutually figure out how to make this not happen again; how can we talk to each other better? You both have instances of this in your books. I’m wondering why you thought this was important to include and how you did what you did.

CHO: I suppose the whole story was an answer to the way I saw the media treating it. And I think the conceit was initially, what is the most memorable image of – what do you think of when I say Korean Americans and April 29, 1992? And people think of the men on the rooftop to their guns. And I thought, well, we have to follow him home. I have to go behind that picture. And I want to know what his family life is like and what he cares about. And then that extended into – for some reason very early on, I was very adamant that we do not show any of the protests, the looting, any of the violence because I just felt we were saturated with it via television.

And so anyone that they met that night – it was going to be a one-on-one encounter. And then I tried to be honest from there and think, what would an individual say to this individual? And I do think that’s the way we move forward. I think we – everyone talks about these things as a collective, as though we’re all sort of of one history and one mind and one political belief. But that’s not the case. So for whatever reason, that – it was important to me to distill all the interactions to face-to-face, one-on-one.

CHA: Yeah. I mean, to what you’re saying about empathy, you know, I think empathy is both necessary and it’s not enough, you know? I think it’s a really important starting point to be able to recognize people as having the same kind of, you know, emotional inner life as you do. You know, that’s a very essential thing. It’s also, you know – I think it can lead to a false sense of we’re all in this together, when the fact is that people have very different circumstances from each other that do set us apart. And that – I think that part of empathy is recognizing those differences. I think that one of the things that fiction can do, though, is provide that bridge between a reader and a fictional other.

And, you know, in my book, you know, I hadn’t written from a perspective other than a Korean American woman’s before. And I’d done that for three books before “Your House Will Pay.” And then when I started conceptualizing this project as, you know, a novel, I realized that in order for it to work, that I had to tap into the Black family in the book because fiction sets you up to sympathize with, to empathize with the people whose point of view you’re in. And it doesn’t matter how much you self-flagellate or how balanced of a picture you present. The fact is that if you’re sitting on somebody’s shoulder – even if they’re an antihero, even if you recognize all their flaws – just the act of recognizing their flaws and sitting with them, you know, builds this connection that you don’t get with these other characters. And I knew that I could write Shawn’s family from the outside in a way that would be, you know, kind of safe and distant. And I also knew that what would happen is it would completely flatten them, and it would give more humanity to the people who were actually talking. And I knew that in order for this book to work, I couldn’t do that. And so that’s why I went home with Shawn.

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GRIGSBY BATES: I’m glad you did. It made for a great book.

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GRIGSBY BATES: Once again, that was Steph Cha and John Cho. Their books are “Your House Will Pay” and “Troublemaker.”

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GRIGSBY BATES: And that’s our show. We want to hear from you. You can follow us on Twitter and IG – @nprcodeswitch. I’m @karenbates. Or email us at [email protected] And subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/newsletters.

This show was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry and edited by Tinbete Ermyas, Leah Donnella and Christina Cala, and it was fact-checked by our intern, Nathan Pugh. And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam – Steve Drummond, Gene Demby, Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, Summer Thomad, Diba Mohtasham and Taylor Jennings-Brown. Our art director is LA Johnson. I’m Karen Grigsby Bates. See ya.

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