On April 29, 1992, 14-year-old Sharmane Fury was sitting in her science classroom when the loudspeakers came on at their school. It was announced that a jury had just acquitted the police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. They were found not guilty across the board. “There is unrest and rioting in the streets,” the loudspeakers said. “We are contacting your parents to get you picked up and we are closing school for the rest of the day.”
Fury, a child of Black and Asian mixed heritage, watched as the majority of her white classmates got picked up by their parents in cars. Most of the remaining students, the majority of whom were Black and Mexican, were bussed to school, and the school had to assign bus drop-off zones; Fury was put on a bus headed to North Long Beach, where she lived. When the bus driver approached the neighborhood, the street scene was fiery with chaos and violence, and the driver did not feel safe enough to drive into the neighborhood for drop-offs. So instead, the driver told the kids to get off the bus and run home. Against sounds of yelling and gunshots, Fury ran and made it to her house.
Brief Timeline of Events
These fiery scenes that erupted in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992 lasted for days, and eventually became known as the “Los Angeles Race Riots.” The word “riots” predisposes the reader to focus on violence and destruction instead of demands for justice, and many, including in this article, make the conscious choice to call it the “Los Angeles Uprisings” or “Los Angeles Revolt.” The date of the first eruption is forever memorialized by the Korean reference to the event, Saigu, literally “4-2-9.”
Fiery scenes don’t erupt spontaneously. They happen when the necessary underlying conditions enable them. Zooming our lens out from April 29, 1992, we can see that several key events contributed to these underlying conditions:
March 3, 1991: Rodney King was pulled over by four LAPD officers who brutally beat him. A resident in a nearby apartment, George Holliday, who had access to a camcorder, saw the beating and filmed it. Holliday submitted the video to the media, and it was repeatedly aired, becoming the first widely shared video of police brutality against Black Americans.
March 16, 1991: Korean store owner Soon Ja Du shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl, after accusing her of stealing an orange juice in Du’s store in South Central Los Angeles.
November 15, 1991: After a jury found Soon Ja Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, trial judge Joyce Karlin issued an extremely lenient sentence of probation, community service, and a $500 fine.
April 21, 1992: The California Court of Appeals upheld Judge Karlin’s decision.
April 29, 1992: After seven days of deliberations, a majority white jury acquitted the LAPD officers involved in the beating of Rodney King.
April 29 – May 3, 1992: Many parts of Los Angeles and neighboring cities went up in flames as people revolted. Koreatown and South Central L.A. were disproportionately damaged as police and fire services refused to go into these communities. The city services set up perimeters around these areas in order to protect white, wealthy neighborhoods in West L.A. and Beverly Hills. The National Guard and federal troops were eventually deployed to end the unrest.
While the above events provide us with a better sense of the timeline, they are still inadequate in explaining why the uprisings happened. To more deeply understand this, we need to zoom our lens out even further in order to clearly see the injustice by design.
Injustice by Design
The final moments of Latasha Harlins’ life is a flashpoint in a much larger story of systemic injustice and oppression. Looking at the encounter between Harlins and Du, we are confronted with the question of how they ended up together in a store in South Central L.A. in the first place.
In 1945, right after Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation, the peninsula became a Cold War battleground, divided into North and South by two imperialist powers. Between 1950 and 1964, over 25,000 Koreans — including refugees, adoptees, wives of U.S. service members, students, and more — left their war-torn homeland and resettled in the U.S.
“The Korean War still hasn’t officially ended,” said Rose M. Kim, an associate professor of sociology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, and a reporter at the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “Many politicians called the war in Afghanistan the longest war the U.S. was involved in, but in fact, it is the Korean War.”
In 1965, the U.S. government passed the Hart-Celler Act, lifting immigration quota restrictions. Motivated by the need to grow the U.S. colonial empire by filling professional jobs, the U.S. selectively allowed “highly educated” immigrants into the country, resulting in the growth of the Korean American diaspora to a population of over 560,000 by 1990.
Like other immigrant groups, Korean American migration is deeply patterned, with many arriving Koreans connecting to established communities. In Los Angeles, starting in the 1960s, the city experienced white flight as postwar suburban developments increased, leaving commercial and residential areas west of the University of Southern California vacant. Many Korean cultural and financial institutions helped to facilitate the growth of what became known as Koreatown in Los Angeles.
“Livin’ in the city, it’s do-or-die,” declared Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in 1992. “Dem riot in Compton and dem riot in Long Beach / Dem riot in L.A. ’cause dem no really wanna see / Lock us down at seven o’clock, barricade us like Beirut.”
Many activists and artists have compared policing in Black neighborhoods to militarized occupation around the world, deeply connecting intertwined systems of oppression. Starting in the 1980s, the LAPD implemented numerous operations targeting Black and Brown communities, dramatically increasing surveillance, arrests, raids, and their accompanying violence. In April 1988, the LAPD made 1,453 arrests in South Central L.A. in a single weekend. The LAPD is an actor of state violence and their occupation of South Central L.A. was a constant reminder of the injustice and oppression experienced by Black residents, contributing to the pressure cooker that eventually ruptured in the fiery scenes of 1992.
As with many urban centers in the U.S., Los Angeles has a history of racially restrictive housing covenants and redlining in the 1930s-1960s that dictated where Black residents could live. Areas that were redlined experience a much lower per capita income, much higher unemployment rate, and extremely limited access to grocery stores and fresh foods.
During the 1960s, many newly arrived Korean migrants had limited resources and were only able to afford rents in cheaper neighborhoods. It is not a coincidence that neighborhoods with cheaper rents are also historically underinvested communities, namely, predominantly Black communities that were redlined.
“Many Korean immigrants were only able to afford rents in South Central L.A.,” said Rose M. Kim, “so many ended up opening stores in areas that corporate America did not want to serve.” There is a long historical pattern of first-generation immigrants setting up shops in neighborhoods neglected by corporate America, including Jewish people, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Yemenis, and more.
These are some of the underlying conditions that led to Soon Ja Du and Latasha Harlins standing in the same store in 1991.
“Latasha was just a little bit older than me,” said Mx. Sharmane Fury, “and every time I think of her, my chest tightens. It could have been anybody that I grew up with. It could have been me.” Fury recalls the story of Harlins with grief and tenderness, “I still think about Latasha every now and then, especially when I buy something from a convenience store.” The death of Harlins fueled so much of the larger narrative that Black and Asian communities did not get along, “but somehow I am both Black and Asian, and as a child, I did not know how to be that,” said Fury.
Just like Fury, many other Black, Asian, and Blasian children and adults did not know how to live inside the tension.
The encounter between Soon Ja Du and Latasha Harlins was filled with violence, fear, tragedy, heartache, and injustice. In 1992, before the age of mass internet and social media, the way most of the public heard about this story was through the framing of major print media and TV stations controlled by majority white staff and leadership.
In the year before the 1992 Uprisings, the Los Angeles Times printed a total of 92 articles related to Korean Americans, and 63 of them were on what they called the “Black-Korean conflict.” This conflict was intentionally curated and amplified to produce a media sensation that was extremely out of proportion with the dynamics on the ground. The “Black-Korean conflict” was “a politically convenient story for the Los Angeles Police Department,” writes L.A. Times columnist Frank Shyong in 2022 on the 30-year anniversary of the Uprisings. “[The LAPD] was glad to see headlines dominated by stories of racial conflict in which the police were not at fault.”
Reflecting on the media environment in 1992, Katherine Kim, Koreatown Storytelling Program Director at the Koreatown Youth + Community Center (KYCC), talked about the dire consequences of disinformation. “When this so-called Black-Korean conflict was being exaggerated in the media and that was all that was represented, it becomes what adheres to people’s memories. This conflict narrative created a lot of antagonism between the two communities.” Katherine shared a story from a Korean American friend who worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in 1992. He was sent to cover a shooting in a liquor store in South L.A.. But his editor found out afterwards that the store was owned by a Persian family, not Koreans, and decided to pull the story.
Katherine also recounted stories of Black residents volunteering to help guard the Korean-owned stores in their neighborhood, telling the Korean owners that it was not safe for them to be there, but their Black customers were willing to help them guard the store. These were the stories that did not make it into the newspapers.
In his article “Legacy of Sa-ee-gu: Goodby Hahn, Good Morning, Community Conscience,” journalist K.W. Lee recounts a journal entry by a colleague: “A Chinese American merchant shoots a patron after a dispute in his store. A news crew arrives on the scene and asks the merchant if he is Korean. After learning he is Chinese, the news crew packs up and leaves without filing a story.”
The media disinformation that manufactured and exaggerated the “Black-Korean conflict” further added fuel to the underlying conditions that led up to the Uprisings.
When the Uprisings erupted, Rose M. Kim recalled that TV stations often played on loop the most violent footage coming out of Los Angeles. “It was incredibly traumatic and extremely irresponsible,” said Kim. K.W. Lee also writes in the above-mentioned article, “As the chilling TV video rolled on in fits and spurts in tandem with sensational ‘Black-Korean conflict,’ pictures and headlines, pickets, boycotts, firebombings, and killings haunted the lives and limbs of the frightened merchants. At the height of the riots, the ABC network and its affiliate KABC showed the sickening sequences ad nauseam.”
During the Uprisings, Rose M. Kim worked on a team of reporters and photographers who won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage. “But looking back, I find the coverage really problematic,” Kim reflected. In her article “Sa-I-Gu, Twenty Years Later: I Still Love L.A.,” Kim wrote “it is striking how little control I ultimately felt over my subject matter. And I remain haunted and traumatized by the fear that I was ‘played’ by the Los Angeles Times by being one of its few token Korean American reporters. Did my mere presence justify the media outlet’s claim of racial fairness and racial balance?” Kim carries a haunted consciousness about her role at the L.A. Times, feeling as though she was a cog in a machine that produced and reproduced narratives of racial tension.
Much of the media narratives at the time also left out mention of the Latine community. Héctor Tobar, who worked as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times in 1992, shared his memories in a recent New York Times article: “I wanted [readers] to see the Los Angeles that I knew and lived in, a city where people lived in tense coexistence, but coexistence nonetheless. Instead, in the days after the riots, my editors assigned me a humbler task: Go find some Latino looters to interview and hand over my notes to a more seasoned writer. It felt to many reporters of color at the time that we had been sent out to report in an urban war zone, while a mostly white staff of editors shaped what actually appeared in the newspaper.”
Tobar goes on to say, “There would always be those who lived through the trauma or the chaos, and those who got to shape how it lived on in our historical memory.”
Solidarity by Choice: Towards Abolitionist Futures
In an archival footage of a TV interview from 1992, a Black man named Derek stood on a noisy street with police sirens in the background and told the reporter, “There is kinship to people of all color. Period. Whether it be Black, Latino, Koreans. There is a sense of togetherness. We all have the same problems and we all know where the problem is, and the problem is in the government. If we come together and learn about each other … we can know each other’s needs.” When asked if he truly believed in solidarity across racial lines, Derek said if we didn’t have it before, we will have it now. “It’s not a Black thing, or a Korean thing. It is a justice thing.”
The people I interviewed for this article gave me a mixture of responses when it comes to hope for our future. Some sigh in heaviness observing that things haven’t really changed, while others point to nuanced stories of solidarity as evidence for a different future. In her recent reflection “Rodney King, 30 Years Later,” scholar Imani Perry writes about the King video as “the beginning of our current era, in which video footage serves as evidence for state violence against Black people. This era might promise validation of claims of racial injustice, but it also threatens to simply codify this injustice as an acceptable American fact.” Remembering the countless names of people harmed by racial injustice and police violence since Rodney King, it is easy to feel hopeless when reading Perry’s words: “Consequences are rare and collective grief is ordinary.”
Yet, as abolitionist educator Mariame Kaba reminds us, hope is a discipline. Kaba tells us that feeling hope and feeling sadness or anger are not mutually exclusive. Hope is not an emotion. We have hope because there is always unlimited potential for change and transformation. Hope is a discipline to be practiced every single day.
I have hope that we can collectively choose solidarity every time because there are more people who believe that solidarity is the only way forward than those who believe in fragmentation. In choosing solidarity, abolition is a powerful political and organizing framework.
Just looking at the 1992 Los Angeles Uprisings, we already see layers upon layers of interconnected systems of oppression: imperialism, racism, policing, economic injustice, and narrative erasure. These systems and more impact all facets of our lives. The more we learn, the more it may feel impossible to change these deeply entrenched systems. This is where abolition comes in.
Abolition is not simply the absence of police and prisons. Abolition is a political framework and an analytical tool. Abolition does not imagine a perfect world without harm. Instead, it asks the question of how to address violence and harm without creating more violence and harm.
An abolitionist approach invites us to move away from asking “How can we change our systems?” to instead ask “What do we collectively need in order for all of us to feel safety, belonging, justice, and love? This question unlocks our imaginative potential to create a completely different future.
If we are to truly consider this question, building cross-racial solidarity becomes not only a possibility, but a requirement. A world where we can all feel safety, belonging, justice, and love is a world where we are required to actively choose solidarity time and again, where we consistently work to increase our collective capacity for conflict transformation.
Revisiting the history of the Los Angeles Uprisings is to revisit the history of pain, trauma, and violence. In doing research for this article, I tried my best to limit my intake of violent footage, which proved to be rather difficult. Whenever I felt my stomach tighten, whenever I felt my eyes watering, I thought about these words from Alexis Pauline Gumbs: “What if abolition isn’t a shattering thing, not a crashing thing, not a wrecking ball event? What if abolition is something that sprouts out of the wet places in our eyes, the broken places in our skin, the waiting places in our palms, the tremble holding in my mouth when I turn to you? What if abolition is something that grows?”
The Black Asian Trans Solidarity Power Rally: The Blasian March, founded by organizer Rohan Zhou-Lee as an initiative to build solidarity between Black, Asian, and Blasian communities, proudly presents the Black Asian Trans Solidarity Power Rally in Los Angeles on May 21, 2022. It will include a march leading to the rally, a healing ceremony, speakers, voguing performances, a binder giveaway, among other celebrations. Follow @blasianmarch for more information and updates.
- Koreatown Storytelling Project, Koreatown Youth and Community Center, UCLA: Interviewing Koreatown Small Business Owners Story Map Project
- koreanamericanstory.org: Saigu
- Ktown ‘92
- PBS: K-Town ’92: Reporters
Cover photo credit: andykatz/iStock by Getty Images
Last modified: December 31, 2022