Angela Oh, Korean lawyer re: LA Riots
Interview by Dmae Roberts
1 Disc, 10 Tracks – 62:14
Second half of the disc with Sonny Kang
TRACK 8 – 0:43
DMAE: Anything I should be concerned about?
ANGELA: It’s more on the level of petty politics than real politics. Did you see this? It’s a really sad article about what’s happening with the labor in this country. Okay.
TRACK 9 – 1:19
DMAE: I’m ready to go anytime you are, and in the interests of economy I’m just going to ask you the things I think we’ll be using for the show. The main thing to cover is you as a historic figure during the riots. Can you tell me from your perspective, starting with April 29th and what that was.
ANGELA: I’m Angela Oh, I’m a lawyer based in Los Angeles. In 1992 when LA imploded I kind of stepped forward. At the time I was president of a group called WORK, Women’s Organization Reaching Koreans…
DMAE: I’m hearing the monitor. Can you turn it off?
TRACK 10 – 29:57
ANGELA: I’m Angela Oh. I’m a lawyer based in Los Angeles, and in 1992, I was an attorney. I was the president-elect of the Korean American Bar Association and I was president at that time of Women’s Organization Reaching Koreans, WORK. So when there was a need for organizing and public commentary about what was happening from a Korean American perspective, that’s how I got called upon I think. People asked me to step forward and I did.
DMAE: Where were you that day when it broke out?
ANGELA: On April 28th or 29th, I think it was 29th when the verdict was read, I was doing a program for the Jewish community here in Los Angeles called the Young Leaders program or the New Leaders program, and it’s really a leadership development program at the grassroots level. They take young people that they think are going to stay engaged in community issues and they’re from many different disciplines and backgrounds. And I was doing a piece for them in Koreatown. I had gotten the news earlier in the day about the verdicts out in Simi Valley and was planning to go out to the First AME Church that evening after my presentation and as I was leaving the location in Ktown where the meeting was being held, I noticed on the television reports about the fires and the burnings that were starting to happen and the public was being advised to stay off the streets for the evening so that the cops could get things under control. People then were pretty confident that things were going to get under control by the next day, but of course we all know that nothing happened for five days. Things kept spinning out of control.
DMAE: At what point were you asked to step out there?
ANGELA: Probably almost immediately. There were some reactions among Korean Americans to press statements and media statements that were being made by African American elected officials and community based organization leaders that were really pretty inflammatory, and people felt there needed to be something else said than what was being said. Certainly a perspective from an immigrant family that’s trying to survive in Los Angeles at that time was not being expressed. So there were protests I think at ABC that had run a pretty one-sided story about what had happened here in Los Angeles. So I was asked to go down to the station with my president then at the time who was the president of the Korean American Bar. And he asked me to go ahead and deal with the interview itself. He wasn’t comfortable speaking to the press. So I just responded to the questions and ended up eventually being asked to sit for an interview with Ted Koppel, and I think that’s where things really took off because after that I got calls from literally all over the world.
DMAE: What was the important message?
ANGELA: The important message was it was more complicated than what people were expressing up to that point and what was being expressed played very much into some stereotypes that I consider to be negative. This was not a product of black/Korean tensions. This manifests itself most effectively and visually I think you could see that racial dynamic but it really wasn’t the reason why LA imploded. We really had huge problems with our confidence in the police department, we had huge economic problems. We had terrible, terrible infrastructure problems in the city itself. Demographics were shifting. Nobody was paying attention. Now it’s very old news to talk about shifting demographics, but at that time no one was paying attention to what the implications might mean in terms of an increased set of tensions around access to affordable housing, access to jobs, access to education in our public schools. Even where people are going to be able to worship. Space, literally space was an issue. And then the brutality that was captured on videotape in the beating of Mr. King was something that was familiar to a lot of people in poorer parts of this town, mostly African American and Latino communities. So the analysis that came out before you heard a lot of community voices was just this shock over the police conduct. But for those of us who had been working on various issues in the community, this was a scene that was all too common and familiar and it had just reached a point that those who didn’t have to live in that reality had to live in that reality.
DMAE: Describe protests
ANGELA: In Los Angeles there were protests and vigils. I guess the first few nights there was a lot of anger about the verdict, so you saw burning, looting, vandalism. It was very targeted. I think the media had a huge role that it played in shaping the animosity or hatred toward immigrants, especially from Korea. So their stores were, I believe, targeted for those four days when the police weren’t showing up in response to calls for help. Then there were other kinds of protests. There were protests around the media. Huge rallies being held among the issues being raised at those rallies were the unfair coverage. You saw in Koreatown probably ninety to 100,000 people, although the press would report 40,000 people gathering in the International Park area. But it went on for blocks and blocks and blocks and people peacefully marching together from all parts of the city. Cleaning up, literally cleaning up the streets as they went. You then saw the gangs come out and they were very clear in wanting to see a truce. Starting to question why they were being pitted against each other when there was so much common suffering here, and some of the gang leadership at that time was asking or at least raising the question, might we be able to do better if we stopped and did a peace for a while, meaning P-E-A-C-E. Not P-I-E-C-E. And reach a truce just to see what could happen if we tried to work less violently toward each other and try to focus more on what was happening in our communities and our families. That happened for a very short time, but as all things do this stuff dissipated pretty quickly and by quickly I mean two or three years. Memories had faded about how tragic that was in ’92 so things kind of went back to a way of being that really masked the continuing need.
DMAE: Is this the first time Korean Americans really did show activism?
ANGELA: Certainly in connection with stuff here in the US of A. But there is a long history of resistance and activism among ethnic Koreans in terms of their own politics overseas and some nationalist movements here, but really focusing on having an impact overseas. I would say ’92 was a watershed year though for Korean Americans, that is Americans of Korean ancestry who have made a decision to live here, to raise their families here, to become a part of this society as its principal identification. So that being the case, yeah, I think the consciousness was raised across the country. In fact, I know it was because I spent a lot of the next two years traveling across the country – places thousands of miles away from the city of Los Angeles and the impact was very, very significant. To the point where you could see in individuals the emotion rise in connection with thinking about what Los Angeles in 1992 symbolized for them very specifically as Koreans.
DMAE: And what was that?
ANGELA: To understand that as racial minorities in this country you are going to suffer at the hands of majority interests gone sideways. So even though you saw a very diverse set of people in the media clips that were capturing the arson and the vandalism and all of that, people’s analysis of the situation was more sophisticated. They understood that those people that were acting are not those people that were in control of the circumstances in which we’re living. In fact, that was the most acting that they could do, in other words the policies of the times. The lack of jobs at the time. The recession in the economy at the time. Those things, people who were beginning to articulate an analysis of what happened were not being seen as the product of minority communities’ failings, but really, larger policy failings.
DMAE: You mention the media.
ANGELA: The media really was about playing on stereotypes. In part because people didn’t know who Koreans were. I think until 1992 the fact of there being a significant Korean population, ethnic Korean population in the US of A was unknown. What you knew were Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos. You knew something about a war called the Korean War but nobody really knows anything about that war or why it happened or what happened, and then suddenly in the spring of 1992 it’s Koreans. And suddenly people are aware that oh, there’s this other ethnic group from that part of the world and how long have they been here and who are they and what are they? The media, the mainstream media I think had no capacity to cover the community. We lobbied hard to get a Korean-speaking reporter here at the LA Times and we were successful in getting a senior person here. It was a bunch of folks who mobilized in the Asian American community. And we met with the publisher of the LA Times at the time, I think it was Mr. Koffee, and senior editorial staff, and we said you know you’ve got a community here that’s changing very, very significantly. There’s no way you can get very deep without hiring people that are able to move both in terms of language or culture.
ANGELA: But anyway, I think for a lot of ethnic Koreans who were of a different class, meaning an upper-class background, they were shocked that there would be this kind of violence expressed for people that were from immigrant families that were not so well off, there was just complete confusion about why is this happening. America’s not supposed to be this kind of a country. And then for people who were totally apolitical, it was just a shock that politics could play out in this way. They didn’t understand that there could be ever the possibility of Koreans as an ethnic group being targeted. It just wasn’t something anybody could have imagined. So I think for many reasons that event then sparked a huge interest among younger Korean Americans. I certainly was among those who were calling for more active engagement in politics in this country. And an understanding that when you decide you’re going to make a place your home, you’ve got to participate. And yeah, there’s no history of where you came from, maybe, unless you were in that class that was invited to participate. But this country is quite different in that regard. So to understand that it’s necessary to speak up was a first step for us.
DMAE: Did you represent any grocery store owners?
ANGELA: I represented people in administrative hearings through the city-planning department. It really was an unfair process. There was such animus toward Korean storeowners who had type 20/21 licenses, which are beer and wine or hard liquor licenses. It was going to be impossible for them to reopen as they were before. There was a lot of movement in trying to convert businesses into less harmful to the community kind of businesses, because liquor stores are viewed as harmful to the health and well being of a community. So Laundromats was something that was suggested and expressed as needed in the community, but as some of our shop owners would say to us, look, if we thought we could make a business out of that, don’t you think we would have done that? But they were not successful in that conversion process. And then there was an effort to try and back off these threats of prosecution of arson for storeowners themselves. I actually had a case where I represented a husband and wife who were charged with felony charges arising out a suspicion that they had torched their own business. Which they had not. But they were trying to make an example of this couple. We had to take it all the way to trial to get a not guilty verdict out of that. There were people who committed suicide. There were people whose families were literally destroyed because of the fact that these were immigrants – they don’t speak the language, they don’t have support networks here, other than maybe church communities. They don’t have an ability to go back to Korea. They’re here, it was all that it took to get here. So families were pretty devastated beyond just the loss of a business. The psychological and the emotional impacts were pretty tremendous. I think I saw some after affects of ’92 in the children of storeowners who lost everything, because in representing juvenile offenders, on my more serious matters, I know that when we engaged a criminologist to look at the question of how did this kid come to this crime and get involved in this way, we saw that the experience of the riots and its impact on their family was huge, in terms of the psychological and emotional makeup of the kid. So I sort of look at ’92 as an event that was yes, a watershed event for ethnic Koreans. A watershed event for this country, yet another example of what happens in more modern times when systems break down. But I also saw it from the perspective of the individuals who were directly affected by the violence and the destruction and no ability to say much about it because of the language barrier. Community groups tried to rally and tried to provide services and access to resources, but in the end I think people were only partially satisfied with the results. I tracked violence in connection with small businesses run by ethnic Korean immigrant families for about three years after the ’92 implosion. And there’s an extraordinary amount of physical violence that these small storeowners endure. Felony assaults, murders, stabbings, shootings, robberies, armed robberies. Unfortunately I know three people whose fathers were murdered at the scene of their small, family owned business. The truth of the matter is that a lot of immigrants yeah on some level you say they own their own businesses, but what kind of businesses do they own and where are they? They’re in the most undesirable areas, areas where there’s a high risk to personal safety and it’s not that they’re exploiting the situation. It’s that there’s nowhere else they can get in to start. And so the characterization, I really don’t like it when people view these families as merchants. They’re not merchants. These are immigrant families; they can’t get a foot in edgewise anywhere else. And where they can get in, they’re often being taken advantage of. What we learned in ’92 is that many people were paying premiums for insurance coverage, only to find out when they needed that coverage that they were paying to offshore companies that had no obligation to cover the damages or losses and you couldn’t even go to the insurance commissioner because these companies operated outside the jurisdiction of the state insurance commissioner. Lawsuits were filed. There were other things that happened here. Millions of dollars poured in, but it didn’t get to the victims. It went to businesspeople in town who set themselves up as the brokers of the money that was being donated. And there is no accounting of that money to this day we don’t know where that 7 1/2 million or so went.
DMAE: Immigrants don’t want to see themselves as victims. The ones that rebuilt are pretty strong people.
ANGELA: Even among the Korean families that were affected, after a year or two they didn’t want to be called victims. They dropped that name of their Association, the Korean American Victim’s Association, they dropped that name. Because they didn’t want to be associated as being merely victims. They understood after a period of time that they were the political price that had to be paid for the failings of the system. And I think there are a lot of people that have since written in the realm of scholarly works, sociology, psychology, American history, that use these events in ’92 to illustrate political dynamics and social dynamics that can occur. In a society that is striving to meet the expectations of a lot of different models. The capitalist model, the democratic, the ‘we love the fact that we’re a nation of immigrants’ model, and then the reality of it all is that it’s much tougher of course.
DMAE: You alluded to the Korean American community unify and then come apart.
ANGELA: I think among all minority communities, racial and ethnic minority communities in this country there’s always a lot of internal strife. It just is sort of the nature I think of trying to survive as best you can. I don’t see as much engagement of ethnic Koreans in the larger processes as I do among Chinese Americans for example. That kind of cohesion, that kind of understanding that advancing one advances everybody. Yes, there are in the Chinese community, I’m sure there are jealousies and things like that, but the impact of moving together forward as a people you still can see and feel that. Same with Japanese Americans. I was struck at a dinner last year where I was a guest at the Japanese American community of Los Angeles and there up on the dais you had two senators, US senators, you had a cabinet secretary, you had four congressional representatives, you see the head of the city administrative offices is Japanese American. You see the heads of both state and federal agencies that are dealing with law-enforcement, public safety, health, Japanese Americans, and it’s a wonderful thing to see. It’s a wonderful thing to see. And this is a community where the migration patterns have flattened out, basically. There’s no new migration among ethnic Japanese into this country. And yet with the Korean community, now we’ve just finished marking 100 years as a significant point in our American history for immigration patterns over the last century and you don’t see that kind of impact within the Korean American community in terms of making a presence felt. The presence that is felt is oh yeah, that was the population that was targeted in LA in 1992.
DMAE: what needs to happen?
ANGELA: I think it needs to be action at a lot of different levels. People need to write. People need to engage in nontraditional fields for our community – journalism being one of them. History, English, even mainstream entertainment worlds would be good to penetrate the consciousness of this country and begin to share stories at a very human level. We have a lot of professional goals that are set. All immigrant families do that. It seems pushing your next generation to a place that you can’t be for whatever language and cultural reasons. But the context is shifting now, so that you have also an international aspect to our existence here domestically that is really I think unprecedented in terms of our own development as a nation, so that you really are beginning to see that folks in this country are understanding the value of a person who is bi-cultural. Bi- or multi-lingual. And the value being not for profit motive necessarily, though that is certainly a big one for businesses, but also being able to build that understanding so that you can go deeper on a lot of different levels – international policy and the whole political engagement domestically and internationally is really important right now. For our self-survival not just as a nation but our survival in the world.
DMAE: Memorial of the riots?
ANGELA: People have talked on and off about doing a memorial. I think the closest we come is the international park. Over on Olympic Blvd near Koreatown. That area was to be designated and it was supposed to be some modest thing, but to be honest a lot of people don’t want to remember that. The sad thing is that even if you don’t want to remember it, it is the thing that will be remembered about who we are. So to be able to point to things whether – artifacts are not the event but they trigger memories, so sounds, voices, images. These things become I think valuable pieces that you want to try and preserve so that there’s something for people to connect with. But I don’t know. There’s a part of me that says maybe it’s not that important for those things to be there. The things require a certain amount of resource investment and there just isn’t that in the Korean American community.
DMAE: Could this happen again?
ANGELA: I do think so. And I think so because we’ve seen basically September 11th of 2001 and it’s a different kind of dynamic on one level but pretty similar on another. The disenfranchisement of a people. The inability to communicate. The fact of a gap between the wealthy and the poor are growing, but now we’re talking on a global scale. Los Angeles is after all an international city. If anything’s going to happen, it’s going to happen in a place like Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC. These days I would say it could happen in Seattle, where there’s a significant landmark. I think it could happen in any major urban center across this country. This weekend you saw the shooting of the thirteen-year-old boy and it’s reopening wounds in a time where the economy is not turning around for individuals. It may be turning around for businesses, but it’s not turning around for individuals. And so if we go into this summer and people are feeling that they want to work but they can’t because there’s just nothing. And if our housing crisis continues where people cannot for half a million dollars find decent housing in the city of Los Angeles. If we continue on where people do not have access to health care, if we continue on where our solution to dealing with problems in our community is to jail young people for long periods of time without any program for rehabilitation, without any thinking that these are young people that are going to come back to our communities, we’re just asking for another 1992.