Larry Aubrey, Writer and Activist

Interview with Larry Aubrey on the LA Riots
Recorded by Miae Kim
Date: 12/6/04
1 Disc, 1 Track


Introduce yourself.

LARRY: I am Larry Aubrey. Formerly a consultant with the county human relations division in the county of Los Angeles. I worked with interracial issues.

What did you see of the LA Riots?

LARRY: I saw it in the Vermont /Manchester area. Florence/Normandy area and in Koreatown as well. I was there.

What happened?

LARRY: I think it’s documented that what triggered the riots was this confrontation on Florence & Normandy where there was a dispute and things just ignited. Like, I’ve been involved in other situations. In 1965 I was working for the county as well. I was around when those riots started. So I think that’s part of our discussion. The riots were triggered by something. Those things that proceeded the riots were fermenting for a long time and when something happened they just ignited the fire.

You’re quite loud. Was it triggered by the beating of Rodney king?

LARRY: I think that was part of the background. I don’t think it was triggered by that, there were other things too. The Sung Jah Do case, Latisha Harlans case. It was very important but I think it was part of the background for its happening. I think the trigger was the…as usual was quite superficial, a physical confrontation between people and then because of the background situation it spread all over the place. I should say early on that despite the view that it was black/Korean situation it involved a lot of Latinos. More Latinos were arrested.

What caused the riots? Racial issues?

L ;I think they were caused by racial, by economic issues, by community police issues, by education issues. I think within a racist context all of this happened. I say that because I mention unemployment, economics, police, housing. Because the powers that be still deals with people on the basis of color. People don’t want to admit it but it’s the case. Education because if the education system was taking care of business in poor areas where people of color are there wouldn’t be people so rife for revolt. They would have more options. Those who are poor and uneducated or miseducated have fewer options. If the people in the county, city gov’t in LA were really concerned, they would deal with the conditions that fermented this thing. They don’t do that. They talk about it but they seem to want to feel vindicated. We’re all human beings. If my opportunities are different than yours are or some of these other people’s, the poor people I think our behavior would mirror their behavior.

Who are the participants of the riots and who are the victims?

LARRY: the participants of the riots are fairly easily recognizable. I mentioned them earlier as having the least at stake. At a certain point people say so what? How could it be any worse? What’s the difference? That’s why. People who have very little. In this case, Latinos, blacks, almost exclusively. Those are the participants. The victims I think is the entire society are victimized. Because it’s an indication of how institutional neglect is manifested. I mean the gov’t, the private sector ignoring the problems of those least able to help themselves. I presume they assume that people should just help themselves and the concept of pulling themselves up by the bootstrap, which is nonsense if you have no shoes. Ironically and most unfortunately the people most victimized are the participants themselves. Less opportunity to shop, less opportunity to live in their own areas. In my experiences, I found there is a good deal of resentment in the black community with Korean merchants. I dealt with it for three or four years. The community had complaints and the merchants saw the black community as hostile, unreceptive, rude, and blacks felt the same way. It was a standoff. And as I mentioned earlier, there was no systematic approach to dealing with it. It simply festered and stereotypes were enforced on both sides. Merchants felt blacks were prone to steal. You can’t trust them. On the other side blacks said not only do Korean merchants do not trust us, they automatically think of us as criminals. They consider us to be thieves. So that was the standoff. That’s the human relations part of it but it was not dealt with by the powers that be. And that’s very important, one of the reasons this thing occurred. There were also other stereotypes, that Koreans were giving money to the government. Which I did not find to be true. But that was the perception. It was exacerbated because Korean merchants had at least some methods for pooling money. But the point is all the poor black folks saw was merchants with a stake doing business. But up front they were hostile. And the Korean merchants in my view were very rude also. Whether or not there was basis for that relied on the particular case. The blacks too, you’ll see that in any society. But more with the poor people. But the government does not care. This is a materialistic society. It might be the best democracy in the world, and that’s fine, but it has many flaws. Equity and social justice is not part of the local gov’t’s modis oppurandi.

The victim is the poor society?

LARRY: Yes. Because we all have to suffer the consequences of the riots.

I see the shops are burned and the Latinos and blacks are killed but there are people who are fine.

LARRY: That’s the point. There appears to be nothing uprooted in parts of the county, but it is an indelible mark if invisible. You can’t injure or impair one part without affecting another part. People in other places become more frightened, they buy more hardware to lock their doors – far away from the riots. And their perceptions are distorted, they crystallize what blacks, Latinos are about. It’s an unfortunate situation and it hasn’t been dealt with adequately at all.

Did the situation get worse after?

LARRY: In some ways, it’s no better. But I don’t think it’s a result of action. It’s a result of there not being as much violence, physical confrontations as there were. After the riots there were two or three organizations that have major complains to shut down liquor stores that did not meet certain criteria. Doing this doing that, various. That was successful. So many Korean liquor stores went out on that basis. But that wasn’t governmental action, that was community action. But there are fewer incidents now to my knowledge of robbery, incidents. But that’s despite the powers that be, not because of. There are less incidents in LA and Koreatown but I don’t think that’s been calculated. There have been very few additional resources by the gov’t. there were when the community coalition had a sustained campaign to reduce liquor stores. There was subsidies given to the businesses to do other businesses. But that’s all I can see that there was some help given to merchants to change businesses, some did it and some not.

I heard they didn’t get special treatment.

LARRY: I’m talking after the riots. Don’t misunderstand me. They got nothing to start their businesses. I’m talking other businesses after the riots. It was a campaign to reduce the liquor stores. I’m not saying it was adequate or inadequate, but they were offered something to go into another business.

The LA riots were about many complicated issues. How come the issue became Korean and African American?

LARRY: It was definitely the focal point. Koreans and African Americans were the focal point because Korean merchants were for the most point starting businesses in south central. And they went there without any orientation. The community relations part was difficult. The way they came in fed the stereotypes the blacks had. And the confrontations and the reported stuff by the media was almost exclusively pertaining to blacks and Koreans. When I worked on it it was definitely black and Koreans. We formed a committee, the black/Korean alliance. There was no committee that dealt with Latinos and Koreans. I think the residents that were involved were black residents. Now LA is changing and now the residents there are predominantly Latino.

You say there are also issues of Latinos and other issues.


And the reason there was conflict was Koreans went into south central. Were they the only ethnicity moving in?

LARRY: In those days. In the old days there were Chinese storeowners and Italians, and Koreans were the most visible. And in some ways the least prepared. They had no familiarity with the situation. If you’re aware of the history of African Americans in this country they are the only group that was brought here enslaved. And that’s why it was important for communication. Some merchants were quite good and some were protected by their customers. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You think you’re going to be treated badly and you are.

What’s the situation now? Has it improved?

LARRY: I think so. Despite the governmental benign neglect. I think the Korean merchants took heart and realized we have to reexamine our situation and I think the community had the responsibility to do the same thing. I think the merchants are not as likely to accuse somebody of something without evidence, and that happened all the time before. People expecting something bad to happen and something did happen. I say riots, we can go with upheaval, revolution, revolt, whatever. When it happened the demographics of LA showed them. There was as much damage on the northern end, where Latinos live, than in the rest of LA.

Do you think African Americans think the relationship is bad?

LARRY: I speak to the community quite a bit. There is no one community, I’m all over the place. I know poor people and they don’t talk about it as much. It’s not as much an issue. Back in the 80s it was an issue. There’s also a classism aspect to this. The middle class black was not involved in the riots although the middle class African American person had pretty much the same negative mindset about Koreans as the poor people did, because they encountered it at liquor stores. That was my perception back then. Now, you don’t hear about it as much. My assumption is that it is better.

What about Korean Americans who say we are victims of the riots?

LARRY: I can understand that. I think it’s probably without the kind of discussion we’re having here now. It’s without the backdrop of knowing where the clients are coming from. You don’t give up identity as you deal with other people but you have to be empathetic, especially in business. You have to treat people as human. But for African Americans Koreans became a scapegoat for the whole thing. I talked about conditions. Koreans didn’t create those conditions, but they were the focal point for all this venom. And as far as the gov’t is concerned that’s fine. They just sit back and look at the whole thing from a perch. I believe strongly that society view people on the basis of color. Koreans don’t escape that, no one does. The closer to white you are the better off you are. It’s probably that way in much of the world, but I can only talk about my own experiences.

It started after the verdict of the Rodney King case, right?

LARRY: Sorry, I misunderstood you earlier. You meant the verdict kicked it off. That was in fact the trigger, I’m sorry.

So the anger was brought on the police at the time or the whole system. How come everything changed to targeting Korean American shops or other shops?

LARRY: I think we can chart the development of the hostility and the buildup of the anger and frustration on both sides. The Latino side is more difficult to chart because there aren’t as many incidents to chart. We didn’t talk about Latasha Harlans. That was very volatile that had an extremely negative reaction. It was almost predictable as far as I was concerned that the combatants would be African Americans and Koreans would be involved. Some were surprised that so many Latinos were involved. But they were poor, many were immigrants so they jumped on the bandwagon. But it did not surprise me that the government did not take care of those issues. With the crisis the volume is turned up, turned back down and you go along and the volume is up again. That’s the benign neglect on the part of the powers that be. There aren’t sustained resources to the areas we’re talking about. The schools in south central where these events occurred. Those schools, many of them are so bad they should be shut down. Those residents have children in those schools. But for some reason, and that’s another discussion, that anger and frustration is not directed to the system. It should be but it’s not. So Korean merchants became convenient scapegoats and the gov’t once again was let off the hook.

it’s not just the Rodney King case and the other cases. How did police brutality switch to small business owners?

LARRY: Because they were interfacing on an ongoing basis with people in the area and the likelihood of it coming off positively was zilch. Merchants coming in without a grasp of what was happening, with their own cultural background, being insensitive for whatever reason, some weren’t. coming in reaction with people who are pissed off with their very existence. One side sat off the other side. Simple encounters became the food for additional stereotypes. All Korean say this. You can’t trust all blacks. That’s where the primary relationships had occurred over a decade, about ten years.

After the verdict what happened?

LARRY: The riots started immediately the first day. The verdicts came down around four pm that day. What’s the Korean name for April 29th? Saigu. I was at a panel with Korean Americans that first day . that first day. You remember that horrible thing on Florence & Normandy with the truck driver. The black leadership with Tom Bradley and stuff’s burning outside and they’re talking and whatever. Why hadn’t they done something earlier? Because they hadn’t dealt with it. They didn’t go to the Koreans and talk and say what can be done? The first day was bad.

They started burning the stores? There was anger also against the police? What happened to that anger?

LARRY: That anger is not directed to those people?

Why not?

LARRY: I don’t know why not? That’s another discussion. It’s a very different discussion .it has to do with conditioning that people have. This time, because merchants were in Koreatown itself, it had a northerly path than ever before. Most of the time they have riots it’s in the places that are raising the hell anyway. Why is that? Because of how people think of themselves? Did anybody go to Beverly Hills and shoot anybody? West LA? In some way it’s puzzling in some ways it’s predictable. I’ve been around and seen many of the stuff. When you have neglect, when you have huge unemployment rates, poor education, despicable housing. It’s going to happen. And it happens disproportionately on the basis of color. It happens with Latinos. And money does help if you have money you can be the exception. For a while. I came to LA as a kid. I was at a school, 8 blacks at the school, I was one of them. De facto segregation, not legal but it’s real. You couldn’t go there you couldn’t go here. They take their toll on the psyche. The Koreans coming into that space, it takes a toll on the psyche. It’s like everybody wants to cop out because of the complexity and no one is held accountable for the results.

So issues between African Americans and Koreans was an issue?

LARRY: Leading up to the riots. I think that’s one of the things that caused them to focus on Korean merchants and I’m suggesting that those relationships were aggravated by the government not intervening.

Korean Americans say the media focused the LA riots as an African American and black issue.

LARRY: I think that’s simplistic. It was obviously much more than that. And the fact of the matter is how Latinos got left out of the equation I have no idea. More Latinos were arrested than African Americans, substantially more. We talked about the conditions that many Latinos are experiencing caused them to jump aboard. Korean Latino relations were not prominent leading up to the riots.

Who died? Why so many?

LARRY: I’m not sure I can give…I’m not sure I’m qualified to address that one. The short answer and frankly it’s not a substantive response is that the anger was so intense that it just manifested itself that way. People didn’t give a damn. In 1965 I was telling somebody yesterday I saw five guys shot in front of a building on south Vermont. And yes, they had been looting, I’m sure they had. But to me it was murder because they were standing in front of the building, they weren’t armed. But I really have to defer that question to that. What’s the breakdown on that with Koreans?

There was one Korean who died and I think African Americans and Latinos. No one is talking about that?

LARRY: I think that’s what I said much earlier, the impact on all of us. It’s like you become immune to this kind of thing. Desensitized to it. Impervious to pain and suffering. Like I said before I understand people have different ideas but to me it has to do with the values this country has. It’s increasingly oppressive. I’ll leave it at that. I won’t get into the Iraq situation. But this is the same society. The same federal government has all kind of grants relative to the urban poor. The federal government the state government and the local government. Why the people themselves don’t’ do more is another discussion but is important because until they do more things will not change substantially. But when I say that in terms of the kinds of attention and resources they’re given, I think there are fewer incidents. There is less violence, but I don’t think that’s a product of real concern. Almost a function of time.

No community-building efforts between races?

LARRY: Not really. I think the organizing in the Korean end was more than anyplace else. My impression is the Korean youth got involved where they hadn’t been before, and I think that’s good. I gave you the thing about the liquor stores but with elected officials and others I don’t think there’s anything different. I don’t think they care. There’s no effort or pressure to cause such effort. To bring about actual change.

Do we have any hope?

LARRY: Let me say this here. To me, the only people that can be racist in this country is white people because they have power. It’s more than discrimination, it’s to have the ability the power to subject people to your will because of race. Otherwise it’s prejudice. It’s not racism, bigotry is not racism.

So minorities cannot be racist?

LARRY: That’s correct. That’s my working definition. But I think leaders say you have black racists. How can you have black racists? You don’t have the power. I don’t have the power to subject you to my will on the basis of color. All people are prejudiced. That’s an important difference. The ability to subject people to do your will on the basis of color.

What was the LA riots in one sentence?

LARRY: It was a manifestation of severe frustration by people who had no other options. A manifestation of severe frustration by people who felt they had no options.

What do you think Korean American merchants would say about that?

LARRY: Most of them would disagree. Because the kind of interaction I’m talking about didn’t occur. Just like blacks would disagree that the interaction didn’t occur. To understand something is not to

Can we ever get along?

LARRY: Are you Mrs. Rodney King? To me, getting along is not the issue. Can we allow for the reality of another person’s race, ethnicity, beliefs, values? Can we allow for that? That’s the question. And if we can’t. we’re in trouble. The melting pot is bullshit. It’s crap. I’ve been around for a long time.

How old are you?

LARRY: 71. Have been in LA since 1942. In 1945 in San Pedro there were black tar babies hanging on trees. Go home nigger signs. 76th and San Pedro. This is tremendously frustrating. The status quo is not in my interest. It’s that simple. People notice about the police, the Koreans, people have an agenda. When black people assert themselves that’s separatist. The Jews assert themselves all the time. Koreans assert themselves all the time. I’m talking about how white folks perceive all this. the unfortunate part is the question about how my people address this, how these people feel about it. These questions generate a lot of intense response.

Any last words?

LARRY: No, but I think it’s a chapter of the Korean merchants….Latinos and African Americans. The 92 upheaval, riots, whatever, could serve, should serve as a watershed. . something very important. A pivotal time for new direction. I don’t think they have. Do I have any hope? I don’t have a lot of hope for substantive change, I’m just hopeful that there will at least be some start. Which will probably be superficial. Do you know why it’s hard to change? Because real change means taking risks, being uneasy, discomfort. And who wants to go through this? My people are human beings living in squalor. And so, and this is the real tragedy, they don’t have the motivation to challenge the system. And that’s the real tragedy. If Koreans come and Koreans are successful they will have a better time because they have money, not because they are Korean. But they’ll have a better time because they are Korean. That’s my experience. The closer you are to white on the dark, white continuum the better you do. who gets the money, who doesn’t get the money, how we treat each other, until that changes nothing will change. For me, it’s not a choice, it’s a reality. And I’m old as sin, I’ve been around forever, but that’s who I am. It’s a question of whether we can develop a consensus, expand that consensus with explicit agreement. Not assumptions. That was the problem with the Korean black alliance, there were good intentions but those don’t do it. You’ve got to really level at the table. But we didn’t get any help. The county was happy but they didn’t care. City of LA same thing. Until it hit the fan and when it hit the fan everybody runs around and tries to put the fire out. What’s important? The fire, not the antecedents, not what caused the fire. I guess that’s about the story, such as it is.

Is there still an institution of discrimination against African Americans?

LARRY: Oh yes. I was on the school board in Inglewood for nine years, I’ve had a lot of experience. It’s very real. And people in positions of authority, African Americans as well tend to perpetuate the status quo because it’s easier that way. You rhetoric may be one way but your behavior is another. In my opinion black officials might as well be white. Down here. There aren’t any up north anymore. You go up there and they mention the rules and regulations and all that. It may seem cynical. I find a lot of people, most of us don’t balance reality. I only talk about the negative side because so many people don’t. classism, where we are now. Very interesting. very poor conditions around this area. But two blocks from here is very nice. Those people are not involved in this struggle because they’ve assumed the values of this country. Anything you can mention, most people involves people how are outside of the system. And the reason I mention that is because when you talk about the riots, this is a factor, color. It’s not just, if everybody was the same it probably wouldn’t be a factor but that’s not the case. My people don’t have a sustained agenda to address this racism that they’re subjected to. And when I say that I’m talking in a general sense. No one has a monolithic agenda. But just things, somebody to address education. People on the forefront of these issues are considered radical. What’s radical? Make the system more responsive to your people’s needs?