Sonny Kang, LA Riots
Interview by Dmae Roberts
1 Disc – 62:14 – 10 tracks
Same disc as Angela Oh Interview
TRACK 2 – 1:22
DMAE: Why don’t you roll up that window?
CAR RUNNING FOR A MINUTE
TRACK 3 – 14:22
DMAE: Yeah park the car. Let me roll this up.
SONNY: Sorry I was late.
DMAE: We could have picked you up. Nice to meet you. Why don’t we start off, introduce yourself.
SONNY: Hi, my name is
DMAE: Start with I.
SONNY: I’m Sonny Kang. I was 22 years old when the LA Riots happened in April of 1992.
DMAE: Where are we right now?
SONNY: We’re standing in front of the Hungood Motors Company. It’s right across the street from the Rodeo Gallery on Western. In between eighth street and ninth street. This was the headquarters of the LA Hung Yung Chung Kung Dang. Which is the LA youth task force. The LA youth task force was put together by a group of local Koreans who needed help during the riots because the police just weren’t there for us in our community. So they announced over the air, over the radio that they needed young, able-bodied male Koreans to come protect Koreatown if they were willing. So a bunch of my friends, we came out, we brought our guns. We brought ammunition, we brought our willingness to protect our community more than anything else.
DMAE: What did you do?
SONNY: A lot of people put a lot of emphasis on the fact that Koreans were vigilantes and they were gun-toting rebels who were out to shoot people but that wasn’t the case at all. We were here to protect our community. we were given specific instructions not to look for trouble but to prevent trouble from happening. We really had no choice at the time because at the time the police were nowhere to be seen. In fact, the news was broadcasting on every TV station that rioting was going on, that looting was going on, that stores were being burned, and live broadcasts actually showed police standing around watching people going into Korean-owned stores. TV news broadcasts were actually showing police officers standing around, watching as people went running into stores, stealing everything and burning stores down, so we really had no choice but to go and defend our own community.
DMAE: How many people?
SONNY: In our particular youth task force? Well, there were different pockets of groups all over the city but in our particular cell there were on the first night maybe twenty on the second night maybe fifty on the third night maybe seventy.
DMAE: Which businesses did you protect?
SONNY: We pretty much protected any business that was in need of help. The radio station, radio Korea, was broadcasting 24 hours a day that if you had a store that was being broken into or burned down or looted, you would call the radio station and they would put that report on the airwaves and sure enough we would sit around right here at the headquarters.
DMAE: Would you describe the headquarters?
SONNY: Right now it’s a car sales lot, but back then it was an abandoned warehouse in the middle of Koreatown. It’s about a three-story building that has a pretty good view of the city from the rooftop corners. We could pretty much see what’s going on in the neighboring areas. And of course our radio correspondence was really helpful because whenever anybody was getting looted they would call the radio station, the radio station would put it on the airwaves, and we would jump into cars or run down the street and do whatever we had to. Right across the street from the Hungood motors car dealership is what’s now called the Rodeo Galleria. This used to be the place where my friends, we used to all hang out ever since we were teenagers. And to see during the LA riots every Korean-owned store that was just getting windows smashed in and people running out with shoes, with clothes, with radios, television sets, it was really overwhelming for us. And the really painful part is that Korean Americans were affected by this in so many ways in such a personal way that news coverage or history never covered it the way it should have been – the human side of the story. We had a lot of Korean-owned businesses that were run by single-parent mothers, who didn’t have a man to protect the store. So we would run into stores, like the liquor store there on the street, right on Eighth and Western, we went in there because she had her windows smashed in. we ran in there a little bit too late. They had taken all her money and taken a bunch of cigarettes and beer and when we got there she was traumatized. She didn’t want us to leave. She was literally holding on to our clothes so that we wouldn’t leave the store. We were being called to other stores that were being looted and pretty much the store we were at was already robbed. And so we really had no use there so we were trying to leave to go to another call but she wouldn’t let us leave, she was holding on to our clothes and crying and begging us to stay. So that’s the kind of thing that was happening all over the city. You have to remember that eight hundred million dollars worth of damage was done during the LA Riots and more than half of that was just to Korean-owned businesses. The key thing I want to make emphasis on is there were no Korean police officers that beat up Rodney King. Which started the whole thing. There were no Koreans on the jury that acquitted the officers for beating Rodney King. But we suffered over half the damages as far as dollar-wise. And lost over 2300 stores.
DMAE: How long did you guys stay during the riots? How did you patrol?
SONNY: Well, it was tough because nobody wanted to sleep. We were outmanned. We really didn’t have too many people to help out so it was like we were on call 24 hours a day. And for the three days that it lasted, obviously the first two days were the most intense, but we were pretty much here for the entire three days.
DMAE: Did you experience violence yourself?
SONNY: I don’t want to comment too much on the violence because of the fact that there were over 50 deaths and…
SONNY: There were over 50 deaths total, let’s say.
DMAE: Because they only reported that one Korean lost their life.
SONNY: Okay, well one Korean lost his life, but there were over fifty deaths that could have been prevented if the city did what the taxpayers pay them to do, which is protect the community. the one Korean death that occurred was Eddie Lee, Edward Song Lee. He shouldn’t have died. He died doing what the rest of us were doing which was protecting his community, protecting his people. And he never should have been sacrificed for this whole incident for the fact that this city has thousands and thousands of police officers and we only had thirty to fifty the night this happened. So there’s no reason he should have died.
DMAE: Were you out the whole four days?
SONNY: I was here for three days because pretty much when the peace march happened we had to patrol that too to make sure nobody…
TAKING A PICTURE W/ SONNY POINTING
SONNY: We were on the roofs of many buildings but this one in particular because a lot of the information that was going around town, not just in Koreatown but in a lot of the Korean-owned businesses like in south central LA, they were calling the network to let us know what was going on. Where they needed manpower, where they were short of manpower, where they were getting word of rumors that looters were going to come to and stuff like that, so we had to protect this particular building because this was the headquarters. This was where everything was taking place as far as organizing where the teams were supposed to go. I was standing on this roof with a sniper rifle with a scope. I had a ’38 revolver in my pants. And if we were downstairs, if we had to patrol downstairs I had a 12-gauge shotgun. But again I don’t want to emphasize the fact that we were toting guns. I want to emphasize the fact that we had to protect this community because the police were not.
DMAE: Were you a group before the riots took place?
SONNY: The interesting thing is when the radio first announced that they needed people to help out, with over a million Koreans, well maybe at the time half a million Koreans in the LA area, only thirty showed up. And the thirty that showed up were all either gangsters or former gangsters. And I admit that I was part of a gang in Koreatown and my gang was one of the gangs that showed up to protect Koreatown during the time.
DMAE: That’s positive though.
SONNY: It was definitely a positive thing not just for our gang, but the interesting thing is that we saw other rival gangs that we had problems with and for this cause we all came together and we’ve been tight ever since.
DMAE: Rival gangs from other ethnicities?
SONNY: Rival Korean gangs. Some of our older brothers’ gangs. We saw different gangs all come together and put their lives on the line to protect this community.
DMAE: Do you want to show us some other places?
DMAE: What’s the significance here again?
SONNY: One of my very close friends, one of my best friends, Jimmy, he used to work at this market. It was called Boy’s Market, during the LA Riots. In Koreatown there isn’t anything to do at night. We don’t have any parks. We don’t have any movie theatres in Koreatown so a lot of times me and my homeboys, my friends, we would hang out in this parking lot waiting for Jimmy to get off work. And this plaza here has a lot of significance to us because this is where we grew up, this is where we hung out. The security guards knew us here, the storeowners knew us here, everybody knew us in this little plaza. So just imagine the place where you hang out, the place where you spend most of your time, all of a sudden just being raided by hordes of people, hundreds of people, stealing everything from your parents, from your uncles, from your moms, your dads, just it was just chaotic. You’ll notice that now they have a black iron fence that surrounds the entrance to this plaza. If you drive around Koreatown most of the major plazas now have that black iron fence. Those black iron fences were built so that at night, late at night when business hours are closed they’re locked up. People can’t access this parking lot unless they jump over the fence. So that limits access to the stores when people aren’t around.
TRACK 4 – 1:03
EVERYONE MEETS SANDRA
TRACK 5 – 11:16
SONNY: If you want to get a picture of the iron fences you could do that….all the big parking lots, all the plazas have a black iron fence. After the LA riots because…
DMAE: Just point to the fence.
DMAE: Was there another spot here that’s significant?
SONNY: Yeah. In this particular plaza right here, this used to be a shoe store and I remember driving past it on our way to another site – we just saw dozens of people running out with shoes. We wanted to stop and pull over and prevent that from happening but this was just looting going on. We were on call to prevent a fire from happening and people were surrounding another store in south central with Molotov cocktails, getting ready to burn a Korean-owned business down, but just driving past this particular store you could see dozens of people running out with boxes of shoes and it was tough for us because we wanted to just pull over wherever we could but we couldn’t be everywhere all the time. We were just so limited in how we could help out. Over in this plaza here you’ll see about maybe eleven stores. Eleven stores looted at the same time because of something that happened to Rodney King by four white police officers.
DMAE: Were you guys the only Koreans here?
SONNY: When the Rodney King verdicts were announced to the public it was the late afternoon. There were reports first that looting was going on in south-central LA and people who were not of African descent were being pulled out of their cars and nearly beaten to death, especially if you were Korean or white. A lot of people were afraid so they started closing down their stores. When people heard over their radio, Korean radio that Korean store owners were being attacked, then everybody pretty much who was smart, they closed up shop, closed up everything, took all the money home, and hid for a couple of days. However, some people who were afraid, who needed to protect their businesses came back with weapons, came back with manpower to protect their businesses, so a lot of the store owners themselves came back to protect their own stores. Now if you had storeowners who were like I said, female, or if you had somebody who had more than one store, then obviously that’s where we needed to come in to help out.
DMAE: You seem like you still have very strong feelings 12 years later. Is this something that could happen again?
SONNY: Before I talk about that can I say something else? So my friend Jimmy worked here at the Boy’s Market. Just imagine there are less than 23 stores just in this plaza alone. Over 2300 Korean-owned stores were burned down during the LA Riots. 2300. so that means people like my friend Jimmy lost their jobs in 2300 different stores. All over the city. Not only did we lose money but we lost jobs, it was a real blow to the morale too of Korean Americans, to believe that you can come to this country and achieve the American dream if you work hard, pay your taxes, but the system just wasn’t there for us.
DMAE: Were your parents storeowners?
SONNY: My parents were storeowners a long time ago, before the riots, but then my father decided to do business in China so he left the country well before the riots happened.
DMAE: How about friends who you know whose parents…
SONNY: One of my best friends named Tim, I’ve known him ever since seventh grade. His parents had two drycleaners in the Los Angeles area and both were looted and burned down to the ground. Tim was actually the person who told me about the LA Hung Yung Chung Yung Dung, which was the LA Task force. I called him on the first day of the riots because I saw everything happening on TV, and I called him knowing that his parents had businesses and he was working for his parents at the time too so I asked him did they get you? And he was really sad and he said yeah, they got us. They got us. And I asked him is there anything I could do to help. Could I clean up? And that’s when he told me about the LA Hung Yung Chung Yung Dung and that’s when I decided to join.
DMAE: How long did it take for businesses to rebuild?
SONNY: The interesting thing about Koreans is that in our history we’ve gone through a lot of adversity. Whether it was the annexation of Japan, whether it was the Korean War. Our people somehow know how to come back when it comes to adversity. And twelve years later, Koreatown has come back much bigger and much stronger. I’ll never say it was a blessing, but after the riots happened, a lot of the major businesses closed up. They closed shop and moved out of the city because they didn’t want to be anywhere near Koreatown. They were afraid it could happen again or whatnot. So real estate got really low. Then Korean businesses came in and bought more land, bought more property and the value has gone up ever since. You’re seeing a lot more things in Koreatown that we didn’t have growing up. A lot more jobs have been created by places like Hun Me Bank which is all over the city now, and they weren’t twelve years ago. You’re seeing a lot more restaurants open up. A lot more jobs are being created. Koreatown is definitely a booming place and it’s only getting better and better.
DMAE: You live here.
SONNY: Yes, I live here.
DMAE: Will you always live here?
SONNY: Will I always live here? My heart will always be here but who knows, we’ll see.
DMAE: How are the tensions between Koreans and African Americans right now?
SONNY: The relationship between Koreans and African Americans I admit might have been bad during the time because there was a shooting incident in south central LA. The news broadcast an isolated incident when a Korean storeowner shot a young teenage black girl and she died. The storeowner who shot Latasha Harlens was only sentenced to community service and the black community was outraged and so was I. But I didn’t look at it as a Korean/black thing. I looked at it as one Korean storeowner who incidentally had been robbed already three times that month and was tired of it. I think in the state of mind that she was in, had anybody come in to rob her one more time, whether it was black, white or even Korean, she probably still would have been in the state of mind that she was in. the news media pretty much played on that and continued to broadcast that over and over again every time they showed the clips of Rodney King getting beat by the police. So I think it embedded in the minds of the African community that white police officers are the enemy and Korean storeowners are the enemy. But one thing I want to note that was really happening a lot because I heard about it from friends and through various people in the community. there were blacks that were protecting some stores because they had good relationships with the storeowners. I want to emphasize that. Not all Korean storeowners had a bad relationship with the black community. there were a few, yes there were. Not because they had racism but because of lack of communication. If you can’t communicate in English as well as you’d like to, sometimes there is some frustration. Whether you’re Korean or you’re Polish or Nicaraguan. No matter where you’re from, if you can’t speak the language, sometimes you get a little frustrated and maybe there might have been some tension between Koreans and some blacks. But since the LA Riots the Korean community has done a lot in order to bridge that gap between communities. One specific example is that now we’re seeing the second generation of Korean Americans who are raised in this country who are educated about racism and prejudice and so on. Now they’re taking over their parents’ businesses. That’s a huge, huge difference because the second generation of Korean Americans are now able to communicate with their customers and to greet them properly and to have relationships with people in the community that their parents weren’t able to. Not that their parents weren’t willing to, but just weren’t able to simply because of the lack of the ability to speak English. So we’re seeing a lot more customer service. A lot better customer service because the second generation of Korean Americans are now taking over their parents’ businesses.
DMAE: What do you do?
SONNY: I’m actually a screenwriter.
DMAE: You look like a screenwriter. Do you think this could happen again?
SONNY: I would not like for this to ever happen again. Do I think it could, maybe. But I’d like to think that it wouldn’t ever happen again. Because I’m hoping everybody learned lessons from mistakes in the past, including the police, including the different communities.
TRACK 6 – 0:34
TRACK 7 – 1:24
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