How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Perspectives on the L.A. riots, 20 years later

A building damaged by fire during the 1992 Los Angeles riots
A building damaged by fire during the 1992 Los Angeles riots AFP/Getty Images

During the last month, KPCC brought together four panels of Angelenos to share their recollections of the deadly riots that began April 29, 1992 in an informal series of private conversations, led by journalists and other members of the staff.

The panelists were people from throughout the city, of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many had little in common save for having been old enough 20 years ago to remember the rioting began that day, after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of savagely beating black motorist Rodney King. In the violent, confusing, smoke-filled days that followed, more than 50 people died and property damage mounted close to $1 billion as arson fires and looting spread. To this day, the riots remain a defining moment in L.A. history.

The discussions were broken down by ethnicity: a panel of black Angelenos, a panel of Latinos, a panel of Korean Americans and one simply dubbed “others.” The resulting conversations were eye-opening. Panelists shared not only recollections, but how they interpreted the legacy of these traumatic few days long ago, and how the riots have shaped the city since, for better or worse.

The panels, which informed a recent town hall event at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum, were not open to the public. But those who led the talks have been sharing the highlights of what they learned all this week on Multi-American. Here are their accounts compiled:

  • 'Do we count? Do we matter?' From KPCC reporter Corey Moore, who interviewed an intimate panel of black men who recalled not only the riots, but what life was like in South L.A. at the time: A dismal economy, jobs lost, a crack cocaine epidemic that had destroyed lives, all in addition to the tense relationship between the community and police. "A lot of mess," as one man put it.

  • 'My family was victimized' From KPCC's Elaine Cha, who led an emotional conversation among Korean Americans. Many Korean business owners lost livelihoods in the riots to arson and looting; the 1992 riots became such a defining moment in the Korean American experience in the U.S. that there is a term for them, Sa-i-gu,  which literally means "4/29."

  • 'It wasn't just about Rodney King' From Power 106's Wendy Carrillo, who interviewed a diverse panel of Latinos in a conversation that covered some of the unique dynamics of their role in the events: The trauma experienced during the riots by recent Central American war refugees, the horror of the beating of Guatemalan immigrant Fidel Lopez, and the conflict over looting, embodied by a clash between an immigrant panelist and one raised in the U.S.

  • 'We are on the side and never talked about' From KPCC's Andrew Gould, who moderated the panel dubbed "others," which he thought would draw mostly white panelists but instead drew mostly non-Korean Asian Americans. Some expressed feeling doubly marginalized, among them two Chinese American sisters whose family business burned. "We are on the side and never talked about," one of them said. "We are just absent.

More viewpoints - many more - were shared during the recent Crawford Family Forum discussion. Listen to the audio from the event here
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