Speak Now: A Poet's Take On The L.A. Riots

Over the years, KoreAm has documented the impact of the 1992 Los Angeles riots on ours and other communities, and urged an understanding of lessons learned. As we count down to the 20th anniversary next year, charactermedia.com will be running a riot article, image or testimonial in this space every week until April 29, 2012. Some will be taken from our pages, while others will be excavated from our own personal archives.

We welcome your submissions—first-person memories (no word limit), pictures, poems and (photographed/scanned) artifacts—for this project, too. Please email them to julie@charactermedia.com with the subject line ‘Riots Spot’. Many of us were mere children in 1992, but 19 years later, we have voices. We can speak now.


“we are our first and last line of defense. me. you.”
~ k.w. lee

koreans mark disaster
with numbers – 4-29 – Sa-I-Gu.
no police. no help.

fire. if I touch
the screen my fingers
will singe or sing.

raw hands rip nikes
out of boxes, break glass
into white cobwebs.

my mother presses her hand
to her ruined lips.


we see grainy reels of a black
fish flopping on concrete
arched, kicked, nightsticked,

flopping not fish but black man –
here I rub my own tender
wrists, ask unanswerable questions –

why are the cops doing this?
my mother will answer simply,
wisely, because they are bad.

of the looters, because they are mad.
and why hurt us – she chokes
because we are close enough.

I moan, slip under the fold
of her. she strokes my hair

and keeps me protected
as I must one day protect her.



l.a.p.d. ring beverly hills like a moat,
won’t answer rings from south central
furious and consistent as rain.

where did they hide, our mothers –
under what oil-stained
chevy did they breathe,

light, light, covering
the biting mouths
of wet-eyed children?

who pulled
their hair into riot
for a crime

they did not commit

who watched and did nothing?


mile high cameras hover,
zoom in, dub it:
war of blacks & koreans

watch us ripped
to red tendon
for scraps in the lot
they abandoned

show latasha shot on 50 channels,
not 200 shot korean grocers
whose names & deaths are kept local

silence white as white silence

we have no jesse
no martin no malcolm
no al, no eloquent, rapid tongue

just fathers, thick-tongued
and children, too young to carry more
than straw broomstick and hefty bag.

all the women cry
and hurl what is not already shattered.


with ashes, always grief
carried in clay jars or scattered
in wings over charred territories –

south central – metal husks
of burnt cadillacs. exxon, michelin
factories bare as cotton pockets.

this grocer with knotted tongue
stacks rows of bottles –
shining liquid copper he

beats his son. no innocents here.
this customer slops in, slurs over
an Old E, no innocents here.

her hand hurls bottle and brick
for what is lost,
for what it cannot attain,
her open, laboring palm,
and the emptiness that
leans out to meet it.

his hand grips rifle on roof,
yes, for what is lost,
for what it, too, cannot attain,
the open, laboring palm,
his broken sign, burnt oranges.

god, it is a matter of survival,
of food to mouth, of notions of home and house.


who returns with
straw broomstick?

cooks rice that steams
untouched on the kitchen table,

slips off a mother’s
devastated keds, slips her into bed?

two mornings after,
they march over ashes

dust licking proud ankles
30,000 koreans

sing in a language
most will never master:

we shall overcome. someday.

Ishle Yi Park