The 1% Factor

By K.W. Lee

At the dawn of the last century, two leaders of the freed slaves were engaged in a great debate over the correct path toward attaining freedom, equality and justice in the harsh Jim Crow era.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) — the most powerful black leader of his time — preached detente, accommodation and self-improvement, while W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) — the towering black intellectual — advocated political action and civil rights struggles, leading to the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In arguing for social and political changes, DuBois called for a small core group of college-educated Negroes — what he called the “Talented Tenth” — to lead the mass out of the “contamination and death of the worst.” And his fighting philosophy resonated in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

In stark contrast, since our fiery siege in 1992, when the multicultural Los Angeles exploded with anger over injustice and years of economic oppression, there has been neither dialogue nor debate among or within the disparate Asian American communities, the pronouncedly fractious Korean community in particular. And, as if we need reminding, Koreans were the only minority group singled out for destruction in the spring of 1992, thanks to a media-fanned race conflict that pitted blacks and Koreans against each other.

In their century-old diaspora in the New World, Korean immigrants have proven to be individually hardy, productive and even heroic, but collectively divisive, powerless and invisible to the outside world.

Today’s Koreatowns, though outwardly thriving, remain ever vulnerable to flashpoints in the escalating interethnic tensions in the volatile urban centers. The next fire is just around the corner — no ifs or buts — if our past experiences prove any indication at all.

It was in the mid-1970s, in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, I began hearing a series of rumbles in the black papers in New York and South Central Los Angeles about the “invasion” of Korean merchants in their ‘hoods. That’s partly why I left my daily newspaper job in Sacramento in 1979 and settled in Los Angeles’ Koreatown to start Koreatown Weekly, the first national English-language publication for the emerging Korean American community.

Koreatown’s enthusiastic leaders soon reached out not only to black community leaders, but also to Jewish groups, for lessons in ethnic cooperation and coalition efforts. But within three years, the lone English-language Korean American voice folded for lack of advertising and readership, while the city’s two Korean-language newspapers thrived.

After a year of touring major Korean settlements across the continent, I came to bear witness to a remarkable breed of people who seemed to thrive on adversity without rancor. I was also impressed by tens of thousands of American-educated Korean professionals: doctors, professors, engineers, scientists, lawyers, accountants, business executives and civil servants. But I was equally haunted by their painfully conspicuous absence of the spirit of community service.

“This spirit of noblesse oblige appears alien to those who are in positions to do the most good for their struggling immigrant community,” I wrote in the Sept. 8, 1980, issue of Koreatown Weekly. “Our social landscape is barren and devoid of a community nurturing spirit and cooperative efforts. History seems to have bypassed the American-educated first-generation elites of the largely immigrant enclave. The time has come for the American-educated children of the New Immigrants to fill the void.”

A decade later, I grew alarmed by recurring reports of black-Korean violence in the Los Angeles Times and local TV news outlets. In 1990, I took leave from the Sacramento Union again and recruited highly motivated high schoolers and college graduates to launch the Korea Times Weekly in Koreatown and revive the lone English voice for Korean Americans.

A year before Sa-i-gu erupted, in the fiery aftermath of the Latasha Harlins tragedy, this screaming banner headline ran atop our weekly: “The Fire Next Time?”

“These are fearful times,” I penned in the editorial. “Are the non-English speaking Korean settlements across the land prepared for another media-fanned racial fire? These volatile hours cry out for the best available resources the Korean community can mobilize to reverse the tide of fear and alienation and to build bridges of goodwill with the African American community.”

Then, after the fire next time came, a post-4.29 front-page editorial spelled out what must be done to prevent another one:

• Demand prompt investigation into alleged civil rights violations involving Korean American merchants in the riots and elsewhere

• Mobilize the best available resources, such as lawyers, physicians, engineers, scientists and professors, to help thousands of riot victims rebuild

• Convene a national meeting of dedicated community leaders and activists to discuss short-range and long-range strategies in dealing with governments and building relationships with African Americans, Hispanics and other Asian groups.

The immediate local response was full of promise, but the historical “hot and cold” and fractious syndrome inevitably took over.

Throughout, thundering was the absence of the American-educated professionals when it came to life-threatening crises affecting non-English speaking fellow immigrants under siege. Only the painfully familiar faces of a splendid few professionals would share the burden of bridge-building chores.

Soon everything would be forgotten, and nothing of purpose and direction developed among Koreatown’smovers and shakers.

The rest is history.

That’s why at my twilight age of 78, I have been on the road since 4.29, calling on the children of Sa-i-gu to empower themselves to act as the first and last line of proactive defense for their half-deaf, half-blind and half-mute parents’ generation of sacrifice.

We have only scratched the tip of our own made-in-the-U.S.A., media-fanned pogrom. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth has been buried deep in the bowels of local, state and federal government bureaucracies — all of whom failed us during our manmade Katrina. The Los Angeles Police Department failed to respond to desperate pleas for help from not only Koreans, but also residents of all colors in Koreatown, Pico Union and South L.A. Meanwhile, the mainstream media in incredulous tones chastised Koreans for arming themselves when the only entity they knew to call for help ignored them.

After the violence subsided, Korean victims — whether merchants or laborers — would become victims again, this time to government bureaucracies or offshore insurance carriers who would never pay up. What happened to these victims remains the untold story even 15 years later.

I have practiced my trade as an investigative reporter 24/7 for over 50 years. I feel it. I smell it. I sense it in my guts. The truth is there to dig up and bring to light.

Had it not been for those children of the Holocaust survivors dogging the trails of the Nazi murderers and yanking out the secrets from the Nazi machines, we would still hold onto the rumors that there was no Holocaust. Remember, those survivors wanted to forget their painful memories and move forward. Ditto the Japanese American survivors of the internment camps. A handful of third-generation Japanese American young people dug into hidden federal archives to debunk the government’s justification for the internment, that this ethnic group posed a threat as disloyal citizens.

Nothing happens overnight. It took a seemingly endless 40 years of hard work to bring about the 1988 redress act and national apology from a president for the internees. I know, and everybody knows, that Koreans go for one glorious stand (or show) and go home and forget. That’s been the history of the people of han. A Korean football game brings out a cheering crowd of 30,000; a pop singer from Korea draws a 20,000 rapt audience. And a recent forum on 4.29 at a Korean Central Daily auditorium brought out a half-dozen folks.

Had it not been for a handful of Asian American activists, including high school kids, who kept the flame alive for wrongly convicted Korean American Chol Soo Lee (the victim of all-Asians-look-alike syndrome, he was convicted of a 1973 murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown) and shamed me into investigating the case, there would have never been what historians call the first successful pan-Asian American social movement to free him. It doesn’t take a village to launch a movement. It only takes one pathologically optimistic activist. In the case of Lee, that person was a college kid named Ranko Yamada, who alone kept the faith with him for four years, before any larger movement emerged.

It only takes one person. I have been drumming this mantra in the undying hope that out of it will emerge a Ranko Yamada — or, in the case of Japanese American redress, a Dale Minami — to open up the secrets of 4.29. Chief among those secrets are the performances of the entities tasked with protecting and providing a safety net for our citizens: the LAPD, FBI, Los Angeles District Attorney, City Hall, State Department of Insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Borrowing from DuBois, I call on what I refer to as the “One Percents” among our children’s generation to pursue the “Sa-i-gu Truth and Redress” quest, to unlock the hidden stories of Korean victims and seek redress from the institutions that failed us. Unfortunately, the remaining 99 percent of today’s English-speaking Korean Americans have been infected by the virus of success at all costs through osmosis from their parents. This truth and redress mission may be the first step in the long march toward building a cohesive and inclusive community at home, as did the “Talented Tenth” of America’s freed slaves at the dawn of the last century.

If we just forget and move on, then our children’s children and historians will muse over our graves: Here lies a forgettable people.

HED: The Sa-i-gu Truth And Redress Quest

PHOTO: Riots-Feature-KW 9.tif

These are the lingering issues from 4.29 that await answer and redress

15 years later. I call on a new generation of concerned community advocates, organizers and lawyers to establish the 4.29 Truth and Redress Commission, obtain riot-related secret records under the federal and state Freedom of Information acts, and address these questions:

1) At the time of the riots, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block (now deceased) and the local FBI chief publicly vowed to pursue the prosecution of alleged massive civil rights violations against the Korean victims, but nothing happened. Why?

2) The Los Angeles Police Department refused to respond to desperate pleas for help from Koreatown merchants and residents under attack for the first crucial two days of the riots. Instead they chose to draw the line of defense along the back of Koreatown, in the affluent West Los Angeles. Why?

3) The LAPD knew through its extensive anti-gang task force sources — and it was open street talk — that several gangs were plotting to wreak havoc on Korean stores in South Central and Koreatown to get revenge for the 1991 shooting death of customer Latasha Harlins by merchant Soon Ja Du, a tragedy that occurred less than two weeks after the Rodney King beating by LAPD officers. Law enforcement officials knew that the gangs would act out their violent plot of revenge, if the officers accused of beating King were found “not guilty.” Why didn’t the LAPD pursue these intelligence reports on the targeting of Korean merchants?

4) The LAPD prepared contingency plans in case of the acquittal of the four cops in the King beating trial. What happened to those plans?

5) During the violent first few days of the riots, the LAPD herded rampaging mobs like stampeding cattle into Koreatown through Western, Normandie and Vermont. LAPD guardians just watched the mob looting and shootings, but arrested armed Korean defenders who were under assault. Why and under whose orders?

6) Which party — the LAPD, city District Attorney’s office or TV news outlets — altered the surveillance videotape from Empire Market (owned by the Du family) to show only the last few seconds of the tape, in which Du was seen shooting black teenager Harlins in the back, but not showing the previous three blows to the grocer by Harlins who knocked the storeowner to the floor each time?

7) The chilling TV video of the store shooting rolled on in fits and spurts in tandem with the videotaped King beating. During the height of the riots, the ABC network and its affiliate KABC showed the sickening sequence ad nauseam right up to and during the riots. Who was responsible for showing only the shortened version? There were many killings of Korean merchants in the previous years, but they never registered a blip in the local evening news.

8) A significant number of Korean riot victims were insured by offshore firms, with no sufficient assets to pay and by non-admitted carriers, not subject to the supervision of the State Department of Insurance. More than half of them were either underinsured or insured by such offshore insurance firms. Did the insurance department investigate numerous complaints by the victimized? Were there any efforts by the department to help recover whatever compensations or payments were due?

9) FEMA was a big joke among the victims. Only a fraction of the applicants were helped, and a significant number of the victims lost their homes and businesses through foreclosures and repossessions. How did FEMA perform overall?

10) Only a fraction of the looted or burned Korean convenience stores were able to reopen their shops through the public hearing process after the L.A. City Council imposed prohibitive conditions on re-applicants for licenses. (The local officials were under pressure from community groups who wanted to fight the proliferation of liquor-selling establishments in the inner city.) What happened to those who couldn’t reopen their stores?

Once the truth is laid out for all the world to see, the next step is redress. This includes: seeking remedies for the riot victims against off-shore or non-admitted insurance carriers; taking legal action against FEMA for its failed performance; pursuing suits against the city of L.A. for violations of civil rights of the victims in being denied their right to rebuild businesses; and filing claims for damages resulting from local government’s violation of the victims’ civil rights.

It is not too late to take the first step toward restoring truth, humanity and redress to the wounded collective soul of a tribe of newcomers who stood all alone in their dogged pursuit of their American Dream. It is up to you, One Percents.