April 29, 2017, marked the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Uprising, also known as the Rodney King riots. Films have been made and essays have been written to commemorate this anniversary, and throughout the city, a variety of talks and panel discussions over the last month have attempted to grapple with the legacy of this major event and examine how far we’ve come since then.
On May 11, JANM was pleased to present, in partnership with Asian American Journalists Association-Los Angeles and PBS SoCal, a film screening and discussion titled K-TOWN ’92 Reporters: Who Gets to Tell the Story? K-TOWN ’92 Reporters is a recently completed short documentary by Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee. The film, which can be viewed on the PBS website, captures the reflections of three Los Angeles Times reporters of color who covered the Uprising, with a particular focus on under-reported perspectives in the Korean-American community.
Although the film is only 15 minutes long, it delivers a powerful impact by revealing some of the racial dynamics that were at play not only on the streets of LA, but in its newsrooms as well. Reporter Tammerlin Drummond, who is African American, recalls being stuck at a sleepy bureau in the suburbs of Orange County until the Uprising prompted the Times editors to send all of their reporters of color to South Central LA. Similarly, Hector Tobar remembers feeling excited to work on a major piece about the Uprising, only to be told to focus on Latino looters. John Lee recalls prowling the streets of Koreatown with Drummond after curfew, when chaos ruled and police were nowhere to be found. As a dark-complected Korean American, he feared that he and Drummond might be shot at by Korean store owners.
The screening was preceded by a speech from Angela Oh, a former trial lawyer and a second-generation Korean American. Oh opened with a participatory qigong exercise and did not mince words as she described a dysfunctional judicial system that did not deliver justice and a complex city in which many people, while occupying the same space, lived entirely different inner lives. Following the Uprising, Oh traveled the country for three years giving talks, encountering many frightened Korean Americans and a general public who had no idea who Koreans were. This led her to view the Uprising as Koreans’ “sorrowful introduction to the consciousness of the American mainstream public—the price of initiation into race relations.”
Following the screening, Oliver Wang, Associate Professor of Sociology at CSU Long Beach, moderated a panel discussion with filmmaker Grace Lee; former LA Times reporter John Lee; Victoria Kim, who currently covers Koreatown for the LA Times; Wendy Carrillo, a journalist and activist who just completed an unsuccessful run for California’s 34th Congressional District; and Joanne Griffith, Senior Producer at American Public Media’s Marketplace Weekend.
Wang began by asking Grace Lee what prompted her to make this film, when so many films on the subject are already out there. She responded that after 20 years of watching coverage of the Uprising, she saw the same narratives emerging over and over—narratives that did not include the perspectives she heard from the Korean American community. John Lee later echoed this sentiment, saying that while Koreans and Blacks were portrayed in the media as bitter enemies, the reality was that most of them got along with each other. Kim brought up the example of Young Ok Lee, also known as “Mama,” a beloved Korean shopkeeper whose store at the corner of 8th Street and Western Avenue was left alone throughout the riots because she was like a mother to the entire neighborhood.
As each person on the panel discussed his or her own background and how they were affected by the Uprising, it became clear that there are as many perspectives on the event as there are people. The one thing they all have in common is the deep and lasting impression the event left on each of them.
Carrillo was 11 when the Uprising happened. Her parents had fled the civil war in El Salvador, bringing her into the country with them illegally. The family watched coverage of the Uprising together on Spanish-language TV and discussed how much it reminded them of the situation back in their home country. At school, Carrillo’s class wrote get well letters to Reginald Denny. Years later, she would be the last reporter to interview Rodney King, only two days before his death. She said he felt guilty about the riots every day of his life, even though they were obviously not his fault.
As a person of African background who grew up in Britain and moved to LA as an adult, Griffith had trouble figuring out African American identity, which was alternately represented overseas by The Cosby Show and the Rodney King riots. She also recalled a comical incident that happened while she was waiting for a Metro Red Line train in Hollywood—a passerby heard her British accent and asked if she was auditioning for a part.
Kim was seven years old in 1992 and living with her family in South Korea. She recalls having no concept of race relations or what it meant to be an immigrant, since everyone in Korea was Korean. Having no concept of the Korean American experience, people there referred to the Uprising as “the black riots.” Kim had to learn everything after the fact. In 2012, she worked on 20th anniversary coverage for the LA Times, at which time she chose to profile “Mama.”
(JANM also had a unique and indelible experience with the Uprising. In April 1992, the museum was preparing to open its doors for the first time, with a dedication ceremony scheduled for April 30—the day after the Rodney King verdict. As chaos ensued, grand plans for an outdoor ceremony had to be scrapped. Rather than being disappointed, however, then-Executive Director Irene Hirano Inouye took this confluence of events as a sign and an opportunity for JANM to reconfirm and strengthen its mission. In her dedication speech to 400 guests and media representatives, now crammed inside the museum, Hirano Inouye noted “the need for continued education, multicultural understanding, and stronger linkages between ethnic communities in the United States.” When the museum opened to the public on May 15, representatives from a wide array of LA’s community organizations were invited.)
The panel was also asked how far they think the city, and American society in general, has come since the Uprising. Carrillo thinks things are actually worse now—the repetitive 24-hour news cycle still focuses on sensationalistic reporting, which numbs the public. Griffith said that they agonized over what to cover when she worked at KPCC. She stressed that newsrooms must be more diverse and cover communities from the inside out, not from the outside in. Kim speculated that at one time, white men gathered in rooms to set the news agenda; now at least, they are forced to reckon with what’s trending on Twitter. Web analytics reveal which stories get the most views and comments, which has changed the face of journalism.
K-TOWN ’92 Reporters was actually produced as part of ktown92.com, an interactive web archive that explores the 1992 Los Angeles Riots through the lens of greater Koreatown. With a mix of archival news footage, new interviews, and other media, ktown92.com invites users to create their own unique documentary experience and to hear poignant stories that were overlooked by the media coverage of the day. Together with the film, the web archive aims to disrupt the Uprising’s master narrative by empowering people to construct their own.