L.A. Riots: Koreatown Earns Its Place In City History
This story is part of a special Neon Tommy series revisiting the upheaval 20 years ago surrounding the Rodney King trial. See more of our anniversary coverage here.
"I remember the 10th Anniversary of the riots—as a Korean American, when I saw President George W. Bush come into town I thought he would definitely visit Koreatown and yet he did not. He went to another part of L.A. and the Korean Americans' experience was more of a fleeting, 20-second comment," Im recalled.
"And I thought, 'Wow. In any other historical context, whether you talk about the Holocaust or the Internment, the main players would have this rightful place in history. But for the Korean American community…our story was often marginalized or demonized."
Im decided to create the Saigu Campaign- a series of events ranging from business development tours to a prayer breakfast to bring together leaders from different backgrounds and ethnicities during the weeks leading up to the L.A. Riots 20th Anniversary. "Saigu" stands for "4-29"- as part of the Korean tradition to name significant dates after the actual day— a day that is still painful for Im to remember.
“It was a tragic moment for the whole city, but particularly, it was very relevant for the Korean community. But we want to take this day of tragedy into something more positive and we took the acronym and turned it around to name some goals that we could galvanize around. So, S stands for service, A for advocacy, I for inspiration, G for giving, and U for unity," said Im.
The campaign’s remaining events include a “Saigu Heroes of Hope” event to acknowledge those who promote unity and diversity and a piece by visual artist Maggie Hazen, featured at The Museum of Tolerance from April 27 - May 13.
Video about Maggie Hazen and her artwork:
Inspired by another faith
In addition to leading the campaign, Im is CEO of an organization in Koreatown that exists in large part to the Rev. Cecil Murray, the African American pastor whose First A.M.E. church was a gathering place on the first night of the riots where people prayed and discussed about what could be done to stop the violence.
Shortly after the L.A. Riots, Im's parents worked in ministry and wanted to find a way to help repair their devastated community. Im could see the vision but knew they needed a successful organization to follow. She found Murray's church to be a shining example.
Ten years later, the Korean Churches for Community Development had the support of over 200 partnerships with the White House and Fortune 500 companies.
“We've trained a lot of people, we've helped a lot of people around foreclosure, affordable housing, youth-job training and leadership… You name it, we've done it,” said Im.
Im's passion for creating the organization was paired with a desire to overturn the same cultural misunderstandings Joe Hicks had observed. She knew Korean Americans' intentions were never to "overtake" the South L.A. neighborhood; rather, they were simply trying to make a living and create a better future for their families.
"Many of these individuals have struggled, skimped and saved, working long hours, not going on vacation, not going out to dinner, not buying things for their children to create a little bit of a seed money to invest in businesses that no one else wants to take,” said Im.
“They're usually in high-crime, high-stress environments. And many of these families are working 16 hours a day, not because they want to but because they have to. They're using their children as indentured servants, not because they want to, because they have to.”
The Rev. Clarence Eziokwu Washington, an African American who leads the “We Can” Foundation in Leimert Park, had helped set up the Korean Business Center in Koreatown when he had worked for Pacific Bell Telephone Company.
Like Im, he saw the same misperceptions happening and realized why Koreans could not hire other members in the community—something difficult for the rest of the community to accept.
“African Americans were saying, ‘Well, they’re not hiring us.’ But they [didn’t realize that the Koreans] couldn't hire them because it's a mom-and-pop business and in order to make it successful, they have to limit the overhead so they’ll hire their son, daughter and uncle … but the community doesn't see that… They say, ‘Well unless you hire us, we're not going to work with you,’” he said.
Correcting the misperceptions
With the Saigu Campaign, Im and other community leaders are working to deflate both past and current misperceptions.
"In South L.A., there's a perception that it's all dangerous and there's nothing there. But we were able to visit nonprofits where there's great leadership…While at the same time, there is still great need and challenges that need to be address,” Im said.
“There's also a perception that Koreatown is doing well, especially because of the high-rise buildings, but Korea Town is one of the poorest areas in the city of Los Angeles if not the whole country. There is high poverty in this area and they lack public, private community centers and resources that exist in a lot of other communities.”
Though the amount of work Im has ahead of her won’t subside anytime soon, she sees the 20th Anniversary of the L.A. Riots as a reminder to stay steadfast in promoting her organization’s goals.
"We cannot change that experience [of the riots] but I think that by creating a bridge of understanding, we can start to address not only the interpretation of that experience, but we can approach those challenges in a different way," Im said.
"It still has room for work and improvement and we have a long way to go to achieve where we want to be, but in that way I am grateful that we're able to even come together at a moment like this to reflect and to connect and work together."
Reach Staff Reporter Paige Brettingen here.
See below for video coverage from ATVN of the community reactions to racial tensions since the riots.