When the LA riots/uprising/civil unrest exploded in 1992 following the acquittal of four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, images of destruction beamed across the globe with little context as to why these events had occurred. TV news focused on African Americans, Latinos, and Koreans as both victims and perpetrators of violence, and footage of the “first multicultural riots” locked each group within a stereotype. K-TOWN '92 shares the reflections of Hector Tobar, Tammerlin Drummond, and John Lee, who in 1992, were young reporters of color covering the civil unrest for the Los Angeles Times. Twenty-five years later, they revisit the sites, stories and impressions of those tumultuous events and reflect on the media coverage they helped to create. In this film, Peabody award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee asks viewers to consider whose voices get to tell the story of the Los Angeles uprising.
University of Colorado Colorado Springs | Stephen Cho Suh, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Women’s and Ethnic Studies Program (WEST)
"The K-TOWN’92 interactive documentary is an invaluable resource and teaching tool that will remain a fixture in my classes for as long as it continues to be available.”
Maum Consulting | Dr. Terry K Park, Founding Director
"It [K-TOWN’92] would work well in many college classrooms examining the relationships among urban America, media reporting, and movements for racial justice. Highly recommended."
Lee, Grace (film director)
Lee, Grace (film producer)
Chung, Ernie (film producer)
Editor, Aldo Velasco; cinematography, Jerry Henry, Christian Bruno; composer, Vivek Maddala.
Distributor subjectsKorean American History; Social Movements; Los Angeles History; American Studies; Criminal Justice Studies; Race; Culture & Ethnic Studies; African American Studies; Latinx Studies
This was one of the most exciting stories that I've covered in my more than three decades of journalism.
The most common question I heard from Korean Americans is "Why us? Why Korean Americans? Why are we being targeted?"
We knew we had to fight to have our stories be told.
In April of 1992, I was a Metro reporter for Los Angeles Times. I covered Los Angeles County government. However, since we knew the verdict was coming in, I was brought in to help out with reporting on the night of the verdicts.
I was a reporter at the Orange County edition of the LA Times. So I was pretty much a suburban reporter, really trying to get downtown to the big headquarters in Los Angeles and not having a lot of success doing that.
I was sitting on the third floor of the LA Times headquarters in downtown, and I was writing story and I saw the verdict.
Newscaster: "The jury in the Rodney King case has delivered its verdict and the four police officers, they've all been found, not guilty."
I was stunned like I think the entire newsroom was. And I remember thinking this is really gonna be awful. You could just feel that the whole situation was gonna explode. And then on the television monitors in the newsroom, we saw the first helicopter shots of Florence and Normandie.
Newcaster: "Did you see it Dave?"
Newcaster: "We're seeing two people dragged from cars in this intersection."
A reporter I was with drove to that section of the city and she's a white woman with a white photographer. And they stoned her car. The newsroom, when I arrived there in the late eighties, it was very homogeneous white male. And so the newsroom was trying to diversify. And so they hired me and a bunch of other people in these diversity programs.
There had been a lot of pressure on the LA Times to hire a Korean American reporter that would cover local news because of the large Korean community in Los Angeles.
We reporters of color were united in our disdain for the management structure of the Los Angeles Times. You know, we knew we had to fight to have our stories be told.
There were a very small handful of Asians, Blacks, and Latinos hired at that time. And we were all working in these very far flung suburbs. It was at about that time that the riots broke out.
When you disagree with that verdict. As I did express that rage and frustration, but don't take it out by looting burning and by shooting people.
There was then a call put out for people of color who were in the suburbs to come and participate in the coverage of the riots.
A lot of us reporters of color were sent out to do the street reporting. And I think it's a really natural tendency of a person in charge as an editor to say, let's send someone who's less likely to get beaten up. See, by the second day we had seen this video of Reginald Denny, this white trucker being beaten up on the streets.
I know some of the black journalists were very upset about this because they felt that we basically never get to cover any other stories, but now that the riots are here, you wanna send out these young reporters as cannon fodder. In my case, I volunteered to work because I lived in LA. This was my city that was going to hell in a hand basket.
I drove up and down the riot zone. And I remember I was in Koreatown. I must have been on Olympic. And I just saw how the riot had spread to this part of the city. And I remember calling in and saying, "Koreatown is burning. Did you know that?"
So on that day, I would've been in the middle of the street because there was no there were crowds filling the street here. Um, there was no traffic really, and there was a huge crowd that was looting that market over there, this building here was on fire. And I could see the aisles of the store and I could see crowds of mostly Latino people running up and down the aisles, taking things, grabbing things, people running out with gallon jugs of milk. And it was exhilarating at first because you were seeing all of this pent up anger in the city, you were seeing these decades of crises that had finally built up to a moment when the whole status quo exploded. And as a person of color, as a person committed to social change, I thought finally, the shit has hit the fan. Thank God.
Newscaster: Looters, go on a rampage.
After about one or two hours of seeing people getting beat up on the streets and seeing the sort of randomness of it. You realize that you were in a situation where it was ruled the strongest. It wasn't that amusing anymore. It was really scary.
[Korean] We don't know what's happening. What am I supposed to do? We don't have any fire insurance.
There were Korean businesses that were being hit in South Los Angeles and as far as south as Long Beach,
There was actually a curfew at that time and you were not supposed to be out on the street. And everyone else had gone to bed. And John and I were like, the city is burning to the ground. How can we be reporters and we're just gonna go to bed? So we decided then that we would team up and go out to Koreatown. I was scared out of my wits because the whole narrative at that time was that Blacks and Latinos were going to these different businesses and burning them, which is why Korean merchants were armed, trying to protect their businesses from looters.
That was a crazy night. There were no police anywhere, sirens everywhere, fires everywhere. We went riding through Koreatown and we pulled up to this strip mall and there were all these people who were armed, you know, to the teeth, with rifles, and they were dropped down behind what I thought at the time were sandbags.
What I'm not sure is-- I might have gone out...
When we pulled up and were met with like the 21 gun salute.
Yeah. I mean, did you think at first we were really like maybe had made the mistake coming out here, well, when you saw all those guns?
When I, yeah. And, and I, I wasn't sure how they were gonna respond to like, we're reporters from the Times, 'cause the Times was not universally embraced by Koreans at that time.
We pulled up here and they were probably about a dozen men crouched down on their knees behind what looked like sandbags, but they were rice bags.
And that was the first time that I really started thinking about like, okay, so who are the shooters?
Here we were, these two young reporters and we're kind of riding around the city trying to make sense of this huge story. And we're all just so young and fresh in our careers and you know, with very little guidance really. And I remember trying to sort of, even in spite of all the chaos, put some of this in perspective and with all the focus on why are all these people burning their own neighborhoods step back and say, yes, the riots are a story, but let's remember why are people rioting? What was the lead up to this? You know, the lead up to this was that there were five police shootings in one month. It wasn't just Rodney King. It was the feeling that this had been allowed to continue and continue and continue.
I was out driving around. I was interviewing people. I was capturing impressions of what was happening and I'd call back into the newsroom to a catcher. And the catcher would feed the notes to the writer and the writers would go through and they would pull out our quotes. So I was actually one person removed from the person, even writing the story.
What happened was, very few of the people of color were the ones doing the actual writing of any of these stories.
It really is actually extremely frustrating, somewhat humiliating, you know, to be someone risking your life for a story and not being able to tell it.
At the LA Times we are monitoring, the local television showing the smoke coming out of the city and one of the shots showed Koreatown. So that's when I told the desk that I'm heading to Koreatown. There were a bunch of people gathered at Western and Fifth to guard the supermarket with guns, trying to prevent the rioters from approaching their building and torch their place. So I hunkered down with them. There were no cops coming to protect any of the shops. Had I not been a photojournalist with LA Times, I might have been out there that night, guarding some of the shops.
That image of the armed Korean merchant protecting their business is the lasting image and one of the only images that survived the riots. I feel that's what the mainstream media was able to afford Koreans as far as characterization.
I feel responsible in that I worked for one of the agencies that was publishing those stories. I may not have written the stories, but I was working at that newspaper that was publishing stories that characterized Korean and African Americans as adversarial.
"An industrious reporter can go out and find enough people to support an article, which will say Blacks don't like Koreans. And you can find a merchant who says I'm Korean and I don't like Blacks. And if you amplify that with maybe half a dozen interviews, it looks like you have a pretty substantial story, but that ignores the fact that there may be 300,000 Korean Americans who say Blacks and Koreans have a lot in common.
Once a story is kind of coined the news editors are looking for the elements of that story to reoccur.
And I was very excited because, you know, I had already established myself as one of the newspapers strongest feature writers, a person of color. I knew South Los Angeles. I felt like I understood what had led to this moment. And what I was asked to do instead was to go out and find looters. Hector, you go out and see if you can find some Latino looters for us, because we saw a lot of Latinos looting in the riots on television. Go see if you can find some. And I was so personally insulted. I decided that I would never allow that to happen to me again and eventually I wrote a novel about Los Angeles. The central truth was about LA's diversity and LA's history and LA's complexity. This just wasn't making it into the newspaper everyday because the actual form of storytelling newspaper didn't allow this full truth to be told.
Shortly after the riots, I had decided to leave mainstream journalism or the LA times being in the position of having to define what role did Koreans play in the riots? And I feel that, um, there was not room for Korean American story, I guess, to be fully told. It just was not to the benefit of Korean Americans and that was kind of why I was hired.
Any story that had anything to do with the black person. They would say, oh, Tammy, where's Tammy Drummond. And I really resented it. But after the riots, I began to feel that, wait a minute, you know, I need to be telling some of these kinds of stories because if I'm not gonna tell them, you know, who is?
This is the plaque that all of the staff members were given. Pulitzer prize for 1992 Los Angeles Times coverage of the LA riots. After the paper won this Pulitzer Prize, it became more difficult to convince anyone, the editors at least at the paper, that there had been any deficiencies in the coverage because they'd obviously been awarded journalism's top honor. I have conflicted feelings about it. I mean, like I say, we, for some of the reporting, I mean, we did I think, an excellent job in terms of basic factual spot news information, but in terms of explaining why these disturbances happened, I think we could have done a much better job.
Today, this day that seems very ordinary, very orderly. And that day of chaos and anger and rage of 1992, they're both the same city, you know? They're both two poles of the same city, of the same city living this tension and this conflict in contradictions. And so let's see what happens in 25 more years.