Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

Reflections on Saigu, 20 Years Later

By Yungsuhn Park
APALC Senior Staff Attorney
 
I was in middle school when I witnessed the violence and destruction of the Los Angeles Civil Unrest that began on April 29, 1992. When I returned home after school and turned on the TV, there was live news coverage of the Rodney King verdict and the anger and violence growing at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Los Angeles.
 
As the violence grew overnight, stores were looted, fires were set, and buildings began to burn. By the next day, schools were closed and everyone was warned to stay at home. The crowds and chaos began to travel north to Koreatown. My mom and I stayed home, staring at the TV news while my dad insisted on going out to the shop to see what he could do.
 
My mom and I felt powerless sitting in our quiet apartment while we knew that just a few miles away, looting, fires, and even gunshots were consuming Koreatown and endangering lives. That afternoon, my mom called a body shop owner who worked down the street from our shop. He reported that it looked like our block was on fire, sending my mom into shock. I watched her as she fell to the floor, her hopes and dreams shattered. In that moment, I realized how much work and the shop were part of her. The shop was the sum of my parents’ hard work for the last 13 years. Like many other immigrants, work was not just a way to make a living, but it was the only way to survive and thrive in this country.
 
A few days later, we went out to the shop that had been looted, but saved from fire. There was broken glass on the floor and our entire storefront was gone. The community gathered together when the Korean radio broadcast called on everyone to come out to help clean up Koreatown. The community cleanup effort turned into a march and rally, as people carried their brooms and held signs calling for peace. Although I was only 12, I could feel that the community was coming together and the sense of empowerment that came with our action. News helicopters flew overhead and Korean drumbeats echoed through the streets. For a moment, we felt like everything was going to be alright. My family managed to obtain a government loan to help rebuild and we were back in business within months.
 
In 2002, 10 years later, I interviewed my mom about her reflections on this event. Four years after the civil unrest, my dad had suffered a fatal heart attack and left my mom to run the business and take care of the family on her own. Relatives and friends wondered if we would rebuild and continue. They questioned whether my mom could manage the business on her own. But for my mom, giving up was never an option. Just as my parents had decided to “stand back up and rebuild” in 1992, she continued to operate and grow the business after my dad died.
 
After we recovered from the civil unrest, I started thinking critically about why Saigu—
the term the Korean community uses to describe the unrest—happened and how my family’s immigrant story was part of the broader Korean American experience. In high school, my brand new U.S. history textbook covered the riots, but only included one photo of a Korean man holding a gun on the roof of a Koreatown supermarket. This image was certainly not a fair representation of the Korean American experience. Feeling frustrated and confused, I decided to write a paper on the “cause” of the L.A. civil unrest, naively thinking that there was a singular answer. My research led me to Korean American community leaders who worked tirelessly to address the issues that had fanned the flames of the riots. Along with these leaders, I became determined to fight against the barriers that had caused Saigu—racism, poverty, injustice—and the mass media’s failure to cover these issues. This experience influenced me to go to law school and become the community lawyer that I am today.
 
Twenty years later, I find myself thinking about how much the Korean American community has changed, but still faces enduring challenges. Although the community has grown and gained more political power, racial injustice and economic disparity—the root causes of Saigu—are still very real. This is why 20 years later, “4-29” or Saigu still has a lasting impact on me. Every day that I advocate for immigrants’ rights, workers’ rights, and oppose discrimination, I draw on the lessons learned from Saigu and refuse to ignore its legacy.

For Legal Help

Advancing Justice - LA’s hotlines prioritize assistance to low-income persons in the following areas of law: family, immigration, consumer, public benefits, employment, housing, and civil rights.

English: 888.349.9695
需要協助嗎: 800.520.2356
हिंदी 855.971.2552

ត្រូវការជំនួយជាភាសាខ្មែរ:

800.867.3126
도움이 필요하십니까?: 800.867.3640
Tagalog: 855.300.2552
ต้องการความช่วยเหลือ: 800.914.9583
Cần sự giúp đỡ: 800.267.7395

 

Our mission is to advocate for civil rights, provide legal services and education, and build coalitions to positively influence and impact Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and to create a more equitable and harmonious society.