Sa-i-gu: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots and Troubling Ethnic Identity

Characterizing the “in-betweenness” of immigrant experience means negotiating not only national borders but racial boundaries as well.  Since the early 1900s when Koreans first came to America, Los Angeles has attracted a steady influx of immigrants inspired to leave their countries in order to pursue the American Dream. Immigration from Asia increased after 1965 when U.S. racial exclusion laws previously limiting immigration were changed.  The peak period of Korean emigration was from 1985 to 1987 when many moved to the U.S. to escape what would be the last period of military dictatorship under Chun Doo Hwan’s political regime.1 A 2004 article surveying the history of Koreatown states, “Los Angeles County has been the main gateway for Korean immigrants to the United States.  According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the 186,350 Koreans residing in Los Angeles County and the 55,573 in Orange County collectively represent about 22 percent of the 1,076,872 Koreans who live in the United States.”2 But unlike Korea’s ethnically homogenous society where class is more likely to define social status, Los Angeles is distinguished primarily by its ethnic diversity. For Koreans living in America, race became a new and additional measure of social status and an increasingly important gauge in defining identity in the United States.

Sparked by the verdict to release the four LAPD officers famously caught on videotape violently beating the unarmed African-American motorist Rodney King, the riots broke out on April 29, 1992.  A pivotal moment for Los Angeles and especially the ethnic communities affected by it, the riots were the result of a combination of systematic economic disenfranchisement especially in the poorer neighborhoods of central Los Angeles, entrenched racism, and a deeply dysfunctional and ineffective system of civil rights that left large communities feeling unrepresented and deeply resentful of their city and its leaders.  Over six days of violence on the streets, 53 people died, 2,000 were injured, 1,000 buildings were destroyed and many businesses were looted.3 As a result, residents, workers and business owners lost their homes and livelihood overnight.  South Los Angeles and Koreatown were among the communities left most devastated by the riots. 

Known in the Korean community as “Sa-I-Gu,” meaning “4-29” in Korean, the riots were a scathing example of the relative lack of understanding within the Korean immigrant community of inter-ethnic and racial dynamics in America.  Sometimes referred to as a violent moment of birth for the Korean American community, the riots were a hard lesson on race relations and a concrete reminder of the challenges facing Korean immigrants, the majority of whom, having come from an ethnically homogenous society, were completely unprepared and unequipped to navigate the intricacies of race relations in America. This was acutely evidenced during the 1992 riots that erupted into ethnic conflicts between Koreans, African Americans, Whites and Latinos in Los Angeles.  Among Korean American merchants who were part of the victims of the riots, there were polarized attitudes towards the other ethnic minorities.  Some expressed opinions reflecting the racism that was played out in the media, especially between African and Korean Americans, while others refused the inter-ethnic conflict rubric and sympathized with fellow Afro-Americans and Latinos who were left unemployed as a result of the destruction of many businesses during the conflict.  These conflicting attitudes suggest there are rifts even just within the Korean American community that would make it incredibly challenging to build any consensus around racial or ethnic homogeneity. 

Yet, the riots also created the opportunity for developing inter-ethnic coalitions that would attempt to address the racially motivated conflicts and lack of understanding within the communities.  The Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) is one exemplary organization that formed as a response to the riots and has since developed into an organization serving the multi-ethnic working class population of Koreatown.  Rather than rallying around ethnicity or race as a unifying rubric for the organization, KIWA focused instead on class as the rubric under which solidarity could be created among its multi-ethnic members.  Founded by Danny Park and a group of progressive Korean activists, KIWA is a grassroots, non-profit organization that serves the working-class residential community of Koreatown.  As such, most of its members and constituents are Latino and Korean.  Formerly called the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, KIWA changed its name to Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance to more accurately reflect the demographics of the community it serves.  KIWA is one of the few organizations that has effectively struggled to create inter-ethnic solidarity around larger issues affecting all residents of Koreatown.  These issues fall under three main categories: workplace justice and workers’ rights; affordable housing and tenants’ rights; and parks and open space.4

April 29, 2012 marked the 20th anniversary since the riots erupted.  It was interesting to note that despite the variety of commemorative events, lectures and academic conferences organized around the city, there was no clear consensus in creating a common name for this devastating moment in history.  Alternately labeled “the 1992 riots,” “uprising,” the “Los Angeles civil unrest” or “Sa-I-Gu,” it is telling that even after twenty years, there is no apparent agreement among the various communities affected, as to what to call the events of 1992.  This suggests that there remains much room for debate and discussion among the various groups who were witness to the events, each of whom have differing perspectives on the lessons and challenges of the riots.  What is clear is that this traumatic moment in Los Angeles’s urban history brought into national focus the heterogeneity of the Koreatown community.  The riots also forced each ethnic community and the individuals within them to painfully face their own racism and lack of understanding of each other’s histories and culture.  Some faced these great challenges and were able to transcend them through their struggle for ethnic coalition building, but these groups also recognize there is still much work to be done.

  1. Bruce Cummings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, [1997] 2005), 456. 

  2. Eui-Young Yu, Peter Choe, Sang Il Han, and Kimberly Yu, “Emerging Diversity: Los Angeles’ Koreatown, 1990–2000,” Amerasia Journal 30:1 (2004): 25-52, 26. 

  3. Jared Sanchez, Mirabai Auer, Veronica Terriquez, and Mi Young Kim prepared in collaboration with the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), Koreatown: A Contested Community at a Crossroads (Los Angeles: USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, April, 2012), 1. 

  4. Sanchez, Auer, Terriquez, Kim and KIWA, Koreatown, 15.