LA After the Explosion: Rebellion and Beyond

Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992

Joe Hicks , Antonio Villaralgosa & Angela Oh

THE FOLLOWING EXCERPTS are taken from talks at an American Civil Liberties Union forum in Los Angeles after the rebellion. The session was taped by KPFK radio, which supplied it to ATC. We have substantially abridged them for space. Our previous issue (ATC 39) carried substantial coverage of the rebellion.

Joe Hicks is executive director of the southern California Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Antonio Villaraigosa is vice-president of the ACLU Board of Directors, a business agent for United Teachers of Los Angeles and a long-time activist in southern California; Angela Oh is a trial lawyer, ACLU board member and president of the Korean-American Bar Association.

Joe Hicks:

[AFTER THE 1965 Watts uprising and the Civil Rights Movement] there was a lot of hope in the air, people felt they were going somewhere. In fact, people participating in the Watts uprising in August, 1965 felt they were doing their part, if you will, for the struggle against discrimination and racism. And you heard that in communities wherever you went–destruction took place, but in the context of a struggle that people saw as being part and parcel of a larger struggle taking place in the country.

If you fast-forward to the March 1991 beating of Rodney King, some of the same kind of conditions that started people in motion in the streets were exactly the same. Economic conditions were bad in 1965, and are even worse as we sit here in 1992. Police brutality was an everyday fact of life for Black and Brown people in this city. There has been a diminution of the left and progressive movements in this country; there is no sense of a powerful organized movement that argues for the rights of people.

The white left has been left out of this latest round of social unrest. The Black movement itself has also been rent by class contradictions. The Black movement in this country primarily represents middle- and upper-middle-class folks, and it doesn’t–hear what I’m saying–have any roots in the community. The organizations have no interaction with the gang structures, don’t know what people are talking about. This a relatively profound class cleavage that has taken place since the 1960s.

The King beating in many ways symbolized to the Black community all that is wrong in this city and this country. That vision epitomized their daily lives–white cops brutalizing a Black, unemployed ex-convict. It happens every day, since 1965 and before. The Black community has basically simmered, a slow burn as people waited and watched for the trial of the police officers to see if maybe this time justice would be done.

Yet the outbreak of violence in many ways wasn’t about the verdict at all; that just allowed expression for the simmering anger that had been there for years. The mayor of the city began calling together what he considered Black leadership a month and a half before the verdict. He knew if the four cops walked, there was going to be some serious business taking place in the city. We were talking about what we called the “worst-case scenario.”

Obviously the worst-case scenario did take place. There were some lame ideas that there would be a period for people to go out and talk with folks in the community [to control the response]. But–if one is a car enthusiast as I am–from the time of the verdict until folks got busy in the streets, you went from zero to sixty in about three seconds. The verdict went down at three o’clock. By five o’clock, people were being dragged out of their cars at Florence and Normandie.

Anybody who didn’t have extremely dark skin was in danger driving through that intersection. Black folks as light as myself were mistaken for white and dragged from their cars and brutalized. The dynamics were very poisonous, and no one was going to prevent what went on that day.

There was a political vacuum, which has been operating in this city for a number of years. The organizations don’t have their roots deep in the inner city. Into that vacuum stepped Black ministers. And we obviously had a media feeding frenzy. They found people who had nothing to say about anything, who were suddenly being interviewed on television as “experts.” Ministers of tiny churches of three or four people were suddenly on TV, because they had black skin and time on their hands to come down to Channel 9 or 7.

Then we had this parade of elected officials. Governor Wilson came through. Bush came through. You notice you didn’t see me. I got the call. You didn’t see me walking through the community with a bemused look on my face, strolling through the ashes trying to figure out why did this happen.

Bill Clinton, bless his little Democratic heart, did the same thing, came through town. I got the call to come hang out with Bill; no way was I going to do that. Then there was the Oprah Winfrey situation, where she tried to snare people by getting them into screaming matches between Blacks and Koreans–the most atrocious thing I’ve seen, but then she has a bent for doing those things. Sally Jesse Raphael wanted to do the same thing. Many folks, leadership in the Black community, fell directly into that snare.

Now what has Bush offered in the way of leadership? Well, we know he’s incapable of it, as a man who’s been part of making the policies that gave rise to the rebellion in the first place. His approach is the “weed and seed” program. I’ve been aware of this, because we do some intervention in the drug prevention area and I’ve had the president’s program on my desk for a while.

It’s a concept that says, we are going to repress the hell out of the Black community, lock up anybody that looks like they might have anything on their mind regarding criminal behavior. Once we rid the community of all these horrendous types–and we know the kind of stereotyping that goes on, so that civil liberties abuses are going to be a major part of this operation–he cn’t even commit that the “seed” will be there, because he’s backpedaling on the monies that will be behind the programs.

A few other comments. The gang [reconciliation] thing is very real. I’ve been meeting in the last week and a half with some of the top leadership of the Crips and Bloods. There have been probably thirty-five significant meetings taking place over a series of months among top gang leaders, going back before the Rodney King verdict.

Hear what I’m saying here, folks, there is no political organization in this city, no community-based organization, nobody can claim they have been involved in bringing these young folks together. This was totally spontaneous. They have looked me in the eye and said, we are tired of killing each other, tired of slinging drugs, tired of seeing what all this has done to the community. They’ve been reaching out to Latino gang members, trying to get them involved in some of the truce activities, with some success. We need to watch this carefully.

The whole Asian-Black community thing is very serious. It’s quite dangerous and poisonous, the ethnocentrism that exists in all our communities. It exists in the Black community, and certainly in the Latino and Korean communities.

The question of where we are heading we can explore a bit more. This may be the last opportunity this country has to get its act together. The uprising in Los Angeles has provided the opportunity to look at some serious situations in the cities. If we mess this one up, there may be a long time before we have another chance to look at these situations and bring to bear some creative solutions.

Right now I don’t see much of that, except for some grassroots efforts. If we don’t deal with what this revolt has taught us, the future for this country is quite ominous.

Antonio Villaraigosa:

I don’t want to pretend to anybody in this room that I “represent the Latino community.” I don’t. I have spent my whole life fighting for social justice and building coalitions, but I don’t pretend to represent the whole Latino community or even all progressive Latinos. The Latino leadership for example is primarily Mexicano, but there is a growing Central American population who are really the most disenfranchised group in the city.

I do have some ideas, however. And I have also been critical of some of the self-proclaimed leaders who have come up in the last few weeks and put their faces in front of TV cameras to speak about this issue. They have made probably the cardinal mistake–to speak before you listen. The rage we have seen in the last two weeks, I won’t even pretend to fully understand.

One of the things that struck me about the events of the last few weeks–I am at a loss whether to call it the uprising, the rebellion, civil disobedience–in terms of the media, was the description of the event in Black and white. I am talking about color. Latinos are 43% of the population. But the fastest growing demographic group in this state and city are Asians, and people don’t know that. Some 90% of kids in LA Unified [school district–ed.] are people of color, and the color is a rainbow. Yet you don’t really see that image in the media.

Earlier today I heard about the level of repression, especially in the last four days when the number of people incarcerated rose to 14-15,000. The abuses that probably took place during that period have still not been documented, and I think we need to get some answers.

I am, however, a little reticent to say that in the progressive and civil liberties community, we can look just at the issue of police abuse. It is an important issue–this whole double standard of justice has to be addressed–that we need to make part of any effort to rebuild, or build, this city. But as progressives, we also have to begin to talk about economic justice.

I was at a meeting of some progressive organizations and leaders across the city, where a lot of criticism was levelled at Peter Ueberroth [appointed head of the post-rebellion reconstruction commission–ed.] and the whole process. At the time I felt there were some key leaders involved with Ueberroth, and I wasn’t personally ready to write off this group. It may be the only game in town, and certainly has the capacity to raise phenomenal amounts of money.

Yet when I met with Ueberroth this past Monday, I was real concerned with the level of arrogance. There were about ten people in the room. I asked him a real simple question. He’d gone on and on about the kind of commission he wanted, to reflect ethnic and racial diversity, he even mentioned class background. Yet when I asked him very simply, in non-threatening terms, what he was doing to make that actually happen, to form a commission truly representative of the city, he became enraged that I would have the audacity to ask such a question.

I walked away feeling maybe people were right, that we have to be very careful and watch this commission with a vigilant eye. It may be the only game in town but we have to put pressure on it.

Although I grew up poor, on the east side, and I’m proud of where I came from, my class position is no longer within the group labelled “below the poverty line.” One of the things I’m seeing we have to do more of is to include the people like the Bloods and the Crips, the gangs across the city, the youth, organizations like CARECEN (Central American Refugee Center) who haven’t historically been involved in city politics … we have to include them in this debate. It bothers me that we aren’t.

I’ve heard a great deal, and I do believe, that the media are agitating all of us on race and ethnicity, with all the televised images of Reginald Denny [the white truck driver] being beaten–and I’m sure no one in this room would countenance what happened to him–being played over and over, as if to say this makes up for what happened to Rodney King. In my mind the kind of ethnic and racial rivalries we feel are very much class-based. But having said that, people who live in Los Angeles and across this country have refused since the beginning to deal with the issue of race.

I hear Black folks talking to each other, whites talking to each other, Latinos … but not talking to each other, or if they are then not enough. We talk about coalition building that’s taking place in this city; I’m part of that with the Latino-Black Roundtable and I know folks involved with the Korean-Black Alliance to address that issue. But one of the things I’ve found among progressives, who fight racism, who are on the good side, is that we talk to ourselves and haven’t had the courage to deal with the rub.

You’re talking about the issue at your social dinners, at home, at your workplace, primarily with your own group. All of us are doing that, not facing each other and hitting the rub. One of the few people who have had that courage is sitting to my left [Angela Oh].

I talked before about developing a program for economic justice and jobs. I’m hearing a lot of Democrats using the Republicans’ lingo of using the middle-class entrepreneurs as the model force to reinvigorate the communities. That’s an important element in any program to build a better place to live, but we also have to have a jobs program, a quality jobs program. That’s not what we’ve seen in the past ten years, where companies that hired union African-American janitors at $8-10 an hour turned around and hired Latinos at $4, and didn’t give them health care.

I sit on the RTD (regional transit district) board, and one of the issues I’m raising is this: In the next thirty years we are going to spend $184 billion on rail, and we need to look at the fact that like our education system it’s going to be two-tiered. We are going to build high-tech rail for the suburbs, for people to come into the city with armchairs on their buses and little radios as in the foothill bus lines right now.

We have to talk about transportation development corridors, where you create jobs by investment along the transport system. We have to talk about specifics and bring people together around that. And we have to watch with a jaundiced eye what’s happening with this Ueberroth Commission.

Angela Oh:

I AM GOING to share some insights from the Korean-American community. Unlike Antonio, I have found myself, whether I like it or not, in the position where I am suddenly the “spokesperson for the Korean American community.”

In reality, I am probably every Korean mother’s nightmare as a daughter. It’s true: I’m thirty-six years old, not married, don’t have kids who are going to take care of me when I get old and gray, with no husband in my life who’s a doctor, lawyer or other professional who can take care of not only me but my parents when they get older.

I don’t go to church<197>if you’re familiar with the Korean community here in LA, it’s primarily a first-generation community and the church is a strong social and political center. And though my grandfathers were both ministers, I just don’t go to church, which is not to say I don’t have feelings about spirituality.

So it’s kind of odd for me. The sentiments I am expressing are sentiments I know exist in the Korean-American community. I don’t necessarily always agree with the stuff I am communicating to the public, but I feel I have a responsibility to do that. It’s kind of tragic that Angela Oh becomes the spokesperson, in some ways, because there are people who have been working for years, decades in some instances, building some very fundamental pillars in our community, who because of language differences can’t express their experiences.

One of the things we have learned from the recent series of events, on a political level, is that those of us with any consciousness about participating in the political system have been doing it in the wrong way. We’ve learned that donating or giving money to candidates is worthless. That came through very clearly to a lot of first-generation people who’d thought they were participating in politics by going to dinners and making four- or five-figure contributions at times. They thought that meant they were participating responsibly in the body politic; they know now they were making a big mistake.

Another thing is that it doesn’t matter how many Korean names or faces you have in city government–if they aren’t effective they can’t be any help to the community. And we have learned that being friends with the police department–some in the community have made very strong ties to the police department–is also worthless, that they were only tokens in the whole dialogue around community advisory committees and stuff like that.

Getting pictures taken with the police chief is very impressive in the Koreatown papers, because in Korea to be connected to any authority figure–like being a prosecutor, for example–is a very big deal. So as an attorney, if you’ve been in the prosecutor’s office and you can put on your shingle that you’re an “ex-prosecutor,” people think that you must have been a talented and exceptional attorney. You see these practitioners who spend a month in the city attorney’s office. I’ve seen their ads putting themselves out as “ex-prosecutor,” and they get a lot of business that way.

[In the Korean context] being close to the police chief is part of doing business if you reach a certain level of success. You have to “contribute” to local police coffers. You have this mentality and value system brought over here.

You see a clash of values in South Central Los Angeles where a lot of Korean business people set up their grocery stores and liquor stores. I personally feel there are too many liquor stores in that area! On the other hand, I can see the business people who buy into those stores. They come here, scrape their money together and they hear they can make money in that business. And what else do most small business people on their way up in a capitalist system do?

They are starting to learn, however, that maybe that shouldn’t be the end of the analysis. Maybe they should look at who they are, and at the community they are taking the money from. There is a whole educational process going on about what it means, when an oppressed minority takes advantage of another oppressed minority within a larger system.

I’ve said in the mass media when I’ve had the opportunity, that it’s unfair and simply unreasonable to expect that a first-generation immigrant who comes to this country is suddenly going to get that economic foothold, that political understanding, that cultural sensitivity, which people in this country have been unable to do for 200 years.

I don’t believe we are incapable of it–when I hear people say that racism is too complicated, too hard a thing to work on, that is bullshit as far as I’m concerned. I say you need to dig deep down into that ugliest part of yourself and confront that thing you are so afraid of. Every one of us has to do that, it’s the only way to get past the excuse-making.

With respect to the media, yes, I’ve had a lot of experience. Before April 29, I’d get up at five o’clock in the morning and go on a show that would be aired at three o’clock on Sunday morning, you know. That was the kind of experience I’d had. Now in recent weeks, I’ve been involved in real mainstream programs.

Mostly the experience has been fair, in the sense that I’ve had the opportunity to say what I felt needed to be said. But a couple of times I have really been set up, and I’ve let those networks and the public know, through op-ed pieces and press statements, that I will not be in complicity with that kind of bullshit.

What’s happened is that the producer will call you up and say, we are going to talk about where we go from here, and they interview you and do this whole little prep, and when you go to the station–and this literally happened to me on a national network station–the issue becomes “Black-Korean conflict, the reason for the riots in LA.” Then I sat on the panel with people who are 3,000 miles away whom I couldn’t even see, who are saying these really inflammatory things, leaving me in a position to do nothing more than respond.

This was the NBC “Sunday Today” show. I was so angry after that. I got a call from one producer in New York apologizing up one side and down the other, and I just went off. I said, you’ve just fucked the whole city of Los Angeles as far as I’m concerned, and all the hard work we’ve put into building coalitions–and I don’t know why you guys do that, but if I could I would demand that you not air any of my comments.

Unfortunately it was a live feed in New York. And she was very apologetic and all that, but the damage was done. It’s very clear what’s going on.

With regard to the decisions in the Latasha Harlins killing and the King beating, I think people have been sensitive about it, and I don’t think there’s a need to be. The Korean community, like any other, is pretty split. I personally can’t say that I thought the Latasha Harlins decision was just. [Harlins, an African-American teenager, was shot in the back and killed by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du, who received a sentence of probation–ed.]

I thought it was a compassionate and merciful decision, but I couldn’t believe it when I first heard it. I’ve had two cases of voluntary manslaughter, and each of my clients received probation. Did they do time? Yes: My clients did ninety days in both cases. So far as I know Mrs. Du did no time except for her prearraignment time.

Were the King and Harlins cases comparable? I don’t think so. I think the Du case was a woman with real problems. She’s an individual, she doesn’t represent the Korean-American community. The King case was one which I also couldn’t believe, and I was outraged as were most people I know. Not a single person I’ve spoken to in the Korean-American community said well, that’s the verdict and that’s all. No, people have strong feelings that it was outrageous that there were no convictions.

What does it reveal about the criminal justice system? Nothing that we don’t already know. The criminal justice system isn’t about justice. We already know it’s a racist system, you only have to walk through the criminal court building one day out of the week and you’ll know what I mean. It’s nothing new to criminal defense attorneys, or prosecutors for that matter, or the cops either.

Does that mean it should stay the same? Absolutely not. People are now moved to the point that these decisions were so outrageous that perhaps we’d better think seriously about how to change that system. But frankly, up to now people wink their eye, knowing that people are lying under oath to get that conviction, and they don’t do anything about it. And I’m talking about bench officers, judges as well as prosecutors as well as defense attorneys.

In the Korean community there are special needs, some of them language-sensitive. We are dealing with an inter-generational problem. Eighty-five percent of our people are “first-generation.” That term for Europeans means people who are born here, but for us it means people who immigrated. I was the first generation in my family born here, but in my culture that makes me a second generation Korean American. That’s important to understand.

The first (i.e. immigrant) generation holds the economic power in our community. Those in the “1.5 generation”–and we are so precise about this!–are those who came here as little children and are now adults. And then there’s a “1.7 generation.” But to keep this simple, the 1.5 and second generation are getting together and figuring out what role we can play. Now the first generation is saying OK, we fucked up, you guys take over, but tell us what you’re going to do.

We of second and 1.5 generations made a mistake a few years ago, when we met with our first generation elders around Black-Korean stuff, whether they should be going into certain geographic areas. We gave our input but we weren’t very aggressive in those meetings. We saw them going down the wrong direction and maybe running into a brick wall.

But this is where the value stuff came into play and really screwed us up. We deferred to our elders, which is a very ingrained thing: If someone is older than you they know better, and you defer to them because of their life experiences. It isn’t your place to say “no” to them.

[When a crisis arose from a shooting of a Black man in a store] their method was to put money in, hold a press conference, create a hundred jobs–which isn’t going to help the situation. We told them, this isn’t even a drop in the bucket. But it’s a press opportunity and they can say they’re doing something. That’s their first generation thinking, take care of it now and smooth it over. So we deferred again, and it created some bad blood. We are working through these inter-generational conflicts.

There’s gender: As a woman I would go to these meetings where myself and [the director of a community dispute resolution center] were the only two females in the room. I find it peculiar that the men are now so interested in my being a spokesperson.

The riot has had a special impact on women, because now child care is going to be an issue for us. A lot of women were working, in their own shops, where they could set their own terms of employment so to speak, and their kids could be part of the scene. Now they are going to be working for somebody else. Contrary to popular belief, many of the businesses don’t have insurance.

Many of us in the Korean American Bar Association who are doing policy reviews are finding out that many of these businesses bought policies from unregistered agents. So even if they had policies, they aren’t going to be able to collect because these agents weren’t properly licensed in the state of California. We don’t know what the impact will be.

And there’s another angle we have to deal with, which is very significant at least for those of us who think along political lines. We have a significant international factor because the South Korean government is interjecting itself in a very public and financially significant way into what is happening here. They have decided to make certain demands on the federal government.

Well, the Korean-American community here really doesn’t want the South Korean government to do shit, because we are taking care of ourselves–they don’t even check in with us. This is top news in Korea. I received two phone calls from Seoul last week. This is on the news every night in Korea. So we have to deal with that additional, very real factor.

I don’t know where we are going to go from here. I don’t want to be a politician. People are talking about drafting Angela Oh to be this political person. I don’t want it! I believe the work that needs to be done has to be at a grassroots level. I believe that the politicians have had their chance, and now the real work has to be to make them accountable.

We have to strengthen our community organizations, strengthen our writers, and I believe very strongly that there need to be coalition-building efforts. I agree 150% with Joe Hicks that people have to get past their ethnocentrism. I keep stressing that we are making American history here, not Korean history. Just as it’s never worked to be Balkanized and to work in a separatist movement, we need to get past these prejudices and bigotry that we carry around with us.

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September-October 1992, ATC 40