Connie Chung Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said the media’s framing of Korean and Black communities provided little to no context surrounding the systemic racism and oppression both communities faced before Saigu. (Imagen Munkhbayar | Daily Trojan)

Content Warning: This article contains references to violence.

On March 16, 1991, Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl, walked into the South Los Angeles liquor store owned by Soon Ja Du, a Korean immigrant. Harlins walked into the store, put a bottle of orange juice worth $1.79 in her backpack, and approached the store counter. Du accused Harlins of theft, and when Harlins turned toward the exit after a fight, she was fatally shot in the back of the head by Du.

Du went to court and was found guilty of intentional homicide with a sentence – five years probation, 400 hours of community service and a fine – which incited animosity from the black community in Los Angeles.

On March 3, 1991, a graphic video of four Los Angeles police officers – three of them white – beating Rodney King, a black man, was released nationally. King, on parole for theft and pursued by police in a high-speed chase, was kicked and beaten for 15 minutes with an audience of another dozen officers. A jury found the four officers not guilty.

Nearly a year after Harlins died, residents of his neighborhood burned down hundreds of Korean-owned businesses while chanting his name.

Nearly 30 years after the LA Uprising, also described as the “LA Riots” of 1992 by mainstream media, Asian Americans Advancing Justice hosted a panel of civil rights experts and media critics to discuss of media coverage of the uprising through a retrospective lens.

Panelists included Jarrett Hill, president of the National Association of Black Journalists in Los Angeles and adjunct journalism instructor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; Angela Oh, co-founder of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association; Connie Rice, co-founder of the Advancement Project and Urban Institute; Stewart Kwoh, Chairman Emeritus and Founder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. Connie Chung Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, moderated the panel.

Chung Joe began with an overview of events that transpired on the streets of Los Angeles 30 years ago. She stipulated that media portrayals of Harlins’ case created a misinterpretation of the facts.

“Our criminal justice system places a higher value on the life of the Korean immigrant than that of a teenager — who was black; and when the [four officer’s] the verdict fell on the beaten king a few months later, [the injustices] showed once again how anti-black our criminal justice system is,” said Chung Joe.

She explained how the uprising disproportionately affected Korean businesses, with 40% of them suffering damage afterwards. As Koreatown burned, Chung Joe said desperate 911 calls from Korean store owners were ignored as police and firefighters instead gathered to protect Beverly Hills.

Chung Joe said the media’s framing of Korean and black communities – Koreans portrayed as “vigilant on shop roofs with guns firing into the street” and the black community said to be “burning buildings and looting shops” – provided little to no context surrounding the systemic racism and oppression both communities faced prior to Saigu.

AAAJ noted that the mainstream media of the time exacerbated divisions between Korean business owners and the black community by using “race-related” violence instead of “injustice-related” violence.

“It’s such a complicated and dense subject that we knew we couldn’t do it justice in an hour zoom,” Chung Joe said. “Our goal ended up being… [to] let’s see if we can help frame how the media will cover the uprising in Los Angeles… This will help the media think about how they frame race and race relations and give it a little more thought.

Monica Lozano, president of the College Futures Foundation and host of the event, asked the panelists to provide some context on the struggles the black community endured 30 years ago. Rice said that in 1991 the black community saw 80,000 jobs leave South Central with little recourse or coverage by the government and mainstream media.

“The mainstream media didn’t cover it much and it got some coverage in the African American newspaper Los Angeles Sentinelbut when your whole economic base and your jobs base leaves, you’ll have a real vacuum there and people will fall through the cracks,” Rice said.

Rice presented clarifying details – lack of opportunity, lack of accessibility and police brutality – to illustrate to viewers the conditions of the black community in the 1990s.

“The mainstream media has covered most of Black LA as deprivation and violence, because that’s what elite communities fear,” Rice said. “We were focused on building skyscrapers downtown, we weren’t focused on building communities and building families and reinvesting in infrastructure that created upward mobility.”

Oh said that because the Korean community in the 90s consisted mostly of first-generation individuals, they weren’t prepared for the Saigu. She added that Koreans only read about owners being assaulted, robbed and killed in their small businesses from Korean news. While the facts remained the same in both American and Korean news, the panel discussed subtle nuances in language that created harmful rhetoric fueling stereotypes for both groups.

“If your identity was Korean, you were shaken by what you saw,” Oh said. “People asked me, ‘Well, why [Koreans] in these communities?’ That was where they could go, and they had no special programs.

Kwoh, writer at Korea Timetables who was worried about LA Times‘ coverage of the incident, wrote a letter to the editor at the time to ‘tone down’ as it would only aggravate misunderstandings. Kwoh said that while only a very small percentage of Korean Americans have tried to protect their businesses with guns, the Los Angeles Time had used an image showing Korean Americans with “guns on the roofs shooting at people”.

Following his letter, Kwoh met then-Los Angeles Time publisher Shelby Coffey. Kwoh’s successful advocacy for accurate language led Coffey to hire Chung Joe to better engage and understand the communities the newspaper reported on.

“It was about having journalists who live in the community, who know the community, who speak the language of the community and who could really understand the issues,” Kwoh said. “The lesson I’ve learned is that you have to confront the powers that be…because if you don’t, you’re just accepting a medium that doesn’t champion multiracial democracy.”

Hill said the goal of the media has always been profit and the goal now is to change the system and bend it to what we need it to reflect now.

“I think it’s important that we always recognize, one: what these systems were set up to do; but then: the ways we can start to change them and be more inclusive, diverse and equitable so that we can better address the community issues that we are creating, but also exacerbating,” Hill said.

Would-be reporters entering the field should take a stand to champion various contexts, Rice said, and read the history of the stories they cover.

“You have to fight to get your stories that cover both the conflicts and the emerging alliances in these communities,” Rice said. “When you have a reporter covering South Los Angeles and the violence, give context to that.”