The Legacy of the “Roof Koreans”, 28 years later
As tensions over politics, state-imposed quarantines and potential economic collapse continue to rise, the possibility of the nation teetering on the brink of chaos grows a little more feasible every day.
In times such as these, it is important to remember heroes of crises past, and remember the importance of taking control of a bad situation- even if everyone around you is afraid.
This is the story of the “Roof Koreans.”
In 1992, tensions between the citizens of Los Angeles came to a head after the verdicts in the LAPD beating of Rodney King were handed down, resulting in the acquittal of several officers.
Following the announcement, the entire city of Los Angeles turned into a warzone in short order, with widespread arson leading to the destruction of over 1,100 buildings. Looting became so widespread that people did not even show concern when cornered by news cameras, with some claiming everything was “free.”
In some neighborhoods, people were being dragged from trucks and mercilessly beaten. Vandalism soon swept over block after block. In many instances, reporters described the police presence as “none.”
As the LAPD and California Army National Guard tried to figure out what to do, the citizens of Koreatown (a 150-block area) were dismayed to see the police abandoning their area with haste. As waves of rioters began to swarm upon the area, the Korean-Americans who occupied the area felt left behind by the very people who were allegedly tasked to “protect and serve” them.
“It was containment,” a Korean-American resident later told reporters. “The police cut off traffic out of Koreatown, while we were trapped on the other side without help. Those roads are a gateway to a richer neighborhood. It can’t be denied.”
Koreans began reporting that they were being warned in advance by African-American friends that the African-American rioters had been handing out leaflets, warning that Koreatown was next.
Other residents claimed that the police were refusing to come to the area when they were called to assist.
After consulting with an attorney, the Korean-language radio station operators put out a message: Defend Koreatown, do not flee.
“We changed our broadcast from ‘leaving our town’ to ‘defending our town,’” said Richard Choi, former president of Radio Korea.
Realizing that their area was not without rule of law and that they were on their own, the residents -many of whom were veterans of the US military or former soldiers of the Republic of Korea’s mandatory service program- organized security teams and established a perimeter around essential business areas.
The list of armaments seen was staggering to the average Californian at the time, even though local gun laws were far more relaxed in 1992 than they are today. AK-pattern rifles, Glock 17s, Ruger Mini-14s, SKS carbines, AR15s (namely the Colt Sporter series), TEC-9s, Uzi-pattern pistols, Remington 870 shotguns, bolt action rifles, revolvers, and the now-coveted Daewoo K-1 semi-automatic variants, which were ROK military-issue at the time and were banned from import by President George H.W. Bush only a few years prior (a pre-ban K1 today -ff you can find one- often commands a price of around $1,000-1,500).
Armed, organized and ready to go, the Koreatown defenders took up positions, with many posting atop the roofs of their businesses. This frequent use of the aforementioned elevated positions gave rise to the moniker “Roof Koreans.”
Soon, open gun battles were taking place as parts of Koreatown burned, with televised crews filming much of the action as it unfolded. Multiple skirmishes took place within the perimeter, and some casualties were recorded.
When curfew followed the setting sun, cars were set up along Olympic Boulevard, with all doors open and headlights on, establishing a lit perimeter in an area affected by a power blackout.
Despite the fact that the Koreatown residents were abandoned by the LAPD, the news media that covered the incidents were often critical of the Roof Koreans, with some claiming they were little more than a dangerous menace to both the people and the LAPD. Others referred to the sight of armed citizenry as “disturbing,” and one news reporter even compared the defenders to Charles Whitman, an American mass murderer who became infamous as the “Texas Tower Sniper”.
“This reminds me of..Back in the sixties, Charles Whitman in the tower at the University of Texas,” the anchor said as a shaky -and limited- image of a local defending his position flashed on the screen.
“It doesn’t look like he’s defending a store or anything,” his anchorwoman partner replied. “Just looks like he’s taking potshots.”
“He looks like a whacko with a gun to me,” the anchor quipped, abandoning all objectivity.
Whatever the public optics, the defense of Koreatown eventually led to the California Army National Guard entering the area on the heels of a sheepish LAPD, which by this point had drawn the scorn of the neighborhood for abandoning them.
By the time the riots ended, around half of the $50 million in damages to the city involved Koreatown. In the years that followed, the area would shrink as Korean-Americans suffered from loss of income, the effects of which can still be seen today.
Despite the tragedy and loss, many believe that Koreatown might have been wiped out entirely had a handful of dutiful men and women not taken arms to defend what was theirs.
Perhaps, at least for some in this day and age, there may be a lesson to be learned.
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