Sa-I-Gu: The Los Angeles Civil Unrest through the Lens of Community Journalism

(Forthcoming book)

These are the some of the voices of reporters, writers, and editors mentored by the Pulitzer Prize-nominated editor and journalist, K.W. Lee, during the most tragic, dramatic event in Korean American history.

On the frontline of the Korean American Community, these writers, in their retrospective essays, reflect on Sa-I-Gu (The Los Angeles Civil Unrest of April 29, 1992) on this 30th year 2022 commemoration.  The book also includes electronic links to their news articles and writings written and published by KoreAm, and the The Korea Times English edition during Sa-I-Gu.

Editors: Karen Umemoto, Russell Leong, Soo Mee Kim

Preliminary Contributors: Edward Chang, Do Kim, Sojin Kim, K.W. Lee, Sophia Kim, Dexter Kim, Kay Hwangbo, Julie Ha, Brenda Paik Sunoo, Richard Fruto, Hyungwon Kang, Angela Oh, John Lee, Karen Umemoto, Darnell Hunt, Jean-Paul R. Contreras deGuzman, Vince Leus, Soo Mee Kim

Intrepid. Inquisitive. Insisting always on truth. In this time of untruths, community journalism “matters” more than ever.  These writers provide a unique insiders’ lens to Sa-I-Gu, and, by their intrepid example, a path to a more just media future for all communities today.

Editors
Photo Credit: Sae Lee

Korean Americans are no longer here as sojourners or guests. We are here to live and die in the urban trenches because we have given so much of ourselves and gained so much freedom in return. This is our last home on earth…May I add that I believe in the resurrection of the City of Angels.

K.W. Lee
Authors’ Voices (Preview Excerpts)
“K.W., in his editorials, criticized mainstream media for race-mongering and contributing to anti-immigrant rhetoric, reducing Black and Korean interactions to one of conflict. He called for more complex accounting for the history and structural forces that shaped their experiences in inner cities and with one another. And his newsroom reporters provided one of the few conduits in English to Korean American perspectives, working to provide the context and diversity typically absent from coverage.”
Sojin Kim
“Widely known as a ‘wake-up call’, ‘turning point,’ or ‘watershed event’ in the Korean American community, Sa-I-Gu greatly impacted Korean American lives economically, psychologically, politically, and racially. I often use the term “triple oppression” to help understand the Korean American perspective on Sa-I-Gu….”
Edward Chang
“My life is a bright and fiery mirror that reflects the tumultuous history of two generations of Korean immigrants on this American soil: my parents and mine. My youngest daughter was born in 1992, the year angry flames ravaged Los Angeles Koreatown. I was six months pregnant when I walked into my office, knowing it was not going to be an ordinary day.”
Sophia K. Kim
“K.W. Lee was the first journalist I ever met, and it’s no accident than I spent half of my 20-plus-year journalism career as an editor at a Korean American magazineThe disheveled, gray-haired editor cursed like a sailor and would laugh so hard that he’d fall off his chair; a sign in his newsroom read, ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves.’ But he wrote with eloquence, conviction, and clarity; his passion for the truth was infectious.”
Julie Ha
“K.W. raised the bar for community journalism, and our staff were all professional journalists. During the summer, we beefed up our news team by recruiting young Korean American college students as a way of encouraging their community awareness and service. Because we represented one immigrant community in depth, were were able to be a window into a community that could not be explored by the mainstream press. Many of our staff were bilingual, which allowed us to interview the immigrant Korean sources.”
Brenda Paik Sunoo
“Working at the Korea Times English Edition was different from the mainstream media because we had an ethnic community perspective. We were worried about the mainstream media stoking racial tensions by propagating stereotypes of Korean Americans.”
Kay Hwangbo
“In an era when immigrants are scapegoated more than ever for the nation’s ills, when a handful of billionaires and enormous corporate media conglomerates control every major news outlet, when social media amplifies rage and hate like a megaphone, when no one can agree on what news is real or fake, the lessons of Sa-I-Gu have never been more relevant.”
Dexter Kim
“All moments in our lives only happen once. It is our challenge to capture that “once-in-a-life” moment to freeze for eternity. Sa-I-Gu was one of those moments…During the first three days of the Saigu Riots, I went home only for food, shower and naps. I wore a bullet-proof vest under my photographer’s Domke jacket. “
Hyungwon Kang
“As a reporter at the Korea Times, I had what my former editor, K.W. Lee, would call a worm’s eye view of those events, and as the only non-Korean on the staff, I also had an outsider’s view from the inside. I covered the 1992 riots and the aftermath. I also reported on the shooting of 15-year old Latasha Harlins by a Korean immigrant grocer in March 1991. What I witnessed was a story that was not as straightforward as the perception that most people have of those events based on what they read and heard from the major media outlets.”
Richard Fruto
“Soon Ja Du still remains a symbol for me. A symbol now of the unfinished business at hand in human relations in our multiethnic, multilingual city, in economic justice for the poor and jobless, and in the media’s commitment to understanding and covering these issues.” 
John Lee
“Los Angeles is now a ‘majority minority’ city, the center of a new and vibrant multiracial immigrant rights/labor movement, and home to a variety of politicians of color equipped with grassroots organizing experience. However, egregious inequalities still exists in the shadows of fortresses of transnational capital, urban gentrification, and unrelenting white flight. Scholarship on the uprisings should continue to elucidate and subvert…”
Jean-Paul R. Contreras deGuzman
“The emergence of global cities such as Los Angeles has added new complexities to the topic of interethnic relations. The migration of labor, migratory family reunification, and forced displacement by war or poverty has created cities with multiple levels of  racial, ethnic, and class stratification. The tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans, neither of whom enjoy economic, political, social or cultural parity with whites in the United States, is indicative of this increase in conflict between two subordinate but unequal groups.”
Karen Umemoto
“Society’s most basic flaws are exposed by the vulnerabilities of its subordinated groups. The metaphor of the miner’s canary, I believe, is also particularly apt for helping us to make sense of where we find ourselves today in the United States, twenty years after frustration and dissent exploded so violently on the streets of Los Angeles.”
Darnell Hunt

“If you were active with the Korean Federation, of course you had a strong identity. If you were active with the church, of course you had a strong identity. If you were active with the Chamber of Commerce, of course you had a strong identity. But across all of those sectors within the community, there was no sense of Korean Americanness. So  the implications of having an “ethnic identity” suddenly emerged in 1992—a community consciousness.”
Angela Oh
“Our power lies in joining forces
with African Americans and other groups to fight together for our collective rights. We need to make the progressive movement our movement too and reject the status quo. That is why I am so invested in training our youth in Koreatown. My hope is that the Korean American community will champion the rights of all racially disenfranchised groups in America so that these tragic days in 1992 are not forgotten.”
Do Kim