Two years after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, a 24-year-old black man and a 17-year-old black male walked into a liquor store in San Bernardino, Calif., where a Korean immigrant named Bruce Suh worked behind the counter.
They stuck a gun in Suh’s face and told him to lie face down on the floor. While the younger of the two robbers held a gun to the back of Suh’s neck, the other one went to work on the cash register.
To the robbers, the 50-year-old Suh may have looked like just another Korean, smaller and more frail than they were, an easy target with some money.
They didn’t know that nine years earlier, Suh had worked the counter at a grocery in the L.A. suburb of Bellflower and was shot in the back. He was wearing a bulletproof vest at that time, and the gunshot knocked him down.
He hadn’t forgotten how close he came to dying. What if the gunman had shot him in the head? Who would take care of his family?
So in San Bernardino, Suh kept a gun. The robbers couldn’t open the cash register, and the older one decided to carry it out to his car. Meanwhile, the younger gunman turned away to browse for a snack. Suh managed to reach for his own gun and shot him.
Outside the other robber heard the gunshot and started to drive off. Suh fired a shot at the car, and the driver crashed into a pole. He got out with his hands up.
Had the robbers killed Suh, it would have been another homicide in San Bernardino, which at the time was averaging more than one a week. But this robbery had a twist because the victim fought back.
When I filed the story, my supervising editor looked at it and said, “Suh? Is that Korean?”
I hadn’t identified the players by race or ethnicity because there was no evidence that either played a role.
“Was the kid who got shot black?” my editor asked.
To my editor, the story instantly changed when I told him the robbers were black. It was now “Korean shoots black.” My editor thought he had another Latasha Harlins.
He saw a replay of the widely publicized story about a Korean shopkeeper in South Central L.A. who shot and killed a 15-year-old black girl she mistakenly thought was shoplifting. The shopkeeper, 51-year-old Soon Ja Du, grabbed the girl, and they scuffled. Du was knocked down, and she came back up with a gun and shot Latasha in the back.
Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but was sentenced only to probation and community service. As mitigating circumstances for the light sentence, the judge cited other nearby merchants who had been killed and Du’s son who had been beaten. The media gave extensive coverage to the outrage in the black community.
My editor saw no difference between an unarmed, innocent customer and an armed robber. Both were black. He saw no difference between Bruce Suh and Soon Ja Du. Both were Korean.
His quest for racial injustice failed when the dead youth’s family didn’t cooperate. They declined to comment, saying only that he had been in and out of trouble. (His obituary would later suggest donations to the San Bernardino Police Department’s DARE program.)
The media love anniversary stories, and last week’s 25th anniversary of the Rodney King riots produced a lot of the usual retrospectives. Many of them were predictable: Things haven’t changed, and it will happen again.
“We have to be very careful about maligning any race. If you stereotype a group of people, then they will rebel and riot,” the Rev. Mark Whitlock, pastor of Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Irvine, Calif., told the Orange County Register.
Now what “group of people” has a reputation for rebelling and rioting in the past 50-plus years? Certainly not Korean Americans, whose businesses bore the brunt of the King riots.
The store where Latasha Harlins died was burned to the ground. Her family announced that it would be a future site of a community center named for her. As the recent retrospectives pointed it, that didn’t come to fruition.
What has happened is that finally some Korean Americans are telling their overlooked stories.
The L.A. Times recently singled out Justin Chon and Carol Park.
Chon was 10 years old during the riots and saw parts of L.A. on fire. His father owned a shoe store and didn’t come home for a few nights. A month later, Chon finally went to his dad’s store. It looked “like a tornado hit it.”
Chon’s film, “Gook” reflects the story of his father, who built a wholesale business after years of selling shoes and clothes at swap meets – only to be resented and envied by black residents.
Park was 12 and for two years had worked weekends in the bulletproof glass booth at her family’s gas station in Compton. (There’s that word again – bulletproof. It isn’t just cops who need bulletproof accessories.)
On the day of the riots, Park and her brothers begged their mother to come home. When she finally arrived late in the evening, “she told the kids to do their homework and calmly fixed herself a dinner of cold leftovers. She made no mention of her harrowing escape from the station, or how she had quietly dodged the agitated crowd … wielding bats, throwing cans and yelling at passing cars.”
Park’s book, “Memoir of a Cashier” recalls “sitting there in my bulletproof cashier’s booth, wondering why I was a damn gook, and wondering what my Korean face had to do with the price of gas and cigarettes.”
She recalls the first time she used the N-word when a man called her a “dirty, greedy Korean.”
Two decades after the riots, she finally got her mother to open up about what happened during those days.
It’s a striking contrast to 21st Century America where so many people are quick to bare their emotional wounds over the slightest insult – and the media are quick to flack for favored victims.
Some facts get lost or are so unpopular they quickly fade away.
For example, the cops who beat Rodney King said they thought he was acting violently because he was on PCP since he was sweating so profusely. Blood tests later showed no PCP.
In his autobiography, “The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption” King said that while he wasn’t on PCP the night of the beating, “the drug had eventually gotten its hooks into me.”
He blames PCP for other crimes he committed, including spousal abuse and indecent exposure.
He also acknowledges, “Looking back, I deserved to be arrested … I was drinking and I was speeding and I was breaking the law. Anyone clocked at over 100 mph on the highway and topping 60 mph on surface streets deserves to be pulled over. … It was beyond stupid and it was dangerous and it was wrong.”
King even admits to siding with the corrupt LAPD cop played by Woody Harrelson in the movie, “Rampart.” In this film, a reckless driver hits Harrelson’s car and runs off. Harrelson’s character catches him and in an uncontrolled rage starts to beat him.
“Now this was a very interesting scene for me to watch, because of my reaction. I was rooting for Woody to pound the hell out of the asshole who was driving so recklessly. Then I kind of caught myself when I figured out that was me! … For the first time in my life, I might have caught an inkling of how Powell, Briseno, Wind, and Koon felt that night.”
King also points out that the media only ran an edited version of the famous beating that the four Los Angeles police officers gave him.
“The unedited video would have told a different story. … The first seven seconds of my video, which was not included in the evening news broadcasts, showed me getting up and running. I was trying to run away. The court allowed that might have been the case, or I may have been running towards a cop.”
He doesn’t dwell on the felony he committed and the reason he was on parole at the time of the beating – his attempt to rob a small grocery store.
“I walked by and noticed there was an Asian guy in back of the counter and no one else in the store… .”
In King’s telling, the Asian guy fought back with a tire iron. (Tae Suck Baik said King had the tire iron, and he fought him off with a metal rod.)
King, 47, drowned in his backyard swimming pool in 2012. A coroner’s report concluded he had cocaine, marijuana, PCP and alcohol in his body.
Had he lived to see the 25th anniversary of the riots, he might have looked back and had more second thoughts.
He might have acknowledged that Korean Americans, in particular, suffered because of him.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons
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