Considering the LA Riots in a Black Lives Matter World: John Singleton’s ‘LA Burning’

Where were you on that day that Los Angeles burned? Was it a sign of things to come? John Singleton’s heart-wrenching documentary “Los Angeles Riots: 25 Years Later” begins, not in Los Angeles, but in various parts of the nation. For him, this isn’t just the story about Los Angeles; it’s about a national dilemma that is expressed in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Beginning with the soothing male voiceover, “LA Burning” poses the question: “Who will protect us from our protectors? That is the question of America.”

For those who were too young or not even born 25 years ago, the names and faces that open the film will still be familiar:

  1. Philando Castile (6 July 2016) in Falcon Heights, MN
  2. Alton Sterling (5 July 2016) in Baton Rouge, LA
  3. Freddie Gray (12 April 2015) in Baltimore, Maryland
  4. Michael Brown (9 August 2014) in Ferguson, MO
  5. Trayvon Martin (26 February 2012) in Sanford, Florida
  6. Sandra Bland (13 July 2015) in Hempstead, Texas.
  7. Tamir Rice (22 November 2014) in Cleveland, OH.
  8. Eric Garner (17 July 2014) in Staten Island, NYC.
  9. Ezell Ford (11 August 2014) in Florence, Los Angeles, CA.

There is a reason why fear rises in the minds of black men (and women) when a police officers commands, “Put your hands up.” That was true for the LAPD in the early 1990s.

There is nothing poetic about violence, but the warning of a “Dream Deferred” was captured by Langston Hughes (1902-1967) in his 1951 poem:

What happens to a dream deferred

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

We are told in Singleton’s documentary: “History shows that a dream that has turned into a nightmare explodes.” And that is what happened on 29 April 1992 when buildings burned, Reginald Denny was pulled from his semi-truck and beaten, and Korean-American businessmen were shooting their guns and forming their own protection force. After three days of chaos, the National Guards marched into Los Angeles and reinstated order.

The documentary takes us about 30 miles to the northeast of South Central and the infamous intersection of Florence and Normandy.  We hear the voice of the late Rodney Glen King describing his anxiety about getting stopped by the police: He’s been drinking and he’s on parole. He makes sure to stop in a well-lit area near an apartment complex in Lake View Terrace.

By that time, King was being pursued by more than one police cruiser and helicopters had joined the chase. It was almost 1 a.m. in the morning of 3 March 1991, a Sunday. George Holliday had been asleep, but he awoke to wailing sirens and the rhythm of helicopters flying low.

And Holliday saw something else and began to film it: the King beating. Holliday appears and talks about his now infamous video, one that he saw no profit from, but plenty of exploitation. This documentary isn’t interested in the seamier side of the media, but does show how the media misjudged the video’s significance and, in doing so, showed how out of touch the media was with the country.

Later, we will also see how the then Los Angeles Chief of Police Daryl Gates (1978-1992) was also a stranger to his city. The Glendale-born Gates (1926-2010) had not been a street cop but one destined for higher places, and he overlooked the percolating anger–“black rage” as one person labels it.

The Texas-born Tom Bradley (1917-1998), a black man who had started out as a police officer before becoming a lawyer, was mayor–the second African-American mayor of a major city and the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles. Yet, just as Barack Obama’s 2009-2017 presidency didn’t signal the end of prejudice in the nation, neither did the long mayorship of Bradley (1973-1993)  signal the end of racism in Los Angeles.

Singleton lets us hear voices of different people before identifying what role they played; in this way, a man of God and a man convicted of assault and battery are given a fair introduction. While both of those men are black, Singleton doesn’t ignore the other elements of ethnicity. A white reporter, a Korean store manager, a Latino couple who were–like Reginald Denny–viciously attacked–all are given time to remember what happened.

On the day that the jury came back with the not guilty verdicts,  Singleton was shooting a Janet Jackson-Tupac Shakur movie in Simi Valley. He headed to the courthouse to record the reactions. In Los Angeles itself, photographer Bart Bartholomew, who is white,  was just a few blocks away from Florence and Normandy. Bartholomew was saved by an amateur videographer, Tim Golden.

Another voice is distractingly feminine: Zoey Tur who had been Bob Tur, was the news pilot who with his then-wife, Marika Gerrard, caught the attack on Reginald Denny from above. Golden caught images from the street level.

You won’t hear from Denny, but you will hear from the Los Angeles Four, the first four men charged in the Denny attack: Damian “Football” Williams, Antoine “Twan” Miller, Henry Keith Watson and Gary Williams.  There’s something troubling about the sentiment that these men were just caught up in the moment and the emotion, but Singleton uses Rev. Cecil Murray, the former pastor of the First AME Church of Los Angeles as a counter balance.  Singleton reminds us that other people were attacked.

On Day 2 of the riots former gun store manager at the Western Gun Shop, David Joo, was called by his boss, Richard Park, who also owned a jewelry store. Grabbing guns and going to help defend that store, Joo recalls, “I can see the LAPD vehicle. We have the police here; we are safe. But as soon as the gunfighting started, they ran away. Goodbye!…uh oh, we are on our own.”

What’s made clear is that not all the looting was by African Americans, there were also Latinos, Asians and white people.

Why did this happen? Mike Moulin, then a lieutenant in the 77th Street division explains how unprepared the officers were–no helmets, no riot gear. He is defending himself against accusations made by Daryl Gates (1926-2010) that placed the blame on Moulin.

On the first day of the riots I was working at a Japanese American daily, the Rafu Shimpo, down the street from Parker Center–the LAPD HQ. Although walking distance from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ahmanson and the Times Mirror building, this area was also near skid row. Certain alleys had homeless encampments. Everyone at work had their car broken into by desperate people looking for money or drugs. That last afternoon there was something in the air–musty, dry hot angry. I left work early. A couple of hours later, the protest at Parker Center turned violent and moved down the street and the mob busted the large windows of the luxury hotel (then the New Otani) in Little Tokyo.

Eventually the National Guardsmen would roll into Downtown Los Angeles (30 April 1992). A tank was on the streets offering protection. In the days that followed, I studied the news and on May 19, my article about Japanese press coverage was published. Already King had asked us to get along (1 May 1992) on the same day there was a peace rally in Koreatown, and to that end, there were things I didn’t write about.

Prior to the riots, reporters from the Rafu had been threatened by Korean American journalists and the Rafu had received angry, threatening letters from the Korean community because of an opinion piece I had written about the Korean Comfort women that referenced a play, “The Trojan Women.” Because of that, I was in contact with a Korean reporter. When I asked over the phone about the headlines in Korea, he sadly told me translating those into English would only make matters worse. For the same article, I spoke with a black journalist and cringed at his insensitivity toward Asians. How can we get along if we don’t understand and respect each other?

This week, NPR published an article about “5 Films Look at the Los Angeles Riots from (Almost) Every Angle:”

  1. National Geographics’ “LA 92”
  2. Smithsonian Channel’s “The Lost Tapes: LA Riots”
  3. Showtime’s “Burn Motherf*cker Burn”
  4. John Singleton’s HBO documentary “LA Burns: The Riots 25 Years Later”
  5. ABC’s “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992”

Of those, I’ve only seen Singleton’s documentary and the first part of “The Lost Tapes.” Instead, I’ve been re-watching Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s “Sa-I-Gu” (literally 4-2-9) and her follow up, “Wet Sand: Voices of LA.”  “Sa-I-Gu” premiered on PBS POV in 1992 and provided the perspective of Korean women shop keepers, including Young Soon Han (Liquor store owner), Choon Ah Song (family market owner) and Jung Hui Lee (clothing store assistant) and was made by three women (Christine Choy, Elaine H. Kim and Dai Sil Kim-Gibson) beginning three months after the riots.

The documentary exposes a problem beyond black-versus-white and Korean-American versus African Americans.  Of the looters, one woman explained, “At first, it was 100 percent black. They went in and began to demolish. We watched it, hiding. Inside, they destroyed, shot–it was like a war zone. Two hours later, the Mexicans came. Blacks and Mexicans joined forces–200 of them.” Another woman says, “The police–when the blacks and Mexicans took they stood at a distance just watching.”   Latinos, like East Asians, may “all look alike” but they are not alike.

Similarly, another Korean man decries the presence of the National Guard in Little Tokyo as if that had to do with ethnicity rather than proximity. He says, “I didn’t see them. I only saw a few of them, maybe a platoon-size worth in Koreatown. You know where all the troops were? They were in Japanese town (Little Tokyo), they were guarding Beverly Hills.” Koreatown doesn’t border City Hall, Parker Center or the Los Angeles Music Center as does Little Tokyo. Beverly Hills has its own police force. Another person contradicts him, saying, “When the National Guard came they were nowhere in sight in Koreatown.”

As I’ve written previously, Asian Americans also suffer from prejudice in the US and as the 2016 Oscars indicated, not just from white people. As one Korean woman comments in “Sa-I-Gu,” “Because we are Koreans, Americans and blacks treat us like this.”  There’s also a feeling that the Koreans became a scapegoat for black frustrations against whites.

Watching “Sa-I-Gu” gives some explanation for Kim-Gibson’s 2008 follow-up: “Wet Sand: Voices from L.A.” The film “Wet Sand” begins and ends with Jung Hui Lee cleaning the gravestone of her son, Eddie Lee (1975-1992)–both figured prominently in the first film. The mother says, “Even now I visit my son once a week, not just for him. I do it more for myself. If I don’t visit him, I can’t function.”

Lee was the only Korean American who died, but not the only Asian American who died and not the only person who died in Koreatown and not the only teen who died during the LA Riots. Eddie Lee was killed by a rival group of Korean Americans protecting the stores from looting. That was the conclusion the LAPD came to according to a 2002 article in the LA Weekly (“The LA 53″ by Jim Crogan).

According to that same article, an Algerian-born Frenchman, Patrick Bettan, 30, was working as an armed security guard and the LAPD investigation concluded he had been accidentally shot by one of his employers in Koreatown.

Lee’s death was tragic, but so were many others. While the documentary does look at the journey to recovery of Niky Orellana and the black couple Nadine and Vernett Ellis (Contempo Interiors), and the failure of other enterprises, there’s just too many talking heads and not a balance of issues.

The history of African Americans and slavery is considered ( They are the “toxic waste in the by-product of a commercial enterprise called slavery,” says Ayuko Babu), but not the history of Los Angeles, including the Zoot Suit Riots (1943) which occurred before the 1965 Watts Riots. Even further back, Los Angeles was the site of the Chinese massacre of 1871 during which 18 Chinese immigrants were lynched on what had been called Calle de los Negros (Street of the Negroes) but also referred to as “Nigger Alley” by the locals. That street in modern Los Angeles is Los Angeles Street–the same street where Parker Center is. Los Angeles and California also have a history of anti-Asian prejudice. Some anti-Asian laws were rescinded post-World War II (e.g. the California Alien Land Law of 1920 was invalidated in 1952). Nationally, the continued sentiment of Asian American foreignness was the topic of last year’s #ThisIs2016, a hashtag started by a Chinese American New York Times reporter.

Rev. Cecil Murray also appears in “Wet Sand,” complaining, “Korean merchants had utter contempt for black clients. They took money from the community and put nothing into the community they did not defer to blacks as clientele as customers. The money, the change thrown to them. No eye contact. No greetings. No thank you. It as if: ‘I am doing you a favor by having a store in your communities.'” A woman in “Sa-I-Gu” noted that she made a point to hand money directly to black people and did other community outreach, but that didn’t save her business. In the documentary, this would have been an opportune moment to discuss cultural differences, but the necessary discussion doesn’t take place.

In “Wet Sand,” Asian American activists complained about the juxtaposition of the Latasha Harlins’ video being played against the Rodney King video. Harlins was fatally shot by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du just 13 days after the King beating. Du was given no prison time. In “Wet Sand,” the credentials of the judge is called into question.

There are other questions raised. Are ethnic minorities in Los Angeles “quarreling over crumbs from the economic table” as white people have changed overtly, but “in their private world they’re just and same as before”?  The title comes from the analogy of hope, which is “like holding wet sand in your hands. When it dries, it slips out of your fingers.”

Reading the LA Weekly article after watching “Wet Sand,” I felt slightly betrayed. The issue of friendly-fire casualties is not fully explored in “Wet Sand” and “Sa-I-Gu.” The Singleton documentary also doesn’t mention such deaths in Koreatown, but Singleton focused more on individual people who found notoriety because of the riots.

The Smithsonian Channel also has a special presentation: “The Lost Tapes: LA Riots.” It begins with the King beating and immediately throws Daryl Gates up as the person responsible for the lack of law and order. Gates jokes about the infamous clip as a “home movie”; his tone deafness is alarming. Then  “The Lost Tapes” immerses us into the experience of the LA Riots and gives voices to many people using LAPD videos along with television and radio reports and amateur home videos all in chronological order as if it were happening in real time. The chaotic effects of those days is captured, but I’ve only watched one episode.

Soon after the LA Riots, I wrote an opinion essay about Marine veteran and actor Greg Alan Williams who saved Japanese American Takao Hirata at the intersection of Florence and Normandy. Hirata had been born in an internment camp. Although some called Williams a hero, he told People magazine, “It was selfish,” because “I said to myself, ‘If I don’t help this man, when the mob comes for me, there will be nobody there for me.’ If I stood there and watched this man be murdered, then what sort of justice could I ask for myself?”

When I wrote that essay, I had just returned from Boston and because of the Oscar-winning 1989 movie “Glory,” I visited the Robert Gould Shaw memorial on Beacon and Park streets. Shaw and the white officers crossed the boundaries of race in the 1860s for a belief uncommon during those times.  Williams did it in 1992 to save a stranger (Hirata). Perhaps this is why, I’m more moved by Singleton’s documentary which shows people reaching out to rescue strangers of different races. I wonder why these people were not caught up in the moments of mayhem and how we can move more people to be caught up in acts of kindness, even during times like the LA Riots.  During uprisings sparked by hate,  violence is easy; kindness and non-violence are not.

“LA Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later” first aired on A&E Network on April 18 and can be viewed through Amazon Video ($2.99).

“Sa-I-Gu” and “Wet Sand” can be viewed on YouTube. On the official full version, director Dai Sil Kim-Gibson admits that she understood there were racist sentiments on “Sa-I-Gu” but as a Korean American woman she feels, “There is nothing like honest human talk” and that without this honesty, the problems will continue.



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