L.A. Riots: LAPD Tried to Displace its Racism Problem And 'Put it On a Korean Merchant,' Says Former Times Reporter John Lee
It seems that for every generation, a group of immigrants gets picked for no-holds-barred hatred, and Koreans in 1992 were it. John Lee covered the community and the riots for the Los Angeles Times back then, and he argues that the LAPD, under fire for the Rodney King beating, wanted the focus to be on his people.
Shortly after the uprisings, Lee, a longtime friend of this reporter, left the paper, bitter about his experience. He looks back:
Some have forgotten that another spark for the riots was the shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins less than two weeks after the police beating of King.
A South L.A. store owner, Soon Ja Du, pulled the trigger. It was March 16, 1991.
Lee covered the aftermath of the shooting and the ensuing manslaughter prosecution of Du, who claimed self defense. The story line often cited was that Harlins was shot over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice she had stuffed in her backpack.
He interviewed Latasha's aunt, Denise Harlins, who raised her. "She dealt with me as human being and not as a Korean L.A. Times reporter," Lee says.
Latasha Harlins quickly became the Trayvon Martin of her day. Orange juice was her Skittles.
Harlins, it turned out, intended to pay for the juice, and died with $2 in her hand after scuffling with Du and being shot in the back of the head as she attempted to leave the store.
The Korean's family gave security video to the LAPD, hoping it would vindicate Du. But the department instead released it to the media. Lee thinks that the LAPD was trying to deflect attention away from another video -- that of King being pummeled by four cops.
There was already bad blood in the black community: African Americans felt they were treated badly by a wave of Korean merchants that had come into South L.A. to open liquor stores, markets, clothing boutiques and wig shops. Lee was assigned to cover the Harlins story with African American colleague Andrea Ford:
I had had that conversation with Andrea, about how Korean merchants treated black customers. We were aware of the climate. There were a lot of incidents of disputes.
He thinks the LAPD capitalized on this: