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Dreams Shattered (Sa-I-Gu, Part 4)

June 10, 2012

All my interviewees for Sa-I-Gu told me that the police, national guard and other government officials did not appear promptly enough to restore order to the chaotic riots. “It was a preventable riot,” said one of the writers I interviewed. When law enforcement arrived, they went to Beverly Hills first to protect the powerful. A Korean American young man told me, “When our store was burning, I called the police. The policeman on the phone said, ‘I hope you guys have insurance. We are busy. It will be some time before we can come.’”

Watching everything they had worked for turn into ashes, the women lament the failure of the police to protect them. “They stood at a distance just watching,” says Kyung Sook Han, a lively grandma. The victims were unanimous in pointing out the failure of the government to provide adequate assistance during and following the crisis.

Mrs. Jung Hee Lee, at the site of her Swap Meet

Their dreams of America as a land of promise have been shattered, leaving them disillusioned. A beautiful, young woman, Sun Im Young says, “This is not a beautiful country. Korean for America is Mi Gook, a ‘beautiful country.’ America is not Mi Gook. On the contrary, it is a crazy country. Crazy country! How could this be Mi Gook? All my longings and desires for this country of dreams were crumbled into nothing.”

If it was bad during the riots, what about afterwards?

I have kept in touch with my interviewees in Sa-I-Gu, especially with Mrs. Jung Hui Lee who lost her only son and Mrs. Young Soon Han, a business owner who had been a nurse. I learned from them that the voices of victims have been largely silenced. Others moved on, convincing themselves that things were getting better.

I recall a conversation with Mrs. Lee when I called her a couple of years after Sa-I-Gu was broadcast on PBS (1993). Our phone conversation went something like this:

“My daughter, Jenny, is going to graduate from college very soon. You remember her, don’t you?”

“Of course, I do. How is she?”

“She has grown up. She doesn’t talk much about it but her brother’s death made her a mature woman fast.”

“Are you still living in the same house?”

“Of course, I am.  We can’t possibly move.”

“Why not?”

“How could I? My son would not know where to find me.”

Mrs. Lee, who had been waiting for her son when I went to interview her in 1992, three months after his death, was still waiting for him. My chest closed in on me.

Mrs. Han, a registered nurse who had to take over the family liquor store after her husband died of cancer, was evicted from her house, unable to pay her mortgage. She had opened a sandwich shop after her liquor store burned into ashes but, invaded by a huge deli across the street, she had to close it.  Nearing sixty, she could not find a job that would sustain her daily needs. She was barely surviving with help from her sister in Germany.

When I went back to Los Angeles ten years after the 1992 riots, I found that the lives of the majority of the victims had not improved. If anything, they became worse, so much worse that many had to leave L.A. The coalition work among  minorities had largely disappeared.

The only visible change in South Central was more Latinos than African Americans. Poor Blacks still fight for a piece of American dream with the new immigrants, the discrepancy between the rich and poor Black widening.

To be continued.

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