Monday, April 14, 2008

“Tell the lady in the liquorstore that she's forgiven”

Wow...the “Sai-I-Gu” documentary hit me pretty hard. I hadn’t seen the footage from the riots in a while and it hit home particularly hard when hearing from the perspective of the Korean shopkeepers who had been looted. At the end of the documentary, one of the producers described the LA riots as a “crisis of the American dream,” which I thought was particularly fitting. Looting and rioting is such a powerful image of anarchy and social disillusionment. It’s shocking to think that the LA riots took place in the United States less than twenty years ago.

I was surprised that the documentary failed to cover the murder of Latasha Harlins, which was an important catalyst for the LA Riots and the resentment of the Black community towards Korean shopkeepers. On March 16, 1991 (a little over a year before the LA Riots), Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl, was shot in the head by a female Korean storeowner, Soon Ja Du. The storeowner mistook Harlins for shoplifting, a scuffle broke out between them, and Harlins was shot fleeing the store, which was all captured on the store’s security camera. Even more shocking was Du sentence for Harlins’ murder on November 15, 1991 (a couple of months before the riots): 5 years' probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. Yes, this was Du’s sentence for murdering Latasha Harlins. While, several of the shopkeepers interviewed referred to the deep-seeded tension and resentment between Koreans and blacks that had always existed in LA, the Harlins murder cannot be overlooked.

The Latasha Harlins murder is also mentioned in 2Pac’s “Thugz Mansion,” a reference that until now went completely over my head:

Dear momma don't cry, your baby boy's doin good
Tell the homies I'm in heaven and they ain't got hoods

Little LaTasha sho' grown
Tell the lady in the liquorstore that she's forgiven, so come home

I found myself wondering during the documentary about who was to blame for the LA riots and my thoughts kept returning to the media. Would the Rodney King beating have been so sensational if the footage had not been featured day and night on every mass media? The media also played a role in villanization of the Korean shopkeepers during the riots featuring images of shopkeepers guarding their stores from looters on the roof. In the opening scene, the producers of the film discuss the 3 images of Koreans circulating on the media during the riots: 1) the Harlins’ murder, 2) crying shopkeepers after being looted, and 3) armed Koreans on the roof. I struggle to see how such representation of Koreans during the riots did not further exacerbate the racial tensions leading to the riots in the first place.

More thoughts on Asian and Black relations: there were a lot of connections between the “Sai-I-Gu” documentary and Oliver Wang’s piece on Asian American rappers in Alien Encounters. In his essay Wang laments that “Asian Americans are expected to cast their allegiance with one of the two dominant American racial poles” and as a result Asian American rappers fail to succeed in a dominantly black medium facing the issues of authenticity and racialization of their hip hop. This racial tension can be seen playing out directly in the rap battles between Black artist Sterling and the Asian artist Jin.

Throughout the documentary, the Korean shopkeepers discussed the resentment they felt from their Black customers as being “whitewashed” and not fitting into the Black-White dichotomy that Wang mentions in his essay. The same sense of betrayal that Koreans felt towards the blacks in the documentary is felt by Asian American rappers, such as Jin, who struggle to be recognized in hip hop. I guess the bigger question is: where do these tensions come from and what purpose have they ever served?

More information about Latasha Harlins:

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