In April 1992 when four officers were accused of beating Rodney King to death, LA and the rest of the USA saw some of the worst riots in its history. It was here that the “roof Koreans”, or “rooftop” Koreans were born.
What is the backstory to the roof Koreans?
LA is home to over 300,000 Koreans, making it one of the biggest centers for the Korean diaspora. Many arrived during the 1970’s and 1980’s when South Korea was extremely different to what it is today. It should be remembered that when people spoke about the “Korean Economic Miracle” in the 70’s they were talking about the DPRK.
Because of lack of work opportunities and limited money, many Koreans purchased shops in predominantly black areas, usually from white owners leaving. It was also cheaper to open in these areas.
The LA Riots
What started as a protest movement about the acquittal of the cops who killed Rodney King quickly turned into anarchy. Arson, murder and looting were rampant.
In the contexts of the Korean community, ethnic tensions had already started to brew over. Many Koreans had been killed during robberies at convenience stores, and as the LA riots started to become worse the Koreans knew they had to do something.
Call to Arms
Korean radio stations in LA began to put out a call for volunteers to come and help Korean business owners, which soon led to a slur of volunteers carrying everything from homemade weapons to assault rifles.
At the start of the riots, the LAPD offered next to no help to the Korean business owners and largely took a step back from everything as things went from bad to worse.
And as the situation intensified it would be almost a week before the besieged business owners would see any form of law enforcement, so they set about defending themselves. Thus, the roof Koreans were born.
One of the most iconic examples of the roof Koreans was at California market in the LA Korea Town. The owner fortified his store and with 20 well armed employees all wearing Korean headbands. This image of would become one of the most iconic of the roof Koreans, as well as the fact that riots being not so black and white.
The End of the Riots
The riots would finally come to an end when the US government sent in the military, as well as the national guard. By this time 2,300 Korean stores had been looted, or burned down, which accounted for almost half of the total damage to stores. The Korean population suffered much more than anyone else. Yet although people had died and so much damage had been caused, the roof Koreans proved how a close knit Korean community could defend themselves.