Leading up to Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month this year, Los Angeles marked a somber anniversary, the 30th anniversary of what Korean American communities have come to call Sa I Gu.
The phrase refers to April 29, 1992, the date that launched six days of civil unrest that began in South Los Angeles and spread across the city. The city was already a tinderbox of pain, trauma and racial resentment — fueled by the death of teenager Latasha Harlins and longstanding over-policing and economic inequity in South L.A. So when a mostly white, suburban jury acquitted the four Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with the brutal beating of Rodney King, thousands of people’s anger and fury erupted.
Three decades later, Black, Asian American, Latino and Indigenous communities are still facing racial tension, trauma and rampant inequities, exacerbated by the pandemic. One of the goals of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center is to create publicly accessible educational materials that help contextualize and create understanding around the experiences of people from those communities. The latest is “Reading Sa I Gu,” the most comprehensive archive of journalistic and scholarly writings related to the events of 1992.
Compiled by a group of researchers, editors and students, the site contains hundreds of articles, images, and videos from the past 30 years that can help anyone better understand Sa I Gu in a way that centers the viewpoints of Korean Americans. The project was inspired by Pulitzer-nominated Korean American journalist K.W. Lee, who has been a trailblazer in American media during the past 50 years. It was made possible with the support of Jerry Kang, Korea Times-Hankook Ilbo Endowed Chair in Korean American Studies and Law.
“In order to fully understand Asian Americans today we must understand and share the key experiences which historically shaped and continue to affect our lives in the U.S.,” said Karen Umemoto, Helen and Morgan Chu Endowed Director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. “In this time of media disinformation, our authentic community histories, writings and stories matter more than ever.”
Sa-I-Gu is a term used by Korean Americans to remember the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest, which is commonly referred to as the L.A. riots, or the L.A. uprising. Sa I Gu translates to “4-2-9” and refers to the first day of the six-day stretch of demonstrations and violence — viewed by some as the first multiracial uprising in contemporary American history, Umemoto said. It is estimated that the events of Sa I Gu resulted in more than $1 billion in property damage and that approximately 2,000 predominantly Korean-owned business were damaged or destroyed.
“For Koreans, this event was the line between their immigrant past and their future as part of multiracial, multiethnic America that did not always welcome their political, economic or cultural participation,” Umemoto said.
Reading Sa-I-Gu consists of materials from:
- The Korea Times (English edition) covering topics including Korean businesses, Black-Korean relations, the L.A. civil unrest and rebuilding, and the role of media
- KoreAm Journal articles from this English-language ethnic journalism magazine with unique community perspectives
- UCLA’s Amerasia Journal provides free public access to articles that cover the Korean American community and Sa I Gu from the leading academic journal in Asian American Studies
- A pictoral history of the L.A. civil unrest by noted photojournalist Hyungwon Kang, a UCLA graduate
- A preview of community journalists mentored by famed editor K.W. Lee in a forthcoming book
- Curriculum tools and resources for teachers
The site is designed for students, researchers and those interested in the history of the Los Angeles civil unrest from the point of view of Korean American journalists, ethnic studies scholars and Asian American writers.
“It’s always been critical to remember and reflect on events like this from history, but it seems even more important now in the current climate of attacks on ethnic studies across the country,” Umemoto said. “What more could we all be doing to ensure these important conversations take place in classrooms?”
Events like Sa I Gu are transformative for communities, and it takes consistent effort to understand the lasting impact of those kinds of events, she said.
“It’s important that we learn how to have these safe conversations and make them productive because the painful memories of this era continue to live with us today, for some more than others,” Umemoto said. “These collective memories of impactful events are like the lines in the mountainside, sedimented in layers that are buried below the surface and that shape the terrain we live upon. This website contains a layer of such collective memories, particularly of Korean Americans who experienced Sa I Gu. Hopefully the excavation of these stories can bring clarity to our current view of the social landscape of Los Angeles and beyond.”
In reflecting upon the existential importance of Sa I Gu and its aftermath for the Korean American community today, the journalist K.W. Lee (whose essays and articles are featured in the site materials) has stated:
“Korean Americans are no longer here as sojourners or guests. We are here to live and die in the urban trenches because we have given so much of ourselves and gained so much freedom in return.”