tv Nightline ABC April 27, 2017 12:37am-1:08am PDT
this is a special edition of "nightline." "city of angels: legacy of the riots." 25 years later. why a divided community erupted into chaos. long-simmering tensions boiling over after the rodney king police beating and controversial verdict. >> they've all been found not guilty. >> lawlessness in the streets. >> no justice in america for the blacks! >> we're on the ground. >> you can't just not do something. >> with those who watched their american dream go up in flames. and once-silent voices now speaking out. >> they said, you got to get over it because your mom was shot. >> with ferguson and baltimore fresh in our minds, the lessons learned from those dark days in los angeles a quarter century ago. this special edition of
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this is a special edition of "nightline." "city of angels: legacy of the riots." >> good evening. thanks for joining us tonight from south los angeles, the city of angels, for this special edition of "nightline." >> 25 years ago this week, this community was known as south central. scene of one of the deadliest
riots in u.s. history. five days of violence and mayhem when race and raids collided sparked by the rodney king verdict. >> as you know, i grew up in california in a korean-american family. like most americans i will never forget watching in disbelief as chaos consumed one of our own cities. >> tonight we don't just look back, we examine the lessons we as a nation are still struggling to learn. >> a lot of people are driving through right now, they don't know why we're standing here. by all their measures this is just an intersection of los angeles. >> this is utter lawlessness. >> fires, lootings, beatings. >> this is where it all came together. this is where it all fell apart. >> 25 years ago at the intersection of florence and normandie, the harrowing first hours of unrest. that eventually engulfed los angeles.
five long days that claimed the lives of more than 50 people. a defining moment for our nation. to some it's known as the l.a. riots. to others, the uprising. >> there's my truth, there's your truth, and then there's the truth. >> l.a. had it all. we had beaches. >> the hollywood sign. >> it was magical. >> oh, man. it's going to hit the fan. >> reporter: how this happened in the city of angels is the story that oscar winner john ridley takes on with his new documentary "let it fall." >> based on my experiences, my upbringing, every aspect of it makes me angry. >> reporter: the beating of rodney king by four white police officers pushed the city to the brink. then when the officers were found not guilty on charges of assault and excessive use of force, the city exploded in violence. that was april 29th, 1992. but ridley's film begins ten years earlier. >> this was not something that happened because of one
incident, because of one issue, and did not affect just one community. >> in the early '80s, the street gangs started to connect with the drug dealers. >> we are determined to take back the streets of los angeles. >> "operation hammer" was a free ticket to go out there and do overly aggressive police work. >> reporter: an untreated wound was festering. aggressive policing tactics stoking resentment. koreans and latinos packed in with blacks, a melting pot about to boil over. the flame was turned up just months before the rodney king verdict. a korean american grocer shot and killed a 15-year-old black girl named natasha harlines. she was convicted of manslaughter and a white judge let her off without any prison time. >> the message that goes out to this community is, a black life is not worth much. >> reporter: the images of violence against black people over and over again, the perception that justice wasn't served. >> they've all been found not guilty. >> reporter: years of frustration beget protests. >> no justice this america, not
for the blacks! >> reporter: protests beget violence. >> anybody that wasn't black was getting their ass kicked. >> reporter: in "let it fall," those days unraveled after a series of fateful decisions. from the genesis of the unrest near florence and normandie to the moment lieutenant muller gave the order for police to pull back because they were unprepared for a riot. >> we were resistant. no, lt, no we don't want to leave, we're not supposed to leave. >> had it. i allowed my officers to begin to use deadly force at that intersection? god knows what that riot would have turned into. that riot could have been a riot are not just burning down buildings, that could have been a riot of just pure anarchy against the police. >> it's not worth it, let's go. >> reporter: without the police, the descent to chaos was swift.
but there were those who stood up. what kept you from being one of those guys throwing bricks? >> i felt like i was just as angry as everyone else. that's not who i am. i don't stand by and let innocent people be hurt. >> reporter: people like donald jones, off-duty firefighter living blocks from florence and normandie, when a group of men started attacking chinese immigrant choi si choi. >> i walked out in the middle of the street, said a few choice words to people that were around that i won't say now. but told them to stay away, get back. once i reached choi i stood there for a while, stood over him. he did not know where he was, he was disoriented. someone walked over from the corner and told me, he said, hey. you got about another minute. i picked mr. choi up, walked him over, put him in the passenger side of the car, told him to put his head down. i didn't think they would throw rocks or bottles at me but i knew if mr. choi raised his head they would. >> were you mindful at that point you could have been a
victim as well? >> very, very much mindful. >> that the mob could have attacked you? >> yeah. >> why'd you do it? >> i don't know. you can't just not do something. >> reporter: that he still regrets all these years later that he wasn't able to help that trucker, reginald denny, who was being beaten within an inch of his life on live television. >> the tv is on and we're now watching reginald denny be attacked at the same intersection that mr. choi was at. we're now watching it on tv. >> terrible. and there's no police presence down here. they will not enter the area. this is attempted murder. >> what was going through your head or your heart? >> that -- i wish that i was there. >> 25 years later, it still gets to you. why? why? >> because i would want someone to do that for me. >> i have compassion for
anybody. but you have to understand, at that time, please. at that time -- the compassion line was closed. >> reporter: told from many perspectives, "let it fall" reveals the many truths of one moment in time. even the members of the so-called l.a. four, the men convicted in connection with that reginald denny attack, tell their story. >> look at what they're doing to us, they're killing young black men. they're killing threats. therefore, anything that isn't black doesn't mean nothing to me. at all. of course we kill our own. you know what i'm saying? and that's not right. i'm not condoning that whatsoever. you understand what i'm saying? but it happens. you know? >> what was your take of the l.a. four? i didn't sense any remorse, any regret, that given the circumstance they would do exactly the same thing that they did 25 years ago. >> i would disagree. i think in those four individuals, we have a very poignant range of what so many
people felt then and how it carries over 25 years later. >> no justice no peace! >> reporter: 25 years ago, who could have imagined. >> it's not a black thing! >> it's been a black thing for the last 200 years! >> reporter: we as a nation would still be debating these same issues. i couldn't. >> it was here on the corner of florence and normandie. >> reporter: i was sent to cover the l.a. riots. >> can this wider part of l.a. be restored, race relations improved? >> reporter: today i find myself in cities like ferguson. show of hands if you've ever been stopped by police, treated unfairly? baton rouge. my hometown of baltimore. asking the same questions. 25 years after l.a. like most reporters in the nation's attention, i get to move on. but for those who lived it, it's far more complicated. coming up, we talk to some of the people who took up arms in korea town to protect their
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for those who lived through the l.a. riots there are many truths and your truth depended how you saw the world and how the world saw you. >> it was portrayed often in the media as a clash of two cultures, blacks against koreans. but the truth as you say is far more elusive. korean americans call what happened korean for "4/29," the fateful day in april when it
began. 25 years later in korea town, we found from the ashes a new community is forged. >> revisiting 1992. a lot has changed in 25 years. >> reporter: for 25 years, richard kim has tried to suppress his memories that haunt these streets. >> that corner went up in flames. >> reporter: korea town, home to his family's hopes and dreams, devastated by hellish street fighting, looting and arson. >> that strip mall burnt to the ground. there was a whole lot of looting going on here. people without a voice in the community are the ones that are going to get victimized. we're not victims. victim sounds helpless. i want to say survivors of the riots. that sounds more powerful. >> reporter: richard among those who took up arms as l.a. descended into chaos. he says they were seen through the media as gun-toting vigilantes.
but he was motivated by necessity. >> we have to be able to protect what's ours. i think that is -- that's a perspective they've had. we have to fend for ourselves. >> reporter: kim's family came to the states for their shot at the american dream. eventually owning two electronics stores. during the second day of rioting, one came under attack. >> they said, you got to get over it because your mom was shot. >> that's the hydrant your dad was sitting on? >> absolutely. >> reporter: he rushed to their store. outside his mother says she'd been shielding his father from gunfire. >> on the side of the lapd it says "to serve and protect." they were neither serving us or protecting us. >> reporter: unable to contain the rioting here, too, the police pulled back, leaving richard to confront a mob of african-american men. some had guns. he had a semiautomatic rifle.
>> the shooters were 25, 30 feet away. so i leaned over and i made a conscious decision to shoot the cars that they were standing next to. >> and not them? >> not them. i could have taken them out. i hit the cars they were standing next to. and the street got filled with smoke from gunfire. i mean, the whole corner. as soon as that happened, i can hear them get until their cars, tires screeching. >> reporter: that split-second decision, he says, is the reason we're not talking to him from behind bars. >> had i seen my mother get shot, which she did, had i experienced that, i think i would have had no hesitation to take that person out. total self-defense of myself and my family. >> reporter: and the businesses they spent decades building. the first store was overrun and burnt to the ground. like many korean americans, he took to the rooftops. at stake, his family's last store.
>> we did not sleep for three days. the only way i think of it is like fourth of july, fireworks kind of gunfire, literally nonstop. >> reporter: richard was able to keep looters at bay, but so many others weren't as lucky. >> we own three businesses in south central on crenshaw. it's not -- nothing left, that's our dream. everything we got, it was gone. >> all said and done, there was $1 billion in property damage, 40% sustained in the korean american community. the aftermath, unimaginable. that's richard captured by an abc news crew wading through the wreckage. what makes you not hate? >> it's a system. so i think i was upset at the system. more than the people who actually looted and rioted. >> reporter: his parents still live next door to where their first business once stood. the empty lot a metaphor for conversations they never had.
you know, you were reluctant to talk to the press. >> yes. in the culture i grew up in, i don't think we celebrate negative things. the l.a. riots, it's not what we commemorate or celebrate. >> you hadn't even thought about it. >> for many years. >> reporter: but kim says he now realizes that his silence was part of the problem. it's one of the reasons korean americans were misunderstood in the first place. ♪ >> how naive we were. to believe in harmony among the different races. >> black people, they're kind of jealous. >> i don't think they would be wise for them to come back into the neighborhood. >> we can't just be an island on our own. we really have to be part of community in every way. >> why were there building tensions between these two communities? >> in some ways it's structurally baked in. you have an immigrant class that's occupying what is oftentimes called a middleman
minority position. >> reporter: jerry kang oversees diversity and inclusion at ucla, like me a korean immigrant. he believes the riots were a painful awakening, forcing us to create the roles we all played in creating the tension. >> the stereotype is koreans are rude, koreans aren't particularly friendly with customers. >> it might be culturally they were taught not to look people in the eye, shake their hands, slap them on the back, smile. just as there was some resentment of outsider community coming into your own space, your own turf, and taking up these stores. >> reporter: but out of the ashes of those days, a new koreatown is rising. in no small part due to guys like celebrity chef roy choi. >> do you ever go, look at this, look what i've done. >> i do all the time. >> reporter: he watched as part of k-town went up in flames. now he literally wears its heart on his sleeve. >> there's olympic boulevard. >> there's olympic boulevard. >> reporter: choi is king of a korean taco food truck empire.
>> you had to stand a line a couple of hours. for that all these little walls would break down. >> reporter: it's kimchi as street diplomacy. >> it brings people together? >> it brings people together throughout l.a. >> reporter: like many community leaders in koreatown and south l.a., choi is banking on the idea their best hope is not just see each other, but know each other. >> hola. >> reporter: choi consciously hires locals, often immigrants, to work in his businesses. in korea town and places like watts. how many jobs do you think you've created? >> between all the spots? 400 to 500. >> reporter: 500 jobs. impressive. but sadly, he knows it's just a drop in the bucket when the problems the communities are facing run so deep. a lot of people say that fundamentally, that is why this unrest continues. whether it's baltimore or ferguson or other hot spots. >> look, we don't start getting
in and actually creating ways for people to get credit to rebuild their life, to create bank accounts, to have jobs, you know. you're going to have a whole other generation that's going to live in poverty, right? i could take you right now to watts and you're going to see the same existence and the same situations that were going on back in 1965. >> reporter: it's been more than 50 years since the watts riots. 25 since the l.a. riots. it seems we keep having to relearn these painful lessons. >> i wish i had a little bit more love in my heart back then, a little more understanding, a little more patience. >> my mom, she wishes that people would just -- i guess not see color, but just to see people for who they are. >> reporter: and with the next conflict always threatening on the horizon, all of us have to keep looking inward and reaching outward. >> we've got to listen to the community more. it's not an us against them mentality.
it's not the civilians against the police. >> it's not about black this, white this, that. we're human beings, we have to act like it. we're going to die together if we don't learn to get this right. >> we'll be right back. whether you're after supreme performance... ...advanced intelligence... ...or breathtaking style... ...there's a c-class just for you. decisions, decisions, decisions. lease the c300 sedan for $389 a month at your local mercedes-benz dealer. mercedes-benz. the best or nothing. w...i was always searching for ways to manage my symptoms. i thought i had it covered. then i realized managing was all i was doing. when i finally told my doctor, he said humira was for people like me who have tried other medications,... but still experience the symptoms
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it was dr. martin luther king jr. who said in 1966, the riot is the language of the unheard. may we all become better listeners. >> indeed. you can see john ridley's "let it fall," a two-hour television event on friday night at 9:00 p.m. here on abc. thanks for watching abc news. good night, america.
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