Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

After 20 years, some still use the Los Angeles Riots to make a political point

Police quell looters and fires near 924 S Vermont Ave in Koreatown on April 29th, 1992. Few Koreans received help from the city in rebuilding their stores after the riots.
Police quell looters and fires near 924 S Vermont Ave in Koreatown on April 29th, 1992. Few Koreans received help from the city in rebuilding their stores after the riots.
Mae Ryan/KPCC with archival photo by Gary Leonard

Here's a unique point of view: while working on our upcoming special on the LA Riots' 20th anniversary I noticed a smattering of stories from last August, as the London riots winded down. The Telegraph's Niles Gardiner looked back on 1992 riots almost wistfully, believe it or not.

During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, many store owners in the south central part of the city defended their property against marauding gangs with their own weapons, and succeeded in protecting their livelihoods and thousands of jobs that depended on them. 

In the UK, Gardiner said, store owners didn't have guns. They were powerless. He quickly concludes: 

If they had the right to bear arms and defend their stores with force, it would have been a very different story, and brutal looters would have met firm resistance.

Gardiner wasn't the only columnist to make this observation. Joy McCann, writing on something called Conservative Commune enthusiastically cites Gardiner's piece. And Instapundit agreed, too.

In 1992, a riot happened in Los Angeles. In 2011, a riot happened in London. According to Gardiner and co., that's more than enough similarity to warrant a side-by-side comparison of how citizens responded. Never mind that the incidents were 19 years apart, the causes different, that the looting was far from indiscriminate. Or that the cities have nothing much in common other than, well, being cities. The Los Angeles riots killed 53, which is over ten times as deadly as London--1992 cost LA five times as much, too.

McCann makes a particularly bold claim:

It’s true: the Korean grocers whose businesses were closest to the flash points used large bags of rice as sandbags, and barricaded their businesses. They took up positions in front and on the roofs, with rifles.

Which actually isn't true. While it's fair to say that guns helped some Korean American store owners fend off potential looters, guns aren't magic. Hyungwon Kang was with the LA Times during the riots (he took some chilling photographs, by the way). This month, he talked with the KoreAm Journal:

California Market on 4th and Western was under attack. When I went there, I saw the owner of the shop with his semi-automatic pistol shooting into the air to fend off potential looters who were throwing Molotov cocktails to burn some of the shops. On 6th and Western—that shopping mall was already being torched. This California Market was trying to survive that attack. 

Many of the sources in the KoreAm Journal article had few regrets they stood their ground--but amid the heroics, there are stories like that of storeowner Kee Whan Ha:

One of our security guards [at Hannam], I met him in the morning. He’s a very good-looking guy, a French Jew. I said, 'I’ve never seen such a good-looking security guard.' Suddenly I heard a loud bang. Many people started shooting with guns, with pistols. I saw his whole head going up, exploding. His body slowly coming down to ground without [a] head. I got so scared. Then he was gone. And I believe it was friendly fire.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion on gun control. Gardiner might be right that British storeowners could have protected their property last year. It's not my call to make. But if you want to compare what happened here to the incident in London, you'd do well to include all the information.

There's another big difference between the riots in Los Angeles and London--one that didn't make it into any of these columns: during all the looting, only one of these cities had gun stores.