Above photo: Koreans support Black Lives Matter. Koreatown.photograph.
K-Town Organizes Against Anti-Blackness.
Liberty Park is one of the very few public green spaces left in Koreatown; the choice for ‘Ktown for Black Lives’ to meet here is intentional.
Organized by the neighborhood’s activists and community members, the monthly gathering aims to mobilize residents against state-sanctioned violence that regularly takes the lives of Black and Brown people. Since its start in June, hundreds of ‘Ktown for Black Lives’ attendees have assembled on the 2.5 acres of land to participate in political education and mutual aid efforts such as the redistribution of meals and sanitary supplies.
‘Ktown for Black Lives’ points to the growing momentum among L.A.-based Korean and Asian American organizers standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and calling for Black liberation.
The Korean response to today’s Black Lives Matter movement is rooted in deep personal education. The excitement one gets from connecting with immigrant parents and grandparents about public safety and divestments from law enforcement is ineffable. As more Korean and Asian Americans continue to self-educate and rely less on white-centered media, they develop personal ways of participating in the fight against anti-Black racism.
After store owner Soon Ja Du murdered 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in 1991, the Korean community tried to make sense of their position in Los Angeles. Harlins was shot in the back of the head while trying to walk out of the store. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but served no jail time only 400 hours of community service.
For many, this was the first time they were seeing themselves in U.S. headlines. Furthermore, families who relied on Koreatown were stunned by the lack of aid from the government after the ‘92 Uprising, which left the enclave pockmarked with flame-licked structures and emptied-out stores.
The shock eventually shattered into guilt and anger when mainstream media began to implicate Los Angeles Koreans in the city’s unrest. What had happened to being regarded as a respectable group of people? It was a bewildering question for Koreans who did not yet know that the “model minority” myth exists to uphold oppressive structures that deny the struggle of all people of color.
Dr. Sandra So Hee Chi Kim remembers feeling ashamed in the classroom when her teacher turned on the television to news segments about the murder of Harlins and the subsequent civil unrest.
“I remember the footage of Koreatown going up in flames,” recounted Kim, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles. “Somehow the message to me as a child was ‘Oh, Koreatown deserves this.’ That’s what the TV was telling us.”
There was no discussion in the classroom afterward. Kim was left to understand her race in America and navigate the violent images alone. “As a 13-year-old who had no part in it, I remember feeling such shame because I was Korean, and Koreans were being accused of hating Black people.”
Last year, Kim launched the Asian American Justice + Innovative Lab to reinvigorate the Asian American and Pacific Islander history that has been left out of the U.S. education system.
“We have to pay attention to the construct of white supremacy because it’s based in anti-Blackness, but there’s something lost when other racialized histories and experiences are not attended to,” she explained, noting that fear among first generation immigrants often comes from lack of access to comparative histories.
“I saw the need to bridge those discourses and histories in all arenas – not just media, churches, or community organizations,” she said.
With AAJIL, Kim conducts racial justice training sessions to teach the history of the Asian American identity, the model minority myth, institutional racism, and anti-Blackness in white supremacy. These are followed by community building projects – ranging from anti-racism book clubs to multidisciplinary art shows that explore API identity – that are steered by attendees.
Ultimately, Kim’s hope is that her curriculum will encourage Asian Americans to share and heal from the rarely told histories about themselves. “AAJIL was always meant to reach everybody, not just AAPIs,” said Kim.
Modern Korean Activism
For other Korean Angelenos, being in the presence of activists with a proven history of addressing racial, class, and gender barriers, has helped them stoke the present Black liberation movement in tangible ways.
Community organizer Alex Yoon recently adapted the mission behind Eayikes with his fellow founders. They want to be of service to Angelenos outside of their realm. What once began as a high school arts camp founded by a predominantly Asian group of friends, gradually became an organization for adults in L.A. and the South Bay to share their skills and resources for greater causes.
“When we met Danny Park [of Skid Row Coffee], that really started to show us how to put into practice what we were experiencing but in our privileged bubble,” said Yoon. “Then we really started to engage with people who were involved in human rights work.”
Yoon also credits the daily actions and community building within Black Lives Matter and Los Angeles Community Action Network for teaching him how to provide direct relief and care to vulnerable populations. Since 1999, LACAN has nurtured an organizing space and model that addresses the violence, racist policies, and human injustices that prevent communities from building power.
Yoon turned what he learned into action. Amidst the pandemic and in the months leading up to the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Yoon realized that food justice feeds racial justice.
With Eayikes he launched Home-y Made Meals, a grassroots initiative with Polo’s Pantry that rallies L.A.-based cooks and drivers to prepare meals then distribute them directly to those in need. Since its launch in April, the program’s volunteer network has served over 10,000 meals in response to the dwindling food supply for low-income communities. Eayikes’ membership largely comprises of Asian Americans.
Yoon believes his task remains to create a space that centers marginalized voices while also helping people of other backgrounds get to a place of understanding.
“Eayikes has definitely evolved,” said Yoon. “We ourselves are changing a lot at this time, and seeing where we can be best of service but also in the liberation of our own selves. We’re building that consciousness within our own community.”
Creating Space for Ourselves
There weren’t always reliable spaces within American systems for people of Asia to assert their experiences as community builders. Koreans in Los Angeles were privy to this in 1992 when mainstream media wrested away pre-existing notions that they were welcome in America. Even today, the shortage is felt in the media when current events drive an anti-Asian narrative, such as COVID-19 news coverage.
After the 2016 election, Ellie Lee founded GYOPO with other Korean diasporic artists, curators, and writers based in L.A. to establish fellow feeling and explore a solution to the lack of forums for and by their people.
“There was a lack of public programs dedicated to understanding what it means to be a person of Korea,” said Lee. “By creating programs that highlight speakers and cultural producers of the Korean diaspora, we could start adding to the narrative and take a little more control of who people think of when they think of Korean Americans.”
Most recently, GYOPO organized a virtual “Racism Is A Public Health Issue” conversation series in partnership with the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art. The first event welcomed a panel of Asian American arts and cultural producers to discuss the racialization of COVID-19, the history of racism against Asian Americans, and the harmful myths and stereotypes that have silenced Asian American communities in the past. On the panel was actor and comedian Bowen Yang; artist Anicka Yi; writer Cathy Park Hong; Russell Jeung, San Francisco State Chair of Asian American Studies; and Jeff Chang, Vice President for Narrative, Arts, and Culture at Race Forward.
When concurrent data began revealing the disproportionate impact of the disease on Black and Brown people, Lee felt that it was important for GYOPO’s programming to address the reality behind the numbers.
“Dealing with heightened anti-Asian hate at the beginning of COVID was like the ‘primer’ before George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other people were murdered,” said Lee. “I think GYOPO likes to think of this as an opportunity to take people from the first place of understanding that Korean Americans are behooved to really consider race and racism, and then using that self-reflection for a larger movement.”
Back in Koreatown, reclaiming Liberty Park as a public gathering space is not only political, but it is also a celebration.
Ktown for Black Lives is the display of people’s spirited commitment to mutual recovery inside a neighborhood that pushes back every day against whitewashing and over-policing. It is also one of many other celebrations and commitments to racial justice that are blossoming throughout Los Angeles within the Korean community.
“Life is better when you’re living as an anti-racist person,” said Lee. “As Korean and Asian Americans we have a deeper understanding of ourselves if we get to the point where we’re trying to do that.”