Korean Store Owner On Arming Himself For Riots

The Los Angeles riots stunned the nation in 1992, claiming more than 50 lives in that city. As the unrest approached Koreatown, store owner Kee Whan Ha mobilized his fellow business owners to arm themselves and defend their property. Host Michel Martin talks with him about the riots, and the neighborhood today.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, this week, the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, was convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court. We'll get reaction from Liberia in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to continue our conversation marking 20 years since the Los Angeles riots. Earlier on this program, we heard from Rodney King, the man whose beating by LAPD officers set off the chain of events that led to the riots.

Now we hear a different perspective, that of a Korean-American business owner whose life was also very much changed by those events. I'm joined now by Kee Whan Ha. At the time of the riots, he organized members of his community to protect their stores. On the morning the riots made their way to Koreatown in Los Angeles, he and fellow stores owners assembled with weapons to protect their properties.

Mr. Ha still lives in Los Angeles and owns the Hannam chain store, which includes a supermarket in the heart of L.A.'s Koreatown.

Mr. Ha, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KEE WHAN HA: OK.

MARTIN: How has it been for you recalling those long-ago events? Is this painful for you to think about?

HA: Yes. It's very painful. Also, one of our security guard was killed. So it's a human loss, some property damage, but fortunately, our business was unharmed.

MARTIN: How did you first hear that the riots, or that some kind of disturbance might be coming to your neighborhood?

HA: April 29 was a Wednesday. All the riots are happening in the South Central area. On Thursday morning, I expect something going to happen in Koreatown, so Koreatown is closed, but we bisect by the freeway. I assembled my people, all the store owners, people who has a big rifle or the hunting rifle, everything. So we see that our - next door is selling the electric part that's American-owned. They just go home. Then the riot people came inside, and they steal everything. They put the gasoline, then they put the fire, so whole building's on fire.

MARTIN: I understand that, as the disturbance was beginning, you heard hosts on Radio Korea - which is L.A.'s major Korean-American radio station - tell people to leave their businesses and go home and pray. And you told one of our producers that that made you upset. Could you talk a little bit about that?

HA: Yeah. I was so upset. So I know the owner of that Radio Korea, so I brought my handgun and I put it on the table. I told him that we established Koreatown. It's been more than 20 years (unintelligible) riot, even to be able - insurance and everything, but I want to protect my business, as well as all other Koreatown business.

MARTIN: You were saying that, listen, it took 20 years to build up these businesses and to just walk away and watch it turn to ash, you weren't going for that. Can I ask you, though: Why did you feel you had to defend your store yourself? Did you just have a feeling? I was just wondering why you didn't feel the authorities would do their job.

HA: From Wednesday, I don't see any police patrol car whatsoever. That's a wide-open area, so it is like Wild West in old days, like there's nothing there. We are the only one left, so we have to do our own (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Well, you just told us that the security guard at your store was killed. This must have been very traumatic for you. Do you mind telling me how this happened?

HA: The riot people took the next building, put it on fire. Then these people want to come to our store. Then we are shooting each other. Somehow, the people stationed on roof, then their line of fire got my security guard, and he really get blown off. So...

MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry.

HA: ...I was standing a few feet away, so I see that his body has fallen down on the ground, but I was so scared. I - we tried to call the fire department. Please help us. But nobody listen. Then maybe after five or six hours in the evening - it start around the afternoon, about 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. But actual - the fire truck coming about 7:00 o'clock, late evening. So five hours, of course, is sitting between us and them.

MARTIN: Five hours. And so the security guard - you were not even able to evacuate his body, I assume, for five hours.

HA: No, no.

MARTIN: Just...

HA: I was so scared, I couldn't go there because his head off. His body's all right, but head off. So I was so scared. Then one young guy - he is a very brave guy, so he put the red paper - usually, you wrap the meat, this big red paper - put it from inside of my market and cover his body, but I couldn't go near there.

MARTIN: Did you have to fire your weapon?

HA: Yes. Actually, we are not shooting people. We are shooting the - in the air, so make afraid that these people coming to us. You're not actually targeting people, so...

MARTIN: Sure. You were trying to create a - sort of a protective barrier, and you did succeed in saving your store.

HA: Yes.

MARTIN: Yes. How are things now? As we mentioned, you still own your store in Koreatown. How do you think, in looking over the course of the 20 years - how have things changed? Are they worse? Are they better?

HA: I think it's much better there. We have a lot of relationship with the African-American community, as well as the Latino community. Also, we have a lot of connection to the police department. We know that we cannot survive ourself. We have to have a relationship with other communities, as well as the politics, all these things. So we are much better shape. I don't see - and in the future, that kind of things never happen in Koreatown. We are not afraid about people. We are - we have a list(ph) that we can communicate, talk to. There's no problem.

MARTIN: Kee Whan Ha owns the Hannam chain stores, including a supermarket in Los Angeles' Koreatown. He helped organize other store owners to defend their businesses during the L.A. riots some 20 years ago, and he was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California.

Mr. Kee Whan Ha, thank you so much for speaking with us, and good luck to you.

HA: Thank you. Thank you.

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