Who Were The
Rooftop Koreans?

Rooftop Koreans... What's the deal?

1992 saw some of the worst riots in US history and indeed world history. It was these Los Angeles Riots, otherwise known as the Los Angeles Uprising, that the ‘rooftop Korean’ made a name for itself. 

However, 2020 saw something similar to this in multiple occasions, and 2021 was also welcomed in with some of the worst riots in American history - not for the physical detraction caused, but for the destruction to the USA’s otherwise enviable democracy. 

So, who exactly were the rooftop Koreans, what happened during the Los Angeles Uprising, and why is it all important still today? 

Who Were the Rooftop Koreans?

You may have seen their images shared round as memes as their presence is noteworthy now, or at least was during a lot of 2020, with many holding them as heroes and looking up to them. This is due to the uprising in 1992. 

Here's the back-story. 

LA is home to a big Korean population, with over hundreds of thousands calling it their home. Many of these Koreans arrived during the 1970s-1980s, in search for the ‘American Dream’ when South Korea back then wasn’t quite as it is right now. 

Limited money and limited jobs pushed many of these Koreans to poorer or rougher areas of town where it was cheaper to open shops, which were predominantly black areas. 

Later on in history, this leads to unrest amongst two minority groups, the Asian Americans and the African Americans - and whilst it highlights the plight between the two, it also represents the plight of racial minorities against the white majority. 

The 1992 Los Angeles Riots/1992 Los Angeles Uprising 

The riots that occurred in Los Angeles in April - May 1992 were a series of riots that began in South Central Los Angeles after a trial that acquitted four officers for the use of excessive force in the beating and arresting of African American Rodney King. This went viral in TV broadcasts. 

This rioting quickly took a turn to arson, looting, and assault, all taking place over a 6 day period. Police who were short staffed found it hard to control these riots that seemed to be spreading further.

How did the Rooftop Korean come about? 

The riots assisted in fuelling the longstanding cultural clashes between the African Americans and the Koreans in the district. These tensions had already been raised due to a Korean shop owner, Soon Ja Du, who shot a young black girl who was supposedly just stealing orange juice. 

When the riots spread to ‘Koreatown’ in the beginning, the police offered little to no help to the Koreans, whose shops were being constantly looted. Out of fear that unless they did something, everything might get burned down, they took it upon themselves, probably also partially out of pride and stubbornness, to protect their own businesses and livelihoods, and take things to the roof. 

And bring guns with them. 

Some shop owners used fellow Koreans to guard their shop with guns, others took to the roof. However, interestingly enough, not one person was killed by the Koreans. Only warning shots were fired to chase away potential rioters and troublemakers. 

How the Los Angeles Riots Ended

In the end the US military was deployed to help end the violence. 

Not before 63 people had been killed, however, and a further 2000 plus had sustained injuries. Estimates on property at that time were over $1 billion, and more than 12,000 people were arrested. 

The Koreans arguably suffered more damage than anyone else, with many shops being looted or destroyed; yet their community spirit remained. 

2020 Comparisons

In 2020 we saw the death of Floyd as well as many other African Americans at the hands of police. This added fuel to the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the year and reawakened racial injustice issues. These movements turned into protests, some violent, in the name of justice. Looters, arsonists, guns… 

The parallels between riots in 2020 and what happened in 1992 are not difficult to see. And this is why the rooftop Koreans were shared round as memes. Some by right-wing pro gun Americans, others highlighting the pattern of racial inequality. 

Header Image Credit: https://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/as-rooftop-koreans-knew-you-are-your-own-first-responder/

Koryo Tours
North Korea Tours


Zoe Stephens

Zoe is the marketing manager and a tour leader at Koryo Tours.

Her love of meeting new people and exploring new cultures has led her to study several languages including German, Japanese, and Chinese. Having lived in several different countries across 4 continents, she often writes about languages and culture in her blogs and is very active on social media. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she was 'stuck' in Tonga for 1.5 years after a weekend away. Ask her for some stories! 

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