A man tries to toe away a car in a safe zone as the other car catches fire in a local parking garage on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes. Photo: AFP/Chandan Khanna

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For the past few days, the world has watched in horror the chilling video of the murder of George Floyd, when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck while he was on the ground and slowly suffocated him to death. Chauvin has since been fired and charged.

The outrage over police brutality and racism exploded into violent protests and riots in Minneapolis, which then spread to different parts of the US, prompting the activation of the National Guard to restore law and order.

This is reminiscent of the 1992 Los Angeles riots over the savage police beating of Rodney King, when parts of the city were set on fire and stores looted, which also prompted the deployment of the National Guard to maintain public security.

Damage assessment for the LA riots amounted to nearly US$1 billion, with more than 1,000 buildings damaged or destroyed. Approximately 2,000 Korean-run businesses were also damaged or destroyed.

Koreatown was especially targeted by LA gangs and rioters exploiting the chaos. In the face of an overstretched Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and National Guard troops, the Korean-Americans were left to fend for themselves.

So what did they do?  

They exercised their rights under the Second Amendment of the US constitution, formed a militia, took up defensive positions on rooftops and surrounding perimeters of their businesses, and became the famous “Roof Koreans.”

And in a scenario similar to what President Donald Trump tweeted this week, once the gangs and rioters began looting, the Roof Koreans started shooting.

Looting and shooting in Koreatown

Los Angeles became a war zone during the 1992 riots, and as the LAPD and California National Guard tried to figure out what to do, citizens of the 150-block area of Koreatown were abandoned by forces allegedly tasked to “protect and serve” them.

They were told to take their things and evacuate the area, and many who left had their businesses burned to the ground.  

Others refused to become victims and decided to stay, and took up arms to defend their property and “protect and serve” one another in their community.

Outnumbered by armed rioters attempting to loot Koreatown businesses, the Korean-Americans stood their ground – and rooftops – and began shooting back.

Many of these men were veterans of the US military or former soldiers of South Korea’s mandatory military program. South Korea requires two-year military service for its men – including Korean-Americans – because of a shortage of manpower.

Their armaments were staggering to the average Californian in 1992. According to Andy Wolf in an article on the website War Is Boring, they had AK-pattern rifles, Glock 17s, Ruger Mini-14s, SKS carbines, AR-15s, TEC-9s, Uzi-pattern pistols, Remington 870 shotguns, bolt-action rifles, revolvers, and Daewoo K-1 semi-automatic variants, which were South Korean military issues at the time.

Source: https://imgur.com/gallery/kjo3efv

Legacy of Roof Koreans

Regrettably, despite the fact Koreatown residents were abandoned by a sheepish LAPD, news-media coverage was critical of the Roof Koreans. Their actions were called “disturbing” and they were compared to Charles Whitman, an American mass murderer who became infamous as the “Texas Tower Sniper.”

Even worse, when the LAPD eventually came back after things had calmed down, police detained many of the Roof Koreans and confiscated their firearms.

The LA riots were a rude awakening for Korean-Americans, says Edward Taehan Chang, professor of ethnic studies and founding director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

The community felt abandoned by law enforcement. And “despite the fact that Korean-American merchants were victimized, no one in the mainstream cared because of our lack of visibility and political power,” Chang said. 

However, many people admired the Roof Koreans’ bravery and resilience during the chaos, and the image of the gunmen on a supermarket rooftop would become the iconic, and enduring, picture of the LA riots.

Their legacy would also become well known among the younger generation and even merchandized.

Now, as some Americans take up firearms to defend stores from looters in Minneapolis, one of them can be heard mentioning the Roof Koreans during the LA Riots at 1:09 minutes into the video below.

Should the riots continue in Minneapolis and other parts of the US with overstressed law enforcement, it would not be surprising if people began to see a corresponding increase of these new “Roof Koreans.” 

Christina Lin is a California-based foreign and security policy analyst. She has extensive US government experience working on national security and economic issues and her current focus is on China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations.

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