Gas Station Cashier Remembers 1992 Los Angeles Riots
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A lot of people here in Southern California are focusing on an anniversary right now. In Los Angeles 25 years ago, four days of riots broke out after the acquittal of LA police officers who were videotaped beating unarmed motorist Rodney King. NPR's Mandalit del Barco takes us back to that time with a Korean-American woman who worked in her family's gas station in Compton.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")
N.W.A.: (Rapping) Straight outta Compton, Compton, Compton, Compton.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Compton was notoriously dangerous and lionized by the hip-hop group N.W.A., an impoverished African-American city with many small businesses owned by Korean-American immigrants. It's where, on the corner of Rosecrans and Atlantic Avenues, Carol Park was holed up in the cramped cashier's booth of her family's 76 gas station, a chubby 10-year-old with glasses.
CAROL PARK: Watching the world pass me by in bulletproof glass window, you know, it was weird. It was scary the things I saw, shootings, stabbings - right? - car accidents, cars riddled with bullets. Oh, yeah, just another gang turf war.
DEL BARCO: Park was an angry but dutiful daughter working the graveyard shift on weekends with her mom. They sold gas, soda and little roses in glass tubes that people would turn into crack pipes. Park remembers the animosity and the ugly insults.
PARK: People calling me things, you know, Nip, Chink, Jap. You know, after a while, I would get mad and start cussing right back, and then I'd be like, look, man, you want to call me Gook? Guess what. You're a - I would say racial slurs. It was bad. People would say, you know, damn Koreans. Get out of the hood. What are you doing here overcharging me for a can of soda? It was like a stick of dynamite waiting to explode. It's just like all someone needed to do is light a match and pff (ph).
DEL BARCO: On April 29, the day the riots kicked off, Park says she and her two older brothers were at home watching the TV news. They called their mother at the gas station and begged her to come home.
PARK: And Mom goes, yeah, there are a lot of people here under the price sign. They're holding bottles, rocks, cans, bats, and they're yelling and they are screaming at cars. People come up to the window. Mrs. Park, you better get out of here. Things are going get rough - because people around here had a lot of respect for my mom. They knew her husband had died. They knew, you know, she's a struggling single mom, three kids. They had seen me and my brothers here for years. They knew us. They knew our family.
DEL BARCO: Park's mother made her escape by hiding cash from the register in a bucket topped off with trash, then slowly walking it to her car and driving home. For days, the family watched TV images of people burning down buildings and armed men trained by the Korean military guarding their businesses, with police nowhere to be found. Looters ransacked the station's garage but couldn't get into the fortified cashier's booth. The place wasn't torched like businesses across the street, Park figures, because her mom had so many friends in the neighborhood, including the local pimp.
PARK: She understood. She had come from South Korea, which had been war-torn. She had experienced that kind of hunger that people probably around here experienced. Mom would be like, be nice.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
DEL BARCO: Today, Compton is mostly Latino with small businesses run by Southeast Asian and Arab immigrants. Park's mother is now very ill and sold the station to her Egyptian-American worker. This week, Carol Park revisited the old bulletproof booth. The new cashier, Mohammad Abou Hazeen, told her he gets insults from white customers.
MOHAMMAD ABOU HAZEEN: One time, like, one guy, he said go back to your country, like, ride the camel. I said, yeah, get me one. I will ride it.
DEL BARCO: Are you worried that there might be some - another riot like there was back in the '90s?
HAZEEN: I doubt it. No.
PARK: I would. Those conditions we're talking about, the poverty, it's still the same, right? The discrimination, the racism that you feel, still the same. But if we don't address the issues that caused the riots - 1992, 1965, Baltimore, Ferguson - those conditions are still there, police brutality, all of that.
DEL BARCO: There has been progress in LA. After federal oversight and major reforms, the LAPD is more integrated. And Carol Park, who worked at the gas station from age 10 to 26, is now a researcher at UC Riverside. She wrote a book about her experiences - "Memoir Of A Cashier." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF N.W.A. SONG, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.