It was July 2020. And also 1991. And 1992. Two deaths and a poem made this clear.
I had joined the first part of Rebecca Nichloson’s Kaleidoscope Project, where Black and Asian artists responded to higher BIPOC Covid mortality, anti-Asian rhetoric and violence, and brutality against African Americans, particularly the killing of George Floyd. To practice the healing and community solidarity that we’d like to see in the world, we would develop pieces and record them for a public reading at the end of the month. In our workshops my pen burned with frustration at year after year of Black people dying, their killers facing no consequences, and continued inaction. I found it easy to stare down an unjust world alongside other artists, but the one person I refused to face also arrived, unwelcome.
Around the same time the Kaleidoscope Project commenced, I heard the news that Paul died suddenly of a heart condition. Paul (not his real name) was an Asian American student leader with whom I attended Pomona College. I kept in touch with his older sister for a few years after I graduated, so I planned to send the family a card. Paul was a year ahead of me, and three years older than George Floyd. I did not know him well, but I worked with him on an Asian American commencement dinner celebration. We planned our event in the spring of 1991, the very time that the world saw George Holliday’s videotape of police officers swarming Rodney King’s prone body. Less than two weeks later security cameras captured Soon Ja Du shooting fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back. These events capped decades of oppression that I understood poorly at the time.
That day it took just over an hour to purchase a condolence card. The parking lot of the nearest drugstore overflowed with giant trucks and SUVs circling around and around tightly-arranged corners. What called so many people to the Highland Park Walgreens on Wednesday after lunch during a pandemic? It was not the last store before a highway onramp to drive to a lakeside cabin. I crossed Ford Parkway Bridge to the Walgreens on Hiawatha Ave. and 46th St. in Minneapolis. The parking lot stood ominously empty. I drove past the pharmacy in a mobile unit with a lonely sandwich sign announcing it was open. I parked my car near the entrance to find the building boarded up front to back in plywood. Tucked into my quiet Saint Paul neighborhood, I had no idea this store had been vandalized, and the young red-haired female security guard did not bother to tell me. It felt like fear. The fear I sensed in well-meaning friends and relatives as they asked about my wellbeing during the unrest following George Floyd’s death.
That fear also resembled what I felt in 1992 when fellow undergraduates told me in hushed tones of demonstrations in the nearby city of Pomona protesting the acquittal of the policemen who beat Rodney King. We felt fear, but we did little to understand the demonstrators’ fury. The protestors were and yet were not neighbors: they lived several freeways away. The TV broadcast endless footage of fires and looting, scenes that discouraged viewers from believing that the Black and Latino people on TV had anything in common with themselves. In 2020 I was disturbed to see that once again the news focused more on the unrest in the streets than on the causes of their discontent. Even after years contextualizing that anger within a long series of Black lives lost for no reason and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I drove a short distance to the new Cub Foods, which was still open. They had dental floss and rock salt for ice cream, but no sympathy cards. Two large white men slowly roamed the store, taking up the aisle like a pair of shopping carts. One of them sucked on his cigarette, face mask bunched under his chin. His friend also pulled his mask below his lips so that people one aisle over could hear him. Their voices idly joined hands, as if in search of amusement. Many recent attacks on older Asian women happened in the broad daylight of grocery store parking lots. I exhaled as I drove back to Highland Park and dashed into an uncrowded gift shop for a card.
After returning from the stores I tried to write to Paul’s family, but my memories of fear from 1992 haunted me. Why did I fear angry Black people? Why does this fear resurface decades later after I’ve chosen multiracial urban communities and witnessed putative racial progress? Had I acquired any tools from my white-normative suburban upbringing and education to understand the unrest in Los Angeles and beyond? My honors and AP classes had not a single African American student, let alone a critical mass to raise the racial IQ of my class by a point or two. I had no Black teachers. My two nonwhite K-12 teachers were one Persian and one Japanese American like me. I searched my high school US history textbook proudly marked up to prepare for the AP test. What did I learn about Black lives and their contexts? Or the recent past, the 1980s? On page 904 I found a caption that seemed to encapsulate every message I had absorbed about Black people before college: “Rev. Jesse Jackson: spokesman for an underclass.” This line referenced the 1984 election, where I recalled that TIME magazine’s political illustrations did not take Jesse Jackson seriously. Now I wonder if the TIME editors feared what they might lose if Jesse Jackson won.
I turned back to my letter. I stretched to remember what Paul’s presence in my life meant to me. I admired Paul’s calm undeniable intelligence, his firm leadership. I probably spoke to him only about business matters, not current events. I remember feeling horrified when I saw the videos of both Rodney King and Latasha Harlins on grainy dorm room TVs. How did I go about my life planning that commencement dinner and wrapping up my classes? I pictured the person I was at the time. Twenty-year-old me, chin-length hair growing out a stylish spiral perm. Cute by Southern California standards even with her post-freshman-year pounds. She spoke with the confidence of a valedictorian and a weekly churchgoer. “Rodney King and Latasha Harlins did not deserve those attacks, but…” About the first Gulf War, which was winding down around then, “The Iraqis did not deserve those air strikes, but…” I could have used any number of excuses. The inner city was not my problem. War is so far away, and now they won’t draft us. Most likely, “I had more important things to do.” I will not deceive myself in that way again.
I closed my letter to Paul’s family. To mail the letter I walked a quarter mile to the nearest postbox, but it had been removed. I walked to another mailbox site, and then to the busy intersection of Cleveland and Ford Parkway, but those mailboxes also disappeared. It was at least a month before I no longer had to drive to the nearest post office to mail letters. That, too, felt like fear.
Other Asian Americans also remembered Rodney King and Latasha Harlins in 2020. Perhaps we all had justice and reparations on our minds. For the New York Times cartoonist Laura Park created “400 hours. $500.” referring to the penalty Soon Ja Du paid for killing Latasha. Ed Bok Lee read his 2001 poem “Riot in Heaven” for the Kaleidoscope Project. He too seemed gripped by the call of memory and community repair.
My high school lay less than 20 miles from Simi Valley, where an all-white jury acquitted four policemen who beat Rodney King. My church was also less than 20 miles from the church Soon Ja Du served as a beloved deaconess. But I’m a historian. I could research my way beyond my old biases and illuminate a new way. It won’t mark an apogee in American letters, but I thought I could crank out an acceptable 5-minute poem for the reading. I wrote in the spirit of the April 8, 1991 Los Angeles Times article “Conflict Brings Tragic End to Similar Dreams of Life.” When she died, Latasha was just a few years younger than me. As I wrote this poem I was about the age of Soon Ja Du when she killed Latasha. I felt like both people were meeting in my body, so I would portray their complete humanity. I downloaded dozens of LA Times articles through the St. Paul Public Library website. Google yielded two incomplete documentaries where filmmakers interviewed Latasha’s family and friends. Latasha was an honor student, just like I was. She planned to become a lawyer so that she could seek justice for her mother who had been murdered. I felt ashamed to be surprised that Latasha had big dreams too. I placed Soon Ja Du within the context of Japanese occupation and the Korean War. I felt good calling out imperialism, only to find that she lived a comfortable life back in Korea, and her crime might not be as easily traced to Japanese and American Empire as I anticipated. Here too, I felt ashamed to be surprised.
Most of all, I was astonished at the volume and availability of careful analysis in 1992—information that I did not read. Even if I did, the suburbs abounded with lazy narratives to displace such stories. Scary and dangerous South Central. South Central blighted beyond hope or help. The Los Angeles Times carefully unpacked the historical context behind the anger expressed in the “LA Riots.” The then-thick newspapers showed that we suburbanites were part of the problem. Suburban priorities plowed freeways through prosperous sections of South Central. Black neighborhoods decimated by interstate highways in Los Angeles, just as they had been in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, and all over the United States. A history systematically forgotten. Every year documentaries such as Rondo: Beyond the Pavement and other events and artworks about the historic Black neighborhood of Rondo in St. Paul evokes the response, “I never knew anything about that,” from longtime Twin Cities residents. I was angry that we had the knowledge to change in 1992, yet we chose to believe that nothing could be done, so we did nothing to stem the violence against Black people in cities. Nothing to restore Black neighborhoods so that they may thrive again.
In fact, this single poem was my most difficult research project ever. To understand the past, I had to face an ugly truth: I became a historian by moving on, pursuing my own dreams, pretending it did not happen. In 1992 I registered for a historical methods seminar, started my senior research project, and applied for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme to spend a few years in Japan. What about my community? In 2020 my dad told me his mostly white church was planning activities with a Black church. When I asked him how churches responded to the violence against Rodney King and Latasha Harlins in 1991, his aging cancer-treated brain couldn’t remember. My dad thought 2020 might be different because Covid forces people to isolate and reflect. At this writing in 2021, I watch my neighbors eagerly prepare for a return to normal and wonder how much reflection from 2020 has dissipated already.
I stopped paying attention in 1992 after I thought I read Rodney King’s words, “Can’t we all get along?” I interpreted this as “Can’t we all move along?” Turn the page. Don’t worry, be happy. My parents now say that Rodney King offered hope in his message. Is that what I heard in 1992? I searched ProQuest for Rodney King’s precise words. There was more. In fact he asked, “Can we all get along?” I tried to imagine Rodney King’s intonation. Did “we all” refer only to people setting fires in LA, or was he also referring to the legal atrocities in Simi Valley and beyond? Rodney King spoke out from sleepless nights with unhealed injuries, his white lawyer beside him, his city burning. Fearing ruin to his community, he appealed through the flames to work it out and live together. By what logic should we make the victim of police brutality ask his city to stop agitating for justice in his name? Pathological individualism? White supremacy? What else can we name?
Rodney King’s words might have quelled the uproar. It also might have been the Border Control Tactical Unit (BORTAC), a special federal SWAT team that President George H.W. Bush, Sr. sent up the next morning from the San Diego border to the LA streets. In 1992 Bush Senior must have seen this response to long-denied civil rights as a domestic threat equal to that of drug smuggling. As I struggled to finish my poem, Donald Trump called that same BORTAC in unmarked vans to collect Black Lives Matter protesters from the streets of Portland, Oregon. He showed the world that white people who value Black lives are dangerous and unvalued, like Black people themselves. Earlier that year in March he had sent BORTAC to sanctuary cities, proclaiming that elected leaders who valued immigrants had no right to protect the immigrants in their jurisdictions. White people who side with Black and brown people would be treated like terrorists too. In both 1992 and 2020, the interior of the United States became a volatile border.
The day before the reading I asked my dad what he remembered of his summers in LA as a college kid, and about driving in South Central before and after the freeways were built. His relatives lived in the South Bay, not too far from South Central. With the Harbor Freeway, his relatives could bypass South Central to reach Little Tokyo, he said. He took part of that freeway to get from our house in Orange County to his graduate school classes at the University of Southern California. USC lies near the site of the 1965 Watts Riots, also sparked by a police brutality incident amidst growing racial tension. Public works like the Harbor Freeway destroyed Latasha’s neighborhood and got my family to where we needed to go without seeing the costs to other families. To families we might more easily see as neighbors without those freeways.
“Can we all get along?” An ecosystem encompassing Latasha Harlins, Rodney King, Soon Ja Du, and me. There is no along when there is Operation Hammer. There is no along with white flight. No along with BORTAC coming up from the US-Mexico border. No along when a deaconess brings a gun to work. There is no along when you may not survive a $1.79 juice purchase. There is no along when you weaponize notions of a model minority against other people of color. There is no along when social Darwinism drives your history textbooks. Aim to move along and you’ll someday be alone, having missed an opportunity for community and solidarity. There is no along when you believe interstate highways separate you from people with problems. There is no along when diversity is a photo shoot for your catalog cover. I attended a prestigious college, preparing for success. This is what I never learned there, having been un-prepared to learn it for years in white schools.
Weeks of research offered me no easy way to end my poem because this time I could not let myself move along from the crime scene. No moving along. Hear the struggles and struggle alongside. I concluded with something else Rodney King said: “I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while.” I followed his words with,
Let’s stick around for a while in our discomfort,
Let’s stick around for a while and refuse to be erased.
Let’s stick around for a while and not let others be erased.
Imagine along as a process
With no endpoint, and no out.