Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu (smiling, facing camera) and Mayor Eric Garcetti (at the podium). (Eric Garcetti) (CC-BY)

Amid Donald Trump’s vicious attacks on immigrants, it’s refreshing to take a look at Asian-Americans, who braved great hardship to come to the United States. In the face of racism, they began life in a hostile land, raised families and have made a significant contribution to the nation’s social, intellectual, economic and political life. I’ve been intrigued by their lives, which mirror the experiences of other Americans of immigrant stock. I’ve watched the transformation of the Asian-American community from powerlessness to political office and clout. From my perch in Los Angeles and its suburbs that surround the city, I got to know a lot of the people who made it happen. Theirs is a great American story, one that offers hope in a time of gloom and cynicism. But first some numbers to put this in perspective. More than 18 million Asian-Americans live in the United States, more than 5.5 percent of the population. Chinese comprise the largest group, more than 4 million, followed by Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans and Japanese. They are the fastest-growing ethnic minority and are expected to play an increasingly important role in elections. There were many turning points in the history of Asian immigrants to the United States. All of the immigrant groups treasure theirs. To record them all would fill a book. This is just a column, so I’ll write about the ones I saw. The Korean-American moments of history are the most recent. An important one was the wrongful conviction of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant accused of a 1973 murder involving Chinese-American gangs in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A Korean-born journalist, K.W. Lee, then with the Sacramento Union, investigated the case. K.W., as everyone knows him, was the first Asian immigrant to work as a journalist on an American newspaper, starting out on the Kingsport Times-News in Tennessee. It took him more than 100 stories and five years before Chol Soo Lee was retried and acquitted. During this time, K.W. helped organize a grass-roots campaign by Asian-Americans, the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, one of the first Pan-Asian justice defense organizations. I met K.W. while he was editor of the English-language edition of The Korea Times. He was my gracious teacher and guide through Koreatown in the months preceding, during and after the biggest turning point for the Korean-American community, the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It devastated Korean businesses and was forevermore known in the community as Sa-I-Gu, Korean for 4-2-9, the day in 1992 the riots began. Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu, then a teenager, remembers the helplessness felt by Korean-Americans. He was one of the young Korean-Americans inspired by K.W. to become a community activist. Ryu was elected in 2015 in a historic demonstration of growing Korean-American power, beating a candidate backed by the City Hall establishment. He immigrated to the United States at age 5 with his parents. “The family was on food stamps,” he recalled. “There were six of us in a two-bedroom, 700-square foot apartment.” Ryu was in the 11th grade when the riots began after a jury in suburban, mostly white, Simi Valley acquitted the white Los Angeles Police Department officers of the videotaped beating of Rodney King, an African-American who had been stopped for a traffic violation. The riots were a multiethnic event for a multiethnic city. African-Americans in South Los Angeles began looting and burning stores. Latinos joined in. Korean-American immigrants owned many of the small grocery and liquor stores, buying them as a way to begin the climb up the U.S. economic ladder. The stores tended to be family affairs, with the parents and children working to keep them open seven days a week. Most of the adults didn’t speak English well, and relations with the African-American customers were tense, just as they had been when Jews ran those stores before the 1965 Watts riots. Flames and rioting spread north of South Los Angeles. Too often, police and firefighters were not around. Korean-Americans armed themselves, and one, an 18-year-old college freshman, was shot to death. After watching the riots and observing people fighting fires with their garden hoses, I attended a mass meeting of several thousand Korean-Americans in a Koreatown park. People were angry, feeling they had been neglected by the city’s political and law enforcement powers. “It showed the Korean-Americans that you just couldn’t be quiet, knowing your place. You were shooting yourself in the foot,” Ryu told me.
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