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COVER STORY : A Resolve Born From the Ashes


On Thursday, it will be six months since the city erupted after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the Rodney G. King beating trial. For many, the rage of the riots gave way to determination, whether that meant fighting the system, finding jobs for youths or focusing on urgent community needs.

Korean-Americans' Anger Boils Over

Ki Y Lee held a sign demanding his rights above his head and shouted so intensely at the concrete building in front of him that the veins in his neck bulged.

"FEMA!" Lee yelled along with a crowd of about 60 Korean-American merchants last week in front of the building housing a Federal Emergency Management Agency office. "FEMA! We are riot victims. We lost everything."

For six months, Lee and hundreds of other members of the Assn. of Korean-American Victims of the L.A. Riot have been lobbying government agencies to speed the processing of loans and grants for merchants who lost businesses in the unrest. So far, they have had little success.

Lee, whose electronics store on Crenshaw Boulevard was looted and partially burned during the riots, is still awaiting word about his federal grant application. He had owned the store for a year, after saving money from other jobs to buy it.

"My money was in my store, now my money (is) gone," said Lee, 32, who plans to reopen his business but worries that there will be more unrest.

For about a month after the riots, Asian merchants staged midday marches at City Hall, demanding reparations for riot damage and an apology from Mayor Tom Bradley. The protests stopped after the mayor met with the merchants, but reparations requests were rejected.

This was a bitter pill for the merchants, many of whom believe they city should reimburse them for riot damage because police failed to protect their businesses during the unrest.

"Some people got (Small Business Administration) loans, but that's another debt," said Jay Park, one of the founders of the Korean-American victims' association. "Somebody must compensate for what's lost. We don't want extra money. We just want what was lost."

Some riot victims have received assistance from FEMA, but the application process has been slow and tedious, merchants complain.

The merchants are now distrustful of the government's promises to help. And they say their vision of the American dream has been tarnished.

"If you talk to merchants now, they will still ask, 'What happened to my American dream?' " said Jin Lee, a leader of the victims' association. "We come here and work hard for our businesses, so what about us?"

The group recently began protesting again, this time against FEMA, claiming the agency has not kept a promise made in August to streamline the application process for loans and grants.

Mary Donev, spokeswoman for FEMA's Pasadena office, said the merchants "are going through a review process like everyone else." Applications can take weeks or months to process. The agency does not keep statistics on financial aid to members of particular ethnic groups, Donev said, adding that she was unaware of any promises FEMA may have made to the Korean-Americans.

Although they had little success lobbying the city, Korean-American riot victims did receive $4.5 million in donations raised in South Korea. The money was distributed to 1,600 merchants, with each receiving about $2,500, Jin Lee said.

The distribution of the funds also created discord among some members of the victims' association, who formed separate splinter groups--the Multi-Business Victims' Assn. and the Liquor and Grocery Store Victims' Assn.

The groups eventually merged with a third organization--Miscellaneous Victims' Assn.--and are continuing to lobby federal agencies for more loans and grants for the merchants. Some group members also have filed claims against the city seeking compensation for riot damage.

If the victims' association has done nothing else, it has created a precedent for other groups that believe they have been treated unfairly, Jin Lee said.

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