Gidra & the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising
by Jazz Kiang
Ashes and dust sweep the streets as thousands of Angelenos march loudly. From sidewalks and rooftops, LAPD and National Guard members observe with angst. Banners demanding a peaceful resolution juxtapose memories of semi-automatic weapons firing just hours beforehand. After three days of chaos, much of the city’s hearts and minds—hoping for a direction forward—find an epicenter in Koreatown.
I am sifting through a folder of negative strips from May 2, 1992 labeled “Koreatown Rally/LA Rebellion,” originally shot by Abraham Ferrer of Visual Communications. In a basement room leased by the organization at the Union Center for the Arts in Little Tokyo, the black and white images seem to move as I raise the slides towards the light.
25 years ago, Los Angeles experienced one of the most iconic and nationally covered disturbances in a United States urban metropolis. Shining light on police brutality, racial profiling, and limitations in the criminal justice system decades before the Black Lives Matter movement, the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising became a case study for critical race scholars and historians. Culturally, the name “Rodney King” would remain significant through the 2010s for young people—many born after 1992—because of hip hop nods such as Kanye West’s verse on “New God Flow” (2012).
I am one of these young people.
Born in 1994, I am old enough to vividly remember September 11, but am nearly oblivious to the Los Angeles Uprising unless I happen to curiously Google search Kanye West’s reference from the same line that shouts out Biggie Smalls and MLK. And if not for my UCLA Asian American Studies curriculum (i.e. Sa-I-Gu documentary screening), I likely would only know details from those 1992 days based on Rockstar Games’ satirical rendition of Los Angeles in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
I mention the above because although the Los Angeles Uprising is remembered for some of its dynamics, the ways that Asian Americans participated and documented the happenings have often been less noted. On May 2 of that year, Visual Communications staff decided to document the Koreatown community’s response to the riots and discussion of socio-economic conditions that primed them, particularly given the organization’s office located in the area at the time. Some of their video interviews are available at online archives. According to Abraham, however, these images neither had the opportunity to be digitized nor to be used for commemoration efforts since being taken.
By 1992, it was fairly common to have access to cameras that took photos in color. In addition, photographers less practiced the process of shooting images and finishing in a darkroom. Thus finding this folder of negative strips was a catalyst for two distinct discussions: 1) an eerie reminder that crisis (and resulting community-based protest) can always happen, and 2) storytelling and documentation technique has changed significantly even within my own lifetime.
A quarter of a century after the Los Angeles Uprising, it is appropriate that Visual Communications’ 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival coordinates screenings both in Little Tokyo and Koreatown—an ode to geographical history as well as thematic elements of the program. One of the featured films during the week will be Justin Chon’s Sundance Film Festival-winner GOOK (2017), a timely narrative from the perspective of two Korean American brothers who own a shoe store during the Los Angeles Uprising. To now have resources and space for Asian American and Pacific Islander-led productions like this is significant, nonetheless it is equally important to remember how multiple forms of media have transformed in the time between.
This brings me to Gidra newsmagazine.
Like a half-sister who lives across the street, the Gidra office—after moving from its roots at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center—was located next door to Visual Communications on the intersection of Crenshaw and Jefferson boulevards. As a printed resource to disseminate knowledge during the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it strategically covered items that were neglected by mainstream media. Gidra was to print what Visual Communications was (and continues to be) with photography and film.
Similar to how black and white photography has all but phased out, printed newspapers and magazines have become less circulated for young people with instant information from social media. Though it ceased printing by 1974, Gidra’s legacy as arguably the first community-based publication to articulate a political Asian American identity and document “Third World” activism cannot be understated. For young “Asian Americans” to have a sense of racial identity today—even one that is removed from the political ideologies of the past—we must recognize the contribution of the newsmagazine.
I am one of these young people.
Again, I learned about Gidra from my courses in Asian American Studies at UCLA. As an outlet for those involved in movement building at the time, its goal was to “deliver a message in a palatable way,” similar to how creative media production, like film, may seek to accomplish. Copies of old Gidra editions are archived at Visual Communications and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
The promotional artwork for this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is homage to the cover of Gidra’s March 1972 edition. 45 years after being published, I am hopeful that these intergenerational themes will connect with Asian American and Pacific Islander community members. History itself can sometimes be inaccessible, especially in the hands of academics and museums, but it is partially the responsibility for young people to be curious about the past.
There may not always be a Kanye West shout-out or video game to make something relevant—and even so, the narrative distributed by the mainstream may often be limited. Luckily, this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is an opportunity to converge areas that many of us may have not considered before.
Though means of documentation have transformed, it is clear that the act of “moving the image” through visual storytelling remains valuable. Even in today’s day-to-day chaos in politics—where crisis can occur at any moment in regards to social services and the arts—our own organizing and resistance will depend on our ability to document along the way.
When the ashes and dust settle from the street, the image of the moment should live on elsewhere.
Join the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs for the program “Flash Point 2017: Twenty-Five Years After the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising” during the 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. The program will utilize art and media to examine the socio-political factors that provoked the 1992 LA Uprising and its impact on the racial and economic climate in LA and across the US today.
Jazz Kiang is an incoming student in the Higher Education & Organizational Change program at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree at UCLA in Asian American Studies while advocating for student services and the passage of UCLA’s College of Letters and Science Diversity Requirement. Jazz currently works at the UCLA Community Programs Office, where he provides programmatic feedback for its student-run K-14 outreach programs.