Michael Woo and Anaid Reyes

Recorded December 16, 2011 Archived December 16, 2011 29:33 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: mby008740


Michael Woo (60) talks with facilitator, Anaid Reyes (25), about his former role in Los Angeles politics and the LA riots of 1992.

Subject Log / Time Code

In the 1990s MW became the first member in Los Angeles City Council of Asian American descent.
MW describes the race relations of Los Angeles in the 1990s.
Many in the Los Angeles community felt something was going to happen if the Rodney King trial resulted in a not guilty verdict.
MW explains the economic inequalities of the time and describes what he saw in the streets on April 29th.
MW recalls what the situation was like in City Hall when the riots began and trying to decide what the Mayor should do.
MW talks a little bit more about the Asian American community of Los Angeles.


  • Michael Woo
  • Anaid Reyes

Recording Location

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type



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00:02 My name is on a deed. I am 25 years old today is December 16th, 2011 and I'm here in Los Angeles and I'm sitting here with Michael who I just met.

00:14 Play Michael Wu I'm 60 years old today is December 16th, 2011 where in Los Angeles California and I've just meant questions for you would be cuz I know if we want to talk about something very very specific thing would be what was it 19. What were you doing in the 1990s? Basically when the 1990s I was a member of the Los Angeles city council. I was the first Asian American elected to the LA City Council by the early 1990s. I was then my second term representing the Hollywood area of LA and so it's probably important to explain that although I was the first and so far only Asian-American ever to serve on the LA City Council representative district. That was extremely diverse with a not particularly large percentage of Asian Americans. It was a very multi-ethnic area with many Latinos many Armenians many

01:14 Russians people from all over the world and perhaps because it was such a racial lean and culturally mixed area that I was able to be elected to the city council. So that's what I was doing in the early 1990s of being there pretendo for such a district of the Hollywood area is famous too many people as the so-called home of the entertainment industry, but at that time in the early 1990s and actually in the 1980s, the Hollywood area had declined considerably I and instead of being full of Glamour and Glitz. It was actually a high crime area drug-dealing of the many aspects of the entertainment and the tourism industry had left Hollywood. So part of the reason why I was elected was because I had a background as an urban planner.

02:14 And I think that some of the voters thought that by electing me that I would be able to roll up my sleeves and help point the Hollywood area in a different direction.

02:26 I know you wanted to give a little context as far as what the race relations were at this time Los Angeles at that time was going through a fairly tense. Largely due to the combination of economic tensions and also racial tensions in the city it I still have very Vivid memories of the tension specifically between African Americans and asian-americans, especially korean-americans. I myself am not korean-american III come from a Chinese ethnic background, but as the only Asian American who is serving on the city council, I was very involved in a lot of meetings and a lot of discussions going on at that time. For example in South La which then as now was going through a transition from being primarily African-American to be coming primarily Latino. There was a lot of tension between the Immigrant Merchants many of whom were Korean America.

03:26 Onan grocery stores liquor stores and other businesses in the primarily African-American and Latino parts of the city with a lot of tension, especially from African Americans who were very resentful about Outsiders people who are not African-American owning liquor stores grocery stores and other examples of moderate wealth. I would say movies were not extremely wealthy immigrants were not extremely wealthy but compared to poor people live in a rounded. This was a kind of a symbol of a economic tension which took on a racial dimension in the city. And so and there was also an incident the so-called Latasha harlins incident when a young African-American girl was shot to death in a Korean own liquor store over what the the store owner thought was a robbery attempt turned out to be perhaps something that was more innocuous than that, but that was a Flashpoint.

04:26 Which then led to leaders of the African-American Community were some of the leaders demanding closure of a Korean owned liquor stores. There was also reaction, of course to some of the businesses selling liquor Anna Anna and sophe the combination of these racial and economic and cultural factors were heating up a lot during that time. No, actually it didn't that incident took place in South La which was not an area I represented but because I was one of the 15 members of the city council and because I was the only Asian American who was visible on Mini these issues. I started to get drawn into to the discussions going on in different parts of the city then if you add on to that the fact that the riots took place in 1990 to 1993 was an election year in the city of Los Angeles Los Angeles at that time was

05:26 Goodbye, mayor Tom Bradley the first and only African-American mayor of the city and he was he had not yet announced that he was going to retire but he it was expected that after 20 years of being mayor that he was thinking about retiring and at that time I was about 40 years old and I was the youngest member of the city council and I was starting to think about running for mayor of Los Angeles if mayor Bradley retired and I knew that if I was going to be successful that I needed to draw a strong base of support that is that is there aren't enough Asian Americans in the city of La to power a Citywide campaign and until I knew that if I were to be successful I needed to get a lot of support from Latinos and African-Americans. So I was facing around this. Of time in the early 1990s the challenge of figuring out, how can I put together a mole?

06:26 The ethnic support Coalition similar to it me or Bradley had maintained for about 20 years, but perhaps a 1990s version of the Bradley Coalition especially at a time when the anti-asian and specifically anti-christian attitudes among African-Americans whose votes I would need was up in the air after so I'm wondering how was that how was that like being in city council and seeing basically seeing what ensued in April 29th? What happened in April 28th of 1992 was not completely a surprise and there were a lot of leaders of the community who were anticipating that there was going to be trouble and so as someone who was one of the 15 members of the city council, but also someone who was making a conscious effort to build Bridges to both the African American community.

07:26 And to the queen American Community, I was aware that there were things going on. For example planning at First AME church with leaders of the African American Community specifically men who were in the community planning to go out into the community. If there was a court decision that that might inflame the African American Community. There were there were a lot of discussions between ministers from from the African-American community and from the Korean American Community trying to find ways to open up doors of communication between them. There were some who tried to argue that underlying the racial tensions in the city where economic tensions that it needed to be addressed. That is sometimes there's a tendency for people to turn first to racial causes racial explanations for things that may ultimately be economic in terms of the

08:26 The split between haves and have-nots within our society. So leading up to the violence that broke out in April 1992. There were some discussions going on among some people in the community about what can we do to prevent this from turning into some kind of of does disaster for the city ultimately it turned out it probably wasn't enough or you know, perhaps expecting that people of Goodwill in the different ethnic communities making an effort to plan ahead. Maybe that wasn't enough to overcome the depths of the resentment and anger that were in the city at that time.

09:08 So Michael, I have a question. So you talked about a little bit about the reasons why they're there might have been the racial tension. But how did the racial tension manifest itself? When are people kind of music that something was going to happen? Well of the earlier dispute that I mentioned about the liquor store the Korean American liquor store owner and the shooting of the African American Girl. I think the the very heated reaction to all of that the demands for boycotts of Korean immigrant owns stores of the fear on the part of many of the Korean immigrant business owners. I think that gave a lot of people a sense of what which turned out to be much bigger much hotter more violent the potential for deeper trouble within the city. So there was some awareness that and the fact that it was only a few

10:08 Kids earlier 1965 when there were big riots in the Watts area of Los Angeles, although because Los Angeles is a fairly young City and there were a lot of new people who were around in the city and in the 1990s who were not around in 1965, there wasn't complete awareness of of what could happen. But since that every 20 or 30 years or so violence breaks out in the city despite efforts on the part of people of Goodwill and I think that points to the lingering racial and economic tensions that continue to exist in American cities. Not that things have not gotten better. Not that, you know, some people have not made progress, but well while our cities are beacons of Hope for some people they also continue to be

11:06 Examples of some of the deepest disparities within our society. I think that's what really came out in 1992 and while I don't I don't think anybody would say that the tensions in Los Angeles are as bad now as they work in 1991 and 1992. I think that that the general description of what's going on in Los Angeles and other American cities is largely still an accurate picture of the Cities being real examples of the deepest divisions and tensions within American society. Just for more of it, I guess of the picture when you mean like in conomic inequalities friend since we can call it that water be for instance one of the things that

11:54 That happen that you could point us an economic inequality during the days of the world's wealth. For example, I think there were many many very clear images of people who have nothing who felt that they had nothing to lose from torching awnings over businesses or breaking windows or causing violence. I remember for example on the first day or two of the riots driving by the Freeway entrance at Western Avenue onto the Santa Monica freeway and seen a man who might have been homeless man. Just walking along and setting fires to garbage that was in the street. I remember seeing a young man in downtown Los Angeles walking around brandishing.

12:54 Annoys, you know, I got another noise a sword, you know, like it was it was a long knife and just walking along sidewalk waving something that look like either a big knife or sword waving around in ways that that he probably wouldn't be doing if the police were not preoccupied with other parts of the city at the time. So in other words, there were a lot of things going on. I'm just giving you a few images for my own month from what I remember seeing of what seemed to be up a breakdown of the social order that normally keeps things in place and perhaps the social order which sometimes hides the tensions going on in the city pensions, but when you talk about the images that you just described

13:47 I mean, what was that like at what was going through your mind was definitely very scary. I mean when you live in a city like Los Angeles you're living in a place with millions of other people, of course, some of them might be mentally ill some of them might be angry about something or other but usually there is a kind of an invisible social order that keeps things in place to keep somebody from walking down the street carrying a long sword with it keeps a homeless person from setting fires on trash but during the days of of the riots or civil disorder in 1992 that invisible level of social order disappeared in at least in some parts of the city other thing. I should mention is it a course I'm talking about things that I did because I was a city official I wanted to go out there and see what was going on. I drove around in my car sometimes by myself.

14:47 Sometimes with members of my staff to be able to see with my own eyes what was going on. Most people did not do that, but for a large percentage of the population in the city of La and in Southern California, they experienced it in part to television seeing things mediated by television screen, which partially conveys some of the reality that I described to you. Although it's not quite the same. I think I've seen something with your own eyes. The other thing is there was something ominous about what was going on and most people in the city don't experience which is a big cloud of smoke.

15:29 From the fires from the destruction going on so that in other words when I'm saying is if you lived in a wealthier more prosperous part of the city Worth or if you even if you lived in an area that was not a wealthy part of the city but was miles away from the South La or Koreatown or the Wilshire District. You were still affected or you might have been affected because all you had to do was go outside your house and look up into the sky and see these very unusual, you know clouds of smoke which was a way of I think sending a signal to people in other parts of the city that even though you may live out in the suburbs or even though you may live in an area that you don't think of is being driven by that the tensions between Korean American merchants and African American Community residence. You're not really immune from it. You're not really separate from it. That is you may not face a homeless.

16:29 Torching trash in the street, but the cloud of smoke covering part of the city, I think sent a signal to some people now, I think the different people reacted in different ways. It made some people especially long some longer time non-minority residents of the city made some people want to get out of here, you know, and it is I think increase the level of urgency for some people to feel that the cities being taken over by immigrants and minorities and it's time to get out of here immediately people react so much differently thinking okay. I need to find a way to deal with it. I was struck by what I heard in the days and weeks after the riots about some businesses wanting to step in and get involved and start to address the underlying economic problems out there the lack of opportunity in Africa sample.

17:29 And hear this starts to transition into talking talking about what happened the following year that the Citywide elections. I ran for mayor of Los Angeles. I remember talking to people like Jeffrey katzenberg with that time was one of the three founding partners of DreamWorks and was very involved obviously in the entertainment industry in animation, but in an earlier life, mr. Katzenberg when he was a young man was it was an assistant to Mayor Lindsay in New York when the Riots of the 1960s to place in that City and I think that he for one try to find ways for a I think at that time he was working as before DreamWorks. I think he was working at Disney and they were trying to find ways. They were tried they were dreaming up ideas of projects that could be supported in areas like South Los Angeles to create jobs.

18:29 Where to bring hope to that part of the city there was a unit in the minutes we have left. I wanted to mention there was a short. Of time immediately after the violence that I think LED some people to suspend their normal expectations or ways of thinking about the city and started to make people think about what can I do that would make a difference and I think it's unfortunate that in some ways that temporary suspension of usual attitudes with a lost opportunity and that there were some organizations like a a Citywide nonprofit organization called rebuild la which tried to seize the momentum and make something positive out of violence.

19:22 A lot of those opportunities were never followed up on despite the best intentions of the people who came up with ideas. There were a lot of businesses to try to donate money for the try to do something different after being struck by what happened in 1992, but aunt and while I think in some ways things have gotten better than in other ways, the tensions will economic and racial which divided the city then I think some of those same problems are still there.

19:54 One of the things I'm curious about just about you know, your role in this isn't city council is how did the community approach to as like one of the only Asian American Asian-American like there was a lot of friends since the police wasn't there. There's a lot of issues that we raced for those issues raised to you even though you know, I didn't directly represent the areas where the violence was taking place, but I heard a lot especially from many of the Korean merchants.

20:28 Why did the city fail to step up and protect their businesses?

20:34 There was a very Vivid image of a Korean business owner who was standing in the street with a gun of some kind because he felt as if there was nobody in an official position who was coming to protect his property and so I heard a lot about that because I was one of the few asian-americans visible in city government. I also heard from African-Americans who told me about the the basic reasons for the frustration about lack of jobs, especially for young people. The sense that others other groups were advancing were wrap at the economically then then people in the African American community and how unfair that felt

21:24 On the Underground, let's say the days after or even during I know you mentioned you were out and you wanted to know see for yourself. What was going on what other things for you like doing? I remember a standing in the mayor's office near Bradley's office at the time talking with members of the mayor's staff who were trying to figure out what what should the mayor do I remember going down into the emergency Operation Center, which is a room without Windows underneath City Hall where there were all these TV screens closed-circuit TV screens showing what was going on in different parts of the city, but in some ways at that time, the communication system was so Antiquated that people in this emergency Operation Center. We're getting information from watching regular commercial television news.

22:24 Posting notes little you know, Post-it notes onto the screens of there closer to TVs to add information in a way. It was showing the breakdown of the communication of the official communication system not providing the information to decision-makers and City Hall in in a fast enough or accurate enough way. So there are a lot of things inside City Hall there were going on and as well, but I think what was especially striking for me as a member of the city council was the disparity between what I was seeing from driving around on the streets are going to meetings in the community versus the atmosphere in City Hall. There was not surprisingly a desire on the part of some to militarize the reaction and deal with this as a as a military problem were or Paramount military problem, but after the immediate emergency past that that led to large questions

23:24 Neither the police department nor the military could really deal with.

23:30 So now I want to go back to Deer Run for mayor in 1993. So I can just briefly explain what happened even though we're talking about a time a year later after the riots a lot of the tensions and the fear and anger built up as a result of the riots in 1992. I think had a big effect on the political climate in 1993. Ultimately there were 24 candidates who ran for mayor. I was one of the 24 I ended up being the runner-up that is icumen number two, and I was in a run off with a Richard Riordan who ended up winning the election in some ways my my political strategy of trying to reconstruct the the the multi-ethnic Coalition did mayor Bradley had maintained that had elected mayor Bradley and which he had maintained for 20 years didn't work as well.

24:30 Was it needed to in order to enable me to win the election betting in large part because of the the fears and the tension built up among some longer-term residents of the city. I think that in some ways it made it harder for me as a member of another ethnic minority group, even though there is never been an Asian American as mayor of Los Angeles and even though much of the anger might have been directed towards African African Americans were Latinos. I think the fact that I was seen as another minority in my case. I am the son of an immigrant here from China. I think that although my own Council District was with majority Caucasian. I think that for many voters in the city there was some nervousness about what side would I come down on a who would I be loyal to if there were tensions between the different ethnic groups in the city while

25:29 In a in a more tranquil setting you could even argue that having a member of an ethnic group that is neither white nor black nor Latino, but coming from a smaller ethnic group in the city actually might lend itself to a more a more diplomatic approach trying to bring together the different groups in a way the the fearful resentful political atmosphere of 1992-1993 actually was not I would say a very a very hospitable political environment for the kind of Coalition that I was trying to put together you mentioned and I don't know maybe you can correct me and you mentioned you were the first Asian-American elected to the city council and did you say the only since there has never been another reason American sense, so

26:24 I'm wondering I think you kind of said why maybe but what what do you think we need to change your what? What what would you want for things? Like how did that change musically you're asking the very complicated question and impart were talking about a city where Asian Americans make up only about about 10 or 11% of the City's population and only about 5 or 6% of the registered voters in the city or Asian-American. So whether you're talking about somebody like me running for the city council in the Hollywood area where again even in that District asian-americans only made up about 5% of the voters. So in order to win you have to be able to put together a very broad multi-ethnic Coalition. For example, the first time I ran for the city council, I did a TV commercial a cable TV commercial speaking The Armenian language, which must have had some Shock of

27:24 On the Armenian viewers wonder why some guy who looks Chinese was speaking to them in Armenian, but but it was an example the kind of thing that I had to do to demonstrate to a very multi-ethnic community that even though I'm Chinese I could represent many different kinds of people. I think that that's in part what Asian Americans have to do to get elected in a city where a Asian Americans make up a fairly small percentage of the overall population, but it's partially I think the Asian American Community needs to encourage more young people to think about a career in politics or public service and also partly it's a question of the political process. I think creating openings for people who may not be a majority to enter into leadership roles.

28:24 On I may be your experience.

28:28 Well, I think so too in some ways Los Angeles is different than other cities in the United States, but thinking back on the experiences of 1992. It it makes me think about both the the potential the city had then and still has now and a lot of the dreams that are not yet realized where they were talking about two members of ethnic minority communities who feel left out of the political or economic process or individuals who may want to rise to levels of leadership cities represent both the promise of a better future, but also represent some of the deepest problems we have in our society. So I hope that young people will think about finding a way to play a constructive and create a part in solving these problems.

29:28 Well, thank you. I enjoyed it.