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Liquor stores front and center during '92 unrest

Once the fires of the L.A. Riots were out, shop owners in South L.A. began the painful task of rebuilding after the riots. But the battle was just beginning for liquor store owners, and the community activists trying to keep them out.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the flashpoint for the rioting – the place where Reginald Denny was beaten - was at Florence and Normandie, outside a place called Tom’s Liquor. South L.A. was teeming with liquor stores at the time.

Former L.A. Mayor and current LA Superior Court Judge Jim Hahn says he remembers "like 1,100 liquor stores down there which I think was more than the entire state of Pennsylvania had." Community groups, he says, had been working for years to slow the spread of liquor stores in South L.A.

On the night before the Rodney King verdict would set off the riots of 1992, the group Community Coalition was meeting with city leaders and the Korean community to talk about how to clean up or close down problem stores.

Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass of Los Angeles estimates that "between April 29th and May 1st, over 200 liquor stores were destroyed."

Bass, who founded the Community Coalition, says she remembers being at home during the riots, watching TV, "seeing liquor store after liquor store burn down and realize that we were now going to have to lead a campaign to prevent these stores from rebuilding."

In the days and weeks following the riots, a coalition of black and latino activists targeted stores that neighbors said attracted crime, public drunkenness, and other problems. The media, Bass says, called the campaign racially-motivated.

"It was as though people in South L.A. couldn’t possibly be concerned about their community, they’re just concerned about kicking the Koreans out."

Tensions between the black and Korean communities began building a full year before the riots, says Jim Hahn, at a liquor store.

"A young girl named Latasha Harlins was shot by the Korean lady who owned a liquor store."

It happened in March of 1991. The 15 year-old African American girl was shot and killed by the Korean owner of Empire Liquor, who thought the teenager was shoplifting.

Soon Ja Du was convicted of manslaughter but received no jail time. Hahn says a year of resentment spilled out onto the streets.

"There was almost a targeting of liquor stores that were owned by Korean Americans during the riots and a lot of people said that was related – 'remember Latasha Harlins'," says Hahn.

Nearly every torched liquor store was owned by Korean Americans. Lawyer Stephen Jones, who represented many of those Korean store owners says there was just "one black owner who had been burned out as compared to the couple of hundred of Korean owners."

Jones says during the riots "some stores were saved by people putting up signs in the window saying 'black owned'." The rioters would passed on by.

The city imposed a long list of conditions for liquor store owners who wanted to rebuild, limiting hours of operation, requiring graffiti removal, and hiring a full-time security guard.

"These are little tiny kind of walk-in liquor stores," says Jones. "They just couldn’t afford to stay in business and have a full time security."

Of the more than 200 liquor stores destroyed in the riots, only a few dozen were rebuilt. One of them still open today: Tom's Liquor, at the corner of Florence and Normandie.