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Bradley Tries to Calm Racial Animosities : Neighborhoods: Mayor sets up a meeting between detectives and organizers of a boycott of a Korean-owned store in South-Central. Blacks are upset over treatment by shopkeepers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an extraordinary effort to reduce tensions between Korean merchants and black residents of South-Central Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley has arranged a meeting today between detectives who investigated a shooting at a Southside liquor store and organizers of a boycott of the business.

Los Angeles Police Department officials said the detectives are expected to explain why they believe the fatal shooting of Arthur Lee Mitchell by store owner Tae Sam Park during an alleged robbery attempt June 4 was justified.

Bradley hopes that the unusual briefing will persuade black community leaders to call off the boycott--a major step toward calming ethnic animosities that some fear could spark the kind of street fighting that has erupted in Brooklyn between black and Jewish residents.

Bradley also said he is determined to build lasting “bridges of peace” between these groups--and avoid the political pitfalls that have made New York Mayor David N. Dinkins the target of jeers and bottles in neighborhoods shattered by ethnic and religious strife.

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“After all the questions have been answered satisfactorily,” Bradley said in an interview, “we have got to go on with building a strong atmosphere in a community where people who invest will be able to do business, without fear that boycotts . . . will create hostilities that could result in firebombings or other major incidents.

“People just can’t say: ‘We don’t like the way you do business, we are going to close you down,’ ” the mayor added. “That is not the way to do it.”

But South-Central community leaders from the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Brotherhood Crusade contend that their action is a peaceful way of expressing concerns about “non-resident” shopkeepers who do not contribute to local social programs and treat black customers as if they were criminal suspects.

Ralph Sutton, a spokesman for the Brotherhood Crusade, said a boycott is “a peaceful way of giving people who are outraged an outlet to express that rage.”

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The boycott will continue, vowed Rev. Edgar E. Boyd of the Bethel AME Church, until Park closes his business or he is brought to trial.

“It is high time somebody realized that it is not fair to allow others who do not live in this community to take the lifeblood out of it without giving something back,” Boyd said. “To do that is tantamount to economic violence.”

Deeply resentful of such threats, Korean merchants have rallied behind Park by donating more than $20,000 to keep open his tiny Chung’s Liquor Market in the 7900 block of Western Avenue, said Richard Choi, director of a language school in downtown Los Angeles.

“Our intentions are honorable and we have no desire to be disrespectful to anyone,” Choi said. “But we do not wish to be intimidated in our businesses.”

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Bong Hwan Kim, executive director of the Korean Youth Center and a mediator for the Korean community in the dispute, agreed. “Koreans are more than willing to come to the table and see what can be done about this,” he said.

“First, we have to have a common understanding of what the problem is, then we have to talk about solving it,” Kim said. “We haven’t even gotten to step one yet because of the boycott.”

Ron Wakabayashi, director of the city’s Human Relations Commission, said the tension between the groups is only a symptom of historical economic disparity and rapid demographic changes, which have inflamed cultural and lifestyle differences in the community.

Over the past 20 years, the Korean population of Los Angeles has grown from 9,000 to 250,000, more than half of whom own small businesses operated by four employees or less.

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For Korean immigrants who do not speak English or have the money to open large businesses, ownership of small stores in crime-plagued neighborhoods is seen as an accessible, albeit risky, financial investment, Wakabayashi said.

The problem, he said, is that these store owners rarely stay in business long enough to learn the names of their customers, let alone understand their culture or lifestyle. The turnover of the 350 Korean-owned businesses in South-Central is 30% a year, he said.

“As soon as they establish themselves, the understandable behavior is to move a notch up and out of the high-crime area,” said Wakabayashi. “The replacement is often another newly arrived Korean who is culturally illiterate.”

Even as the Korean population exploded, the number of African-Americans in South-Central declined from 90% to 50% as more people moved elsewhere, leaving a concentration of lower-income people behind, Wakabayashi said.

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For those who cannot afford to move, store ownership by Koreans who live elsewhere only heightens a perception of disparity and economic depression in a community where there is only one movie theater, a handful of supermarkets and a mere 15 bank branches, he said.

“Bring the Korean merchants together with African-Americans under those circumstances in a high-crime area,” he said, “and you’ve got a tough problem.”

Two Korean-Americans and three African-Americans have been killed over the past five months in Korean-owned stores. Several stores have also been firebombed. In an effort to avoid more violence, police officials have begun teaching Korean store owners how to protect their businesses without resorting to handguns.

Some say the dispute amounts to a political minefield for Bradley, who has been criticized for neglecting South-Central in favor of downtown high-rise development.

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Community leaders on both sides of the issue have expressed distrust and frustration over what they perceive to be Bradley’s foot-dragging on the issue.

Bradley made his first personal appearance in the troubled community on Aug. 11, when he stood in front of a Korean-owned store that had been firebombed and condemned such violence.

“I felt we’d reached the point,” Bradley said, “where I had to come out and make a strong statement that we will not tolerate violations of the law no matter who the perpetrator is.”

Bradley’s statements did not satisfy black activists such as Jina Rae, spokeswoman for a support group formed shortly after the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins at a Korean-owned store near the corner of 66th and Figueroa streets in March.

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“Do you know that that man (Bradley) has never come out to express his condolences or anything to the Harlins family,” Rae said. “When he came out to the 66th Street incident . . . he came out for his Korean constituents and made a statement about the firebombing of the store.”

Choi has been equally frustrated. “Our city councilmen and even Tom Bradley are not interested in taking this problem seriously,” he said. “They just make short speeches.”

City Hall officials said the dispute has placed newly elected City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas in a quandary.

Ridley-Thomas, a civil rights leader who worked closely with the Brotherhood Crusade before he was elected to represent the 8th District, acknowledged that although he has been meeting privately with black and Korean community leaders he has avoided taking a public stance on the boycott.

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“This is a very, very sensitive issue and it has to be treated accordingly,” he said. “Every priority does not have to be played out in the press.

“It’s an issue that is volatile enough to move as credibly and swiftly as one can with the parties involved to get something accomplished,” Ridley-Thomas said.

Bradley agreed. “We’ve got to understand all sides of this issue but there is no excuse that can be offered to look only at the conduct of the merchants, or only at the conduct of the customers. I want to bring solutions to bear before we have a very unfortunate and tragic series of incidents.”


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