In the shadow of a flaming mini-mall near the corner of 5th and Western, behind a barricade of luxury sedans and battered grocery trucks, they built Firebase Koreatown.
Richard Rhee, owner of the supermarket on the corner, had watched as roving bands of looters ransacked and burned Korean-owned businesses on virtually every block.
But here, it would be different.
“Burn this down after 33 years?” asked Rhee, a survivor of the Korean War, the Watts riots and three decades of business in Los Angeles. “They don’t know how hard I’ve worked. This is my market and I’m going to protect it.”
From the rooftop of his supermarket, a group of Koreans armed with shotguns and automatic weapons peered onto the smoky streets. Scores of others, carrying steel pipes, pistols and automatic rifles, paced through the darkened parking lot in anticipation of an assault by looters.
“It’s just like war,” Rhee said, surveying his makeshift command. “I’ll shoot and worry about the law later.”
From tiny liquor stores in South-Central Los Angeles to the upscale boutiques in Mid-Wilshire, Korean store owners have turned their pastel-colored mini-malls into fortresses against the looter’s tide.
For many store owners, the riots have become a watershed in the struggle for the survival of their community.
They have become vigilantes, embracing a new brutal code of order that has inflamed the fragile relationship they had worked hard to forge between themselves and their black and Latino customers.
For some Koreans, the violence has sparked a renewed call for conciliation between the races. But for others, the world has become framed in a blind and vindictive anger.
“We have to stay here,” said Dong Hee Ku, a student at Los Angeles City College who went to help defend Rhee’s California Market. “All the victims are always Koreans. The (looters), they are like beasts. They are not men.”
Korean shop owners and their supporters have lashed out at police, saying they have begged for protection from vandals, who have left a swath of Koreatown in ashes. Now, many have decided to fight for themselves.
“Where are the police? Where are the soldiers?” asked John Chu, who was vacationing in Los Angeles when the riots broke out and rushed to help Rhee defend the California Market. “We are not going to lose again. We have no choice but to defend ourselves.”
Koreans from throughout the area have rushed to Koreatown, spearheaded by a small group of elite Korean marine veterans, heeding a call put out on Korean-language radio stations for volunteer security guards.
“The police cannot help us now,” said Tony Ji, a Korean-born seafood seller from El Monte who came to the California Market with his brother after work Thursday.
Even with guns, they seemed at times overwhelmed by the crowds of looters. For hours Thursday, Jay Rhee, no relation to Richard Rhee, and other employees at a mini-mall at Santa Monica and Vermont, several miles north of Koreatown, fought a back-and-forth battle with several hundred looters who surged into the parking lot, retreated when police arrived and returned shortly after police left.
Jay Rhee estimated that he and others fired 500 shots into the ground and air. “We have lost our faith in the police,” he said. “Where were you when we needed you.”
One of the largest armed camps in Koreatown was at the California Market.On the first night after the verdicts were returned in the trial of the four officers charged in the beating of Rodney King, Richard Rhee, the market owner, posted himself in the parking lot with about 20 armed employees.
They barricaded the entrances to the store with pallets of bagged rice and boxed cabbage. A long stack of shopping carts covered the front windows.
The first night they had no problems. But Thursday brought a disastrous round of looting that raged all around them. By late afternoon a fire broke out at a mini-mall a half-block away. They watched for hours from the parking lot as it burned to the ground.
The shooting began as evening fell Thursday. The first carload of rioters was repulsed with a burst of gunfire into the air that littered the parking lot with empty cartridges. They frightened off a second and a third carload of shooters.
As curfew fell around 7:30 p.m., the looters disappeared, leaving only Rhee’s men at the California Market and the group of neighbors still trying to put out the fire in the nearby mini-mall.
Late in the evening another Koreatown shop owner called, warning Rhee that a carload of looters was heading their way. The men raced to a corner of the lot to meet them head on, but the car never came.
“This scares me,” said a haggard Rhee, who had not slept since the verdict.
After the false alarm, the night settled into an uneasy calm as the traffic on Western Avenue dwindled to a trickle. The guards on the roof came down to the parking lot to drink soda and eat pastry.
“It’s quieter tonight,” Rhee said Thursday from his post at one corner of the parking lot. “I think the curfew has affected it a lot.”
The men relaxed, although they continued to receive reports of violence through the night.
One Korean merchant drove by and told them a Korean was killed near 3rd Street and Hobart Boulevard.
The men huddled around a radio tuned to a Korean-language station. The station reported 200 police uniforms had been stolen. “So we must check and be sure,” the announcer said. “We cannot trust a person just because they are wearing a uniform.”
Another report of a Korean restaurant on fire in Reseda was broadcast and the station announcer asks the owner to respond. The men grow grim.
At 10:30 p.m. the calm is shattered as several police cars pull up and a group of officers barrels out, leveling weapons at the Koreans.
“Get your hands up!” an officer yelled. “Hands up! Stand up! Hands up!”
The Koreans stood frozen for a moment, uncertain what the officers wanted.
“Hands up!” the officer yelled again as a floodlight from a police car scanned the group.
For a moment, the two groups stood motionless before each other.
“Wait,” an officer finally said. “This isn’t it. They’re all Koreans.”
The officers returned to their cars and sped off.
The Koreans chuckled in relief. A few minutes later a single squad car pulled up next to the parking lot and stopped.
Richard Rhee stared at the black Los Angeles police officer at the wheel.
“William, is that you?” Rhee asked.
The officer nodded and smiled back.
“Stay here with us,” Rhee said.
The officer smiled and shook his head. “I wish I could,” he said before he drove off into the night.
Times staff writer Laurie Becklund contributed to this story.