When Angela Oh came back to Los Angeles five years ago, the freeways were alive with the sound of gunfire.
Those world-famous random shootings made the newly minted attorney wonder if she was doing the right thing, coming home to a city where you could get blown away for a lane change.
“I found it really unbelievable that it had gotten to that point where people were carrying pieces on the freeway and shooting each other,” she recalls.
After five years of work and study in relatively laid-back Northern California, the L.A. native also was dismayed by a seemingly permanent and ominous tension that hovered over the city like psychic smog.
But lured by the pull of family--her parents, two sisters and brother live in Southern California--Oh stifled her doubts and returned.
Then came the riots of 1992.
In that urban crucible, Oh--the once-reluctant Angeleno--discovered that she was tougher than her own ambivalence.
With the kind of speed made possible by TV, the 36-year-old criminal defense lawyer rapidly gained a reputation as an eloquent spokesperson for the Korean-American community and as a passionate voice decrying the social, economic and political roots of the civil chaos.
Oh appeared on “Nightline,” “Donahue” and on local public television. She wrote commentary for local newspapers, including the Los Angeles Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times.
Through those appearances and columns, Oh made pleas for greater cooperation between African-Americans and Korean-Americans while warning that forces were at work to widen the already enormous gap between the two groups.
“There is no way in hell that the events of the past several days can be placed on our shoulders, black or Korean,” she wrote in one column, striking a recurring theme. “It is morally and factually dishonest to make such a claim. The chaos was the result of much larger failures--political, economic and social.”
As the city cooled, Oh soon might have disappeared into the limbo land of former talking heads, an electronic image buried in videotape vaults.
But Oh was imbued with a sense of mission, to do something to help Los Angeles climb out of the quagmire.
“It’s my city, like it or not. . . . It’s my home,” she says.
And Oh had been noticed by the right people, including California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who appointed her a co-counsel to the Assembly Special Committee on the Los Angeles Crisis.
Charged with looking at post-riot economic development, the committee began a series of hearings this month to look at such issues as banking and finance, mass transit, urban planning and insurance.
Another politician who paid attention to Oh is U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). In the current issue of Ms. magazine, Waters praises Oh, writing that the attorney “has been a lesson in how to make sense out of the worst of times and how to keep us from turning on each other.”
(Oh contributed a short article to the magazine, too. Among other points, she warned that Korean-American women who had worked in family-owned shops destroyed in the riots would have to seek work elsewhere, creating a new dilemma: “Now that their stores are gone, they will have to work for someone else, so they’ll have to think of some new ways of dealing with the issue of child care.”)
Until September, when the Assembly committee’s final report is due, Oh has packed up her criminal practice in downtown Los Angeles. She now works a few blocks away in a state office marked by signs of haste and urgency. A hand-lettered sheet of paper on the office door bears Oh’s name and that of a colleague. Inside, empty floor space overwhelms the few bits of furniture.
From this modest command post, Oh tries to be realistic about what the committee might accomplish. And she admits to being “intimidated” by her sudden immersion in government and politics.
“I’m realizing how maybe naive I am in politics,” she says. “I guess I’m just such an idealist. I keep thinking people are capable of moving beyond self-interest, and I guess it’s not really true. People who are in powerful positions, I think, get there because they’re very effective in protecting their interests.”
With the state government issuing her an IOU instead of a paycheck, Oh also has a personal awareness of the Golden State’s limited resources.
“We’re not in a position to (rebuild Los Angeles) fiscally or spiritually or even morally at this point,” she says. “We seem to be so bankrupt in all those areas.”
And, she worries, the bankruptcy could become permanent, especially if the city is abandoned by the white middle class.
“How do you make the mainstream not be afraid of the city becoming diverse?” she asks. “I think that’s a real challenge in all of this and nobody ever talks about it. But I think that white America sees L.A. and thinks, ‘God, it’s good we got out of there five years ago,’ or, ‘God, we’ve got to get out of there now.’ ”
Still, she hopes that the committee will do useful work, primarily by collecting an overview of “what the needs are and what is realistic” for riot reconstruction.
At a hearing 10 days ago, the committee was presented with a variety of suggestions, including the creation of a revolving loan fund for small businesses and forming a consulting corps of business executives to advise small businesses.
Oh also has cast about for economic development examples that might be useful in Los Angeles. A profitable Chicago bank that specializes in loans to inner-city enterprises has caught her attention.
Oh adds that she would rather concentrate on such relatively small-scale efforts than elusive, cosmic solutions to the city’s troubles. “We . . . have a limited amount of time on this sweet Earth,” she says.
On another front, last week Oh joined a coalition of more than 40 women’s groups that charged Rebuild L.A. Chairman Peter V. Ueberroth has ignored women’s concerns and given them only token appointments to Rebuild’s board.
But Oh herself has not escaped criticism. In the weeks since the riot, her mail and FAX machine have delivered letters and screeds aimed at her and at Korean-Americans in general. Some of the letters evinced hatred of all Asians, others were anti-Korean. Some apparently thought Oh was simply un-American.
Oh’s friend Marcia Choo (see accompanying story) notes that when Oh appeared on “Nightline,” her criticism of President Bush for lack of leadership “angered a lot of people” in the Korean-American community. “But others believe she expressed the Korean experience very well.”
Choo adds that some within the community see Oh as a “left-wing radical” out of touch with a community that is more conservative and insular than she.
Although it may seem a long jump from defending criminal suspects to squeezing facts and figures from bankers and bureaucrats, Oh maintains that there is a seamless continuity in her work.
Oh says she has never been a cool, impartial observer and has always had an affinity for underdogs.
“When I’m in a situation, it’s not hard for me to figure out--at least based on my value system--right and wrong,” she says.
Oh went to law school at UC Davis after she had trained in public health, receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA.
The switch to law was a leap of faith, more or less. “I decided that I really was a good advocate, and I should be trained to be an advocate,” she says.
Back in Los Angeles, she quickly accepted a chance to practice criminal law, again almost on instinct. It turned out to be a natural fit.
“I like the tension. I like the demand in terms of the time and in terms of the intellect,” she says of trial work. “I like the fact that there is this structure and that it seems to work--you can be creative within it.”
One of her recent cases was that of the “Mercedes Robber,” a 60-year-old former car salesman in debt to a Las Vegas casino who was charged with robbing three Orange County banks. The salesman, who had no previous record, allegedly made his getaways in a Mercedes 380 SE.
“I don’t have a lot of repeat offenders (as clients),” she says with a laugh. “I have people who made big mistakes.”
But it is in her after-work activity that Oh began to emerge as a spokeswoman on issues affecting the Korean community. She is president-elect of the Los Angeles Korean-American Bar Assn. She also is president of Women’s Organization Reaching Koreans, a group she helped found five years ago to help Korean women meet the demands of jobs and family.
As a second-generation Korean-American, Oh often encounters generational conflicts, she says, noting that the community tends to divide along lines of when families and individuals came to this country.
For instance, Korean liquor store owners who negotiated with gangs following the riots were generally first-generation immigrants, she says.
“The first generation thinks in terms of the most pragmatic solution that’s available now,” Oh says.
While Oh says her “tendency would be to work with the Korean-American community” in rebuilding efforts, she does not automatically side with all Korean points of view.
Along those lines, she says she supports limiting the number of liquor stores in South Los Angeles, even though that would affect some Korean store owners. “In this scenario, I think I would have to look at the long-term impact of the health of the African-American community,” she says.
Similarly, Oh believes that Judge Joyce Karlin should have sentenced Korean merchant Soon Da Ju to prison in the death of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old who was shot in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice. But Oh says she gave money to Karlin’s reelection campaign, and she generally approves of the judge’s compassion toward criminal defendants.
Now, Oh is concerned that the trial of those accused in the beating of white trucker Reginald Denny could be another courtroom flash point for the city.
Still, she maintains that racial harmony and peace can be achieved in the City of the Angels.
“I’m a die-hard optimist,” Oh says. “I feel very strongly that people are capable of coming together. . . . We are able to do it if we choose to do it. We may not choose to do it. That’s a different issue.”
Marcia Choo and Annie Cho are two other Korean-American activists. E2