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L.A.'s darkest days

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The incident is a defining American moment for Koreans. Like the common shorthand "9/11" used by Americans for last year's terrorist attacks, the Rodney King riots are referred to as sa-i-gu – literally "4/29" – by Koreans. The expression conveys a similar sense of victimization.

Jang says the rioting was fueled in part by police abuse and economic inequalities between blacks, Latinos, and Asians. But today she charges that something more was also at work. She claims the black-Korean conflict was more a "ruse" concocted by the media and supported by the government to steer blame away from the real culprits. The culprits, she believes, were government and corporate neglect of poor and underrepresented residents – and local TV outlets that wanted a return on their investments in new helicopter and mobile-based cameras and wittingly or unwittingly exploited the black-Korean conflict for ratings.

"Koreans became pawns in this game, as people of color fought for the crumbs rather than their due piece of the American pie," says Jang, now a 24-year-old field deputy to Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democrat whose district includes Koreatown.

By July of 1992, Todd Eskew was serving a state prison sentence for armed robbery committed in the wake of the riots. Chastened by jail, he converted to Islam after reading the writings of W. Deen Muhammad, leader of the Muslim Society of America. Mr. Muhammad's teachings on peace and personality led to a change of heart, and a change of name to Najee Ali.

Transformation of hearts

"Although the shooting of Latasha Harlins and the acquittal of white police [in the King case] still struck me as grossly unjust, I realized that returning violence for violence could not be a solution," he says.

Paroled after 11 months, Ali tapped into his gang background, and began organizing a truce between the two largest black gangs in the city – an accord that made national headlines at the time.

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