On 29 April 1992, widespread rioting and looting overwhelmed Los Angeles County in California following the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers who had been charged with excessive force against Rodney King, a black. The brutality on King was captured on video by a witness and shocked the nation when it was shown on television news and angered blacks in the months leading to the trial. Over the six-day period, there were approximately 3,600 incidents of arson, about a US$1b worth of property damage and 53 deaths in the worst rioting the U.S. had seen since the 1960s.
In what became a widely studied sociological curiosity, Korean-Americans—not whites—became the target of vengeful blacks and opportunistic Hispanics. About 2,300 stores owned by Koreans were looted or burned and many in the beleaguered Korean community rallied to protect their property with automatic weapons as police felt at risk entering these areas.
So why were Koreans attacked when they were not directly linked to the King incident?
The post riot analysis revealed deep-rooted resentment toward the Korean community who profited by conducting business in black areas but who would not hire blacks or socialise with them. The highly insular Korean community also harboured fear and distrust of blacks—sentiments that the blacks had felt for years. Korean store owners’ hands would reach for guns under their desks when blacks entered and their eyes followed blacks around their stores. A year prior to the King incident, a 15-year-old black girl had been fatally shot in a Korean liquor store on suspicion of stealing a bottle of juice. When police arrived, they found the girl with $2 in her hand. The Korean was not given jail time.
Often, understanding context can reveal answers to confounding human behaviours.
When the Little India riot occurred last year—the first in Singapore since the race riots in 1969—the government, whilst asking the public not to speculate on possible causes, quickly postulated that liquor was a primary factor, possibly to divert attention away from causes which may suggest culpability on the part of the government. In fact, as if to confirm this sensitivity to blame, the government reacted angrily to an article in the New York Times, headlined “Singapore’s angry migrant workers”, complaining vehemently that the article “offered scant evidence” of discontent.
In an instance of extreme naivety, Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam met with foreign workers in a dormitory and, having asked the nervous workers point blank if they were unhappy with work conditions in Singapore, happily concluded that resentment was not a factor in the riot.
Shortly after, the government deported dozens of migrant workers using extra-judicial measures and without allowing these workers time nor opportunity to proclaim their innocence, appeal, or claim trial. The testimonies of these workers were, therefore, not heard by the Committee of Inquiry (COI), which the government proclaimed with much bravado would “establish definitively the factors that led to the riot”.
Though the riot was triggered by the tragic death of an Indian migrant worker whose dead body was pinned under a bus, two hours later when the mayhem ended, 30 police and civil defence vehicles and ambulances had been damaged by rioters and over 40 police, civil defence and auxiliary officers were injured. This was a curious fact because, in comparison, few civilians were harmed by the rioting which also left businesses in the area relatively unscathed. Yet, there was little attempt by the government and the government-appointed COI to explain why supposedly drunk rioters were so discriminating in their choice of targets.
Consistently, the government’s post-riot actions seemed to overlook context and instead to be concerned with influencing the COI’s deliberations. Despite several NGOs suggesting that comprehending the underlying tensions in the lives of migrant workers was critical to understanding the reasons for the riot, a woefully disproportionate portion of the COI’s investigations and report — five out of 76 pages — were concerned with the question of why.
On this question, the COI concluded uncannily:
“… following the emotional outburst caused by the death of a fellow Tamil worker, three other contributory factors fuelled the escalation of the riot:
1. Misperceptions about the accident and response.
2. Certain cultural and psychological elements present in the crowd.
3. The consumption of alcohol by some members of the crowd.
As if to echo the government’s sentiments, special mention was made that:
“based on the evidence, the COI does not think that the riot was a result of dissatisfaction among foreign workers with their employment and living conditions in Singapore.”
Much of the COI deliberations focused on the actions of responders, appropriateness of procedures, and recommendations resulting from the incident. Few who read the report will be convinced that the COI established “definitively the factors that led to the riot”.
A year on from the Little India riots, one hopes that social scientists—as in the aftermath of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles—will take up the baton from the COI and make better attempts to explain the phenomenon which occurred in Little India on 8 December 2013.
As NGOs have claimed all along, context may be the key.
This article first appeared on Masked Crusader’s blog.