Merchants keep watch at Firebase Koreatown


LOS ANGELES -- In the shadow of a flaming mini mall near the corner of Fifth 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 Mr. 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 Korean men armed with shotguns and automatic weapons peered down onto the smoky streets. Scores of others, toting steel pipes, pistols and automatic rifles, paced through the darkened parking lot in anticipation of an assault of looters.

"It's just like war," Mr. Rhee said surveying his makeshift command. "I'll shoot and worry about the law later."

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 enflamed the fragile relationship they have worked hard to forge with their black and Latino customers.

For some Koreans, the violence 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 who went to help defend Mr. Rhee's California Market. "All the victims are always Koreans. [The looters], they are like beasts. They are not men."

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 seafood seller Tony Ji.

Even with guns, they seemed at times overwhelmed by the crowds of looters. For hours Thursday, Jay Rhee and other employees at a mini-mall in Hollywood fought a back-and-forth battle with several hundred looters who would surge into the parking lot, retreat when police arrived and then return shortly after the police left.

Mr. Rhee estimated that he and others fired 500 warning shots into the ground and air. One of their party shot and killed a looter in an adjacent store. "We have lost our faith in the police," he said.

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