‘Rooftop Koreans’ Is More Than a Meme — It’s a Violent American Fantasy

As protests spread, shop owners like my father have become a racist symbol of true trigger-happy liberty for the far right

“It feels like 1992 again,” my dad told me over the weekend.

The parallels aren’t just obvious — they’re almost too on-the-nose. A Black man, brutalized at the hands of police. A community outraged, ready to incite violence but also march peacefully en masse. Storefronts shattered by a mix of legitimately enraged residents and reckless outsiders, all of them looking for free shit as catharsis. And some stores defended by people armed with guns, looking to deter looters from breaching their doors.

My parents, Korean immigrants and longtime L.A. residents, just happened to move out of the city to a dusty little town named Delano in the winter months before the early ’90s uprising exploded. But they watched familiar strip malls burn into the night, and talked constantly with panicky friends and family who owned businesses in Koreatown and South L.A. Many of the men took to the rooftops, hoping their gun-toting silhouettes would keep the angry at bay.

“I wanted to be with them,” my dad remembers. “When you move to this country, all you have is family and the career and business you build. So the thought of random thieves just coming to take everything, no matter how you feel about what’s happening, it hurts.”

The guns are out again, all over the country. In Scottsdale, Arizona, a jewelry store owner went viral for stopping a mob in its tracks. Footage from the news shows a crowd kneeling in front of the shop, in which masked figures with rifles pace behind the glass frontage.

In L.A., a lot of business owners also chose to forgo boarding up or otherwise securing their storefronts, instead choosing to sit on the eaves with firearms, waiting for trouble to emerge. In Washington State, a bunch of white guys in Army cosplay showed up to defend numerous big-box stores (including the infamous activist target known as… Ross Dress for Less). Then there was the somewhat horrifying viral video of an Asian shop owner berating a terrified looter while pointing a rifle at his face, all over what appears to be several packs of cigarettes and a broken window.

Yet some key facets have changed since 1992, too, notably the fact that the rioting has, by design, left South L.A. completely untouched this time around. Koreatown, too, has been spared. Instead, it’s been whiter, wealthier enclaves that have seen the fiercest protest action and the most intense looting.

Given that my parents were flat broke for much of their first 30 years in the U.S., the image of Gucci stores burning didn’t raise much of a pulse. Instead, the thing that caught my dad’s eye was a news report featuring vigilantes in military camo, toting carbines with 30-round magazines. “Where are they headed? Iraq? Not exactly your uncle on top of his gold store,” he muttered. “I think they’re trying to fight, not protect.”

He had no idea, of course, that “Rooftop Koreans” have become a meme ripe for the times. It’s a fetid online stew of people rooting against looters (and for self-defense), garnished with heavy sprinkles of racist and vaguely sociopathic commentary.

Asian immigrants ready to throw down are a shining source of inspiration for Extremely Online™ advocates of the Second Amendment, libertarianism, 4chan politics and/or racist shitposting. Rooftop Koreans represent what the real America must be when society burns. Given Donald Trump’s half-chub for the thought of shooting looters on sight, I wouldn’t be surprised if he, too, roots for the cliché.

The notion of defending your property isn’t so problematic on its face, but it turns darker when you calculate how racism and white supremacy have led to so many deaths over stolen goods and broken windows — or, often, no probable cause at all. Many have simply been shot and killed while approaching a white person’s home for directions or assistance. Every instance adds more evidence to the conclusion that the Second Amendment and property rights have been used to terrorize Black and brown communities for pretty much as long as America has existed. And the list of names lost because of overzealous people “protecting” their property is as long as the history of America itself. In the present, it’s not hard to spot the overt racism bubbling up in the cracks between the Rooftop Korean memes, nor the subtle prejudice that coats conversations about who loots and why.

And in reality, the stereotype is, well, more complicated. My parents recall many who decided to board up their stores, go home and hope for the best — armed conflict simply wasn’t worth the danger, both to their bodies and their morals. They recall wives and kids who pleaded for their husbands and fathers to put down the guns and their egos. They recall others who were a little bit too eager to make a point, after years of frustration dealing with petty crime in their stores.

The Rooftop Korean memes may apply to the latter, but not so much to the story of a man like Bob Kim, a Koreatown optometrist who lived through the 1992 riots while holding a rifle, and now must do it again. He clearly holds no smug satisfaction about the symbolism of self-defense. It’s pragmatism, full stop, with real compassion underneath the anxiety. It’s worth noting that even in 1992, Korean shop owners didn’t shoot and kill a single rioter. In 2020, meanwhile, at least one innocent protester (a young Black man) has been fatally shot by a business owner (who was white). The incident was deemed, unbelievably, a case of self-defense.

 

There have been some suggestions made that the Koreans defending their stores in 1992 were more largely motivated by racism — a broad allegation that speaks to the very real anti-blackness and division that existed in the community then. But the aftermath of the riots became a critical window for self-reflection, as many Koreans examined their place as minority immigrants and realized that police had outright abandoned them. That turning point that has led to stronger solidarity between the two communities. Seeing the same aggressive attitudes toward looters today, however, makes me think no lessons have been learned. So many conservatives seem to conflate “BLM activists” with rioting, even if it’s a ton of random white kids like, uhm, Jake Paul sowing the discord.

And regardless of the racial dynamics, it’s clear that the online comments reflect the id of conservative America when it comes to aggressive protest and its consequences. “Just proves the criminals and ‘protesters’ are the exact same people. Trash is literally protesting because they can’t commit a crime,” one person writes on the Scottsdale jewelry store defense video.

“THIS IS HOW YOU TAKE YOUR COUNTRY OUT OF THE HANDS OF CRIMINALS,” adds another.

But the philosophy that allows a business owner to take a life in defense of mere physical property is the same that allows the police to shoot a kneeling protester fatally and then resume business-as-usual the next day. You can see the same entitlement in every “Stand Your Ground” self-defense case that ends with an unnecessarily violent outcome. Hell, it’s the callousness that justifies maintaining the status quo of policing, despite the pile of Black and brown bodies growing in its wake. It’s the black-and-white idea that if you cross a line, the consequences are on you. (Not sure how that explains what happens when armed defenders of a business get racially profiled and then cuffed while the actual looters escape… all on live TV.)

Other allies have shown that there is a better way: By offering a boarded-up storefront as a canvas for solidarity and activist action, standing outside offering drinks and snacks or just being armed but calm and supportive of the whole thing. Missy O’Reilly, a karaoke bar owner in New York City’s East Village, saw looters break in, make a mess and take a mass of alcohol. She took it in stride: “It’s broken glass and stolen booze,” O’Reilly told Eater. “It’s an easy fix compared to what people of color are dealing with in this country.”

Instead, so many armed people in the country are ready for a fight, seeing the looting as proving some Big Societal Point® about the uselessness of government and the need for individual protection. But it misses the point about community defense — and the non-violent ways we can learn to diffuse even something as senseless as looting.

My dad lived this fable out, and has learned lessons along the way. In Delano, he defended his store with gunfire a ridiculous four times, shooting at would-be robbers in search of access to the cash register. The local PD told him in the early 1990s that any shootout would be an open-and-shut case as long as he limited the bloodshed to within the property line. My dad once told me that story with pride — it was evidence he had achieved something in a country that preaches free will and prosperity. Nowadays, enraged by nightly doses of oppressive crackdowns, police violence and racism, he has a different tack about the thought of killing over $1,000 in the till.

The uprising in 1992, after all, started partly as revenge for a Korean shop owner shooting a girl in the head, all over an argument about whether that girl, Latasha Harlins, was stealing orange juice. It wasn’t a case of owner versus looter, but the attitude that led to the trigger being pulled that still exists today. “Rooftop Koreans” is a meme, but in modern America, it’s also a seductive fantasy for those who feel true liberty is the ability to levy fatal danger against anyone who dares to intrude.