91-year-old victim of looting in 1992 plans to join with protesters

This time, 91-year-old Sang Su Park plans to be a peaceful protester in the streets, not trapped by looters on an Atlanta rooftop as he was nearly three decades ago.

Park doesn't watch TV, so he hasn't seen the recent protests in Atlanta ignited by concerns about racism and the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick. But he's read about what's happened.

“I’m sick of this situation,” the Korean immigrant, who speaks limited English, told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter this week through a translator.

It reminds him of the shock that hit him and Atlanta in 1992 after jury acquittals of Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King. In the upheaval that followed, Park and his wife, Hi Soon, were trapped on the roof of their Five Star Supermarket in southwest Atlanta, facing volley after volley of rocks and bricks thrown by rioters. Their trauma played out on live TV news.

Looters ransacked the Park’s small store on Fair Street near the Atlanta University Center. The attackers tried to set fire to the business, he said. Some attempted to bust down a second-floor door the Parks were barricaded behind.

“I felt I would die,” Park said.

Park said he didn’t know about “political” issues 28 years ago and still doesn’t. But he called the anger of protesters understandable.

Now, he said, he plans to take part in a protest and march for Justice for Black Lives near Gwinnett Place mall on Sunday afternoon. To walk, he uses two canes, one for each hand.

Park said he wants to promote peaceful tactics to bring about change. Racism in the U.S. can’t be eliminated, but it can be diminished, he said.

He said he also wants to protect Korean-American-owned businesses and prevent any looting, some of which occurred in recent Atlanta protests, particularly early on.

A number of businesses and nonprofits in downtown and Buckhead have been damaged. The cost of the destruction is still being tallied. Meanwhile, some business owners are working on regaining their footing.

Park knows the challenges of trying to restart.

In the spring of 1992, after the verdicts in the Rodney King case, African-American students at the Atlanta University Center were angry and frustrated with racial injustices and police actions, according to news reports at the time. A march attracted others. At some point the actions morphed into a sporadic, two-day spasm of destruction around intown Atlanta. In addition to property damage, there were news reports of white and Korean bystanders being attacked, as well as journalists and police officers.

Park said he doesn’t like to think about that time. Some of the details have faded in his memory. Some are bolstered by news reports from the period and court records.

He was intent on protecting his grocery, the primary livelihood from his family. Police officers had assured the family they’d be safe at the grocery, he said, despite trouble the day before, including broken store windows and people shouting racial epithets aimed at the couple. But on the evening of May 1, 1992, a crowd grew and eventually broke into the market.

The Parks and two people from a neighboring liquor store had taken refuge on the grocery’s roof. People below hurled rocks, bricks and items stolen from the store. A projectile struck Hi Soon in the back, injuring her.

Eventually, officers in a helicopter dropped tear gas. The crowds cleared. The memories stayed far longer.

Park said he and his wife were traumatized.

Their decimated business reopened after many months, but Park moved away, afraid of being in contact with people. He stayed in Cambodia for a decade, opening a dry cleaning business there before eventually returning to metro Atlanta, where he still has family.

The Five Star closed long ago, and the building was torn down.

He decided to participate in this weekend’s march, he said, because “we are all human, and we can show love and stop destruction and violence.”