The Moral Lessons Of A Liquor Store In L.A.
Like most people, I found disquieting the rioting, looting, and arson we saw almost nightly across America last summer. The scenes of chaos, violence, senseless acts of destruction, and thievery struck a chord with many people because we saw that civilization is fragile. People protected by the anonymity of mobs and masks are free to behave as their nature dictates. Mobs are not constrained by limits of conscience or consequence. I know, for I had seen this all before.
On the evening of April 30, 1992, the second day of the Rodney King riots, I stood on the corner of Third and Normandie in Koreatown. Groups of gang members, mostly illegal immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador, were running here and there with the products of their looting, although not all the looters were gang members. Women with young children were also helping themselves to the spoils of chaos. Convenience stores, restaurants, nail shops, even a pet store were looted and set ablaze. The Rodney King Riots were never about “justice,” and by April 30 they had devolved into an orgy of violence.
From the corner, I could see a liquor store that a husband and wife from Korea ran. At the store’s entrance stood two Hispanic gang members, one on each side of the front door. Across the street, their crew was looting a building that housed a computer and business machine supplier and swiftly carrying the proceeds across the street, past the two gangbangers at the door, and into the liquor store’s back storeroom and walk-in cooler.
This process was repeated dozens of times over the next twenty minutes and ended when the looters had removed everything of value from the computer store. They then put it to the torch. All the while, behind the liquor store’s counter, stood the Korean shopkeeper, a nervous smile on his face.
The liquor store survived that night because local gang members used it as a warehouse. The shopkeeper preserved his property and livelihood by assisting them.
The shopkeeper’s dilemma and his choice echoed in 2020 with the mob violence. Absent structural order, what holds society together? What constrains the individual, either the illegal immigrant gang member or Korean shop owner, when there are no consequences for his negative actions. Historically, there have been two primary constraints on an individual’s actions aside from the sanctions of the societal structure.
The first constraint is community. The looters and arsonists in Koreatown were not Korean, African American, Filipino, or Americans of European descent. They were almost exclusively illegal immigrants from Latin America, mostly young men without familial ties or connections to the wider culture.
No community constraints acted on them in any significant way. Instead, they were governed by the constraints of their immediate associations, their fellow gang members. The gang members voluntarily chose to exist outside the rules of civilized society and the anarchy of the riots merely provided an opportunity for material gain without consequences.
The second constraint is what Aquinas wrote about as synderesis or moral consciousness. We all possess a sense of what is right and what is wrong regarding an action, a sense that is innate and integral to being human. Knowing what is right is vastly different from acting in accordance with what is right. What also influences our decisions is what we perceive as our immediate interests.
If confronted with the choice of losing a business and livelihood or cooperating with the gangs, many of us might make the same choice as our shopkeeper. But the choice to assist the gang cannot be considered without also considering the moral implications of that choice. It is precisely these types of situations, where mob violence has negated obligations to the community and, therefore, its constraints, that we see constraints of conscience isolated and independent.
If our participation in society is solely transactional -- that is, we only make Hobbesian bargains in exchange for a degree of profit and protection -- it would make little difference whether the power with which we bargain is an illegal immigrant street gang or a duly elected political body. For a functional society, there must be (and, indeed, there is) much more at stake. Right and wrong are not transactional.
The stakes were extremely high that night, and the two subsequent nights but the stakes have no bearing on whether an act is right or wrong. There are, of course, always conflicting interests. Assisting the gangs in looting a neighboring business was morally wrong, but could the immorality be ameliorated by the shopkeeper saving the livelihood that gave his family security? Without question, he stood to lose most of his material possessions if he did not cooperate, but he stood to lose no more than his neighbors whose businesses and livelihoods were going up in smoke.
A powerful argument could be made that there was nothing the shopkeeper could do to save the business across the street from being burned to the ground and that he was making the best of an unbelievably bad situation. But consider how we would feel about a Nazi collaborator in occupied Europe. The term Quisling still has currency and meaning for a reason. To collaborate with evil is considered evil.
In the case of the shopkeeper, the fact that he is on the margins of the greater community could mitigate his collaboration with the gangs. Arguably, his outsider status means he did not betray anyone. However, in the collapse of order, there must be something that transcends immediate expediency. The shopkeeper’s actions betrayed more than the neighbor across the street. His actions betrayed a moral imperative not to collaborate with evil.
Last summer we saw an interesting parallel related to the BLM riots. Business owners in various cities across the country posted “BLM” or “Black Owned Business” signs in their windows, trying to curry favorable discrimination from the rioters. It may be possible, though dubious, to consider the motives and intents of BLM in a favorable light, but to ask for favoritism during a wave of destruction based on skin color or political leanings is to be complicit in evil.
Many large corporations, news networks, and political leaders were also complicit with this evil. Amazon, Unilever, and Gatorade were just a few of the multinational corporations donating to BLM. Many news outlets and politicians gave support in the form of portraying actions that were incontrovertibly evil, as something virtuous. Even our now-Vice President Kamala Harris supported the riots saying, “It will go on; it should go on”.
That night in the Koreatown liquor store, and in hundreds of shops across the country this past summer, moral choices were made with much hanging in the balance. However, while corporate leaders and politicians also made moral choices, they had nothing in the balance.
Kamala Harris could encourage the rioters and lose nothing. The corporate leaders and network pundits risked nothing when they supported looting and arson that destroyed dozens of communities and countless lives. And perhaps most heinously of all, our leadership class failed to call out the lies upon which BLM was founded thereby perpetuating the evil it spreads.
Chris Boland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IMAGE: Black Owned Business sign. YouTube screengrab.