LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA - Throughout Cambodia Town, an immigrant community In Long Beach, California, boarded-up businesses can be seen everywhere. They are reminders of what happened in just one night on May 31, 2020.
While news cameras captured looters — in some places three deep, rushing into businesses and taking things from inside — Rumpo Chim was on the ground, trying to defend his pizza restaurant.
“It was very scary. It was just like a movie from a movie script,” he said. “They were coming left and right from every direction. I had to point a gun at them. I said, 'You need to leave.' "
Eventually, Chim went home with his sister-in-law, who owns a jewelry store in the same building. When he returned later that night, his restaurant was vandalized and the jewelry store was burned.
The looting in Long Beach happened as people of various ethnicities nationwide protested the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody.
A white officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder after video showed him pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd said he could not breathe. Three other officers on the scene also face criminal charges.
While many people demonstrated against racism and social injustice peacefully, some vandalized and looted businesses. For Chim and other residents of Cambodia Town, the violence brought back painful memories.
“We survived the Khmer Rouge and survived coming up here, getting beat up as a young kid growing up here in the United States. And now, this is a flashback,” Chim said, angrily.
Many of the immigrants who work and live in Long Beach escaped the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide during the 1970s. Chim said that like many African Americans, Cambodian Americans faced racism when they arrived in the United States and have worked for decades to rebuild their lives.
With young children at home, Chim and his wife have suffered painful financial losses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns. Just when the country started to reopen, their already fragile business crumpled at the hands of looters.
“People can say, ‘Black lives matter,’ but what about the Asian life and people's lives in general?” Chim said. He added that other minorities have also experienced racial and social injustice, which he does not want forgotten.
For Chim, the scars of injustice can be seen in the boarded-up buildings that embody decades of work, where relatives pooled their resources to build businesses together.
During the 1990s, Charles Song, Chim's uncle-in-law, used to own the Cambodia Town jewelry store that is now owned by one of his nieces. He experienced firsthand the violence that followed the 1992 acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King, a black man.
Armed atop store
“I remembered my friend and I on the rooftop. I had the AK-47, and he had a shotgun. The answer was very clear — those who were able to protect themselves, they still have their store today,” said Song, who sees history repeating itself.
Song said he understood the African American community's outrage at a history of social injustice, and the brutality of the police treatment of Floyd. Song said he supported the fight for social justice, “because what happened to Floyd, happened to our Asian people, happened to the Cambodians, happened to the minorities. It’s just that what happened to the Asians may not have been reported.”
Song said it was difficult for him to comprehend why anyone would take advantage of the situation and commit crimes.
"The fighting for social justice is one thing, but then there are group[s] of people [who] take advantage of this fight for social justice and turn it into violence and lootings," he said.
As executive director of the Maye Center, a trauma healing center, Laura Som spends much of her days helping genocide survivors find peace from the past and giving a voice to the immigrants of Cambodia Town.
"I want to make sure that we don't blame the looters as the cause of all this,” she said. “The system is behind all of this."
As Som helped her friends clean up the debris, she said she recognized the symptoms of trauma.
"I know the looters are hurting. I know my people are hurting. I know African Americans are hurting," she said.
Som appealed to looters to “abstain from violence to end the cycle of trauma. We can achieve justice with peace.”