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The Forgotten Story That Helped Spark the LA Riots

You know the name Rodney King. You don’t know Latasha Harlins

Latasha Harlins

Twenty-five years ago, a Los Angeles jury acquitted four police officers who had brutally beaten a 47-year-old black man named Rodney King, sparking a city-wide rebellion that would last almost a week. After apprehending King following a high-speed pursuit, the officers proceeded to assault him mercilessly, kicking and striking him repeatedly with batons.

Footage of the beating was broadcast across the country, provoking national outrage and forcing a public conversation about race and police violence in the United States. The day the four policemen walked out of that Los Angeles courtroom scot-free, the city flared up in insurrection.

But Rodney King wasn’t the only flash point for the LA riots. One year earlier, a Korean-American named Soon Ja Du—the wife of the owner of Empire Liquor Market—shot and killed a 15-year-old black girl named Latasha Harlins in South Los Angeles. Although popular narratives of the LA riots have minimized, or completely erased, the role Harlins’ death played in both rallying the community and fomenting anger over anti-black violence, more recent retrospective accounts have returned her story to its rightful place as a critical point in the LA riots’ history. Four new documentaries—John Ridley’s Let It Fall, Showtime’s Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn!, A&E’s LA Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later, and National Geographic’s LA 92—use Harlins’ case to recontextualize the events leading up to the riots. Brenda Stevenson, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the author of The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the LA Riots, and appears in both the Showtime and A&E documentaries. Stevenson spoke to GOOD about Harlin’s story and why the mainstream media has largely ignored it—until now.

Your book—which came out in 2013, but is still very timely—examined the larger mainstream narrative perpetuated in the media about the Rodney King riots and why they happened, like the idea that it was a reactionary response to the beating of King. It brings into view other events that led up to it, but focuses on the death of Latasha Harlins at the hands of a Korean-American store owner. Can you talk about what happened there?

Stevenson's book.

Latasha lived in South Central LA, and she lived very close to the Empire Liquor Market, which is why she went there to purchase some orange juice that Saturday morning. She walks into the store, goes into the refrigerated part of the store and gets a bottle of orange juice that costs a $1.79. She had $2 in her hand to pay for the juice. She sticks the juice into her backpack and part of it's sticking out of the top, and she proceeds to go to the counter to pay for it.

Mrs. Du, the shopkeeper's wife, is tending the shop that morning and immediately starts to aggressively ask Latasha if she's trying to steal her juice—this is from eyewitness’ accounts. Latasha says, ‘I’m trying to pay for it.’ Du grabs and tries to pull the backpack off her to see what's in it, and Latasha starts to fight back as a result of that. Du falls down twice while they're fighting. When she stands back up the second time, she has a gun in her hand and she's pointing it at Latasha. The juice has fallen out of the backpack by now; Latasha bends down, picks up the juice, puts it on the counter, and turns to walk out of the store to avoid any further confrontation. Du shoots her in the back of the head.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]So we have one person who is alive and well—now she's the victim. And the person who's dead and bleeding on the ground is the criminal. [/quote]

This is in March. In November, Du is initially charged with first degree murder with special circumstances. She's found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The recommendation from the court, that’s the probation officer, is that she receive the maximum sentence—16 years in prison, because she didn't seem to show any remorse in her interviews. But the judge in the case, Judge Joyce Karlin, decides that Du should not spend any time in jail, and instead gives her probation, makes her pay for Latasha's medical and funeral expenses, gives her community [service], and lets her go—to the horror and anger of the larger community, the black community, but also from all parts of the city.

What’s even more painful to the community, and particularly to Latasha's family, was that the judge said that Latasha was the criminal and that Du was her victim. She said in her sentencing statement that if Latasha was still alive, she'd probably be in her court accused of assault on a shopkeeper. So we have one person who is alive and well—now she's the victim. And the person who's dead and bleeding on the ground is the criminal. And we see that happening over and over again. We saw it with Michael Brown, and we saw it with Trayvon Martin—you know, on and on and on. It's such a long list of names.

How did the community react at the time?

She was shot on a Saturday. That following Tuesday there were protests in front of that store. And they continued to protest in front of the store to shut it down. There were a lot of negotiations that went on over the summer about the relationships between the black community and the Korean merchant community in South Central and South Los Angeles.

There was a lot of angst in the black community towards merchants—Korean-American merchants in particular. Right after [Du’s] trial, there was a lot of outcry, there were protests at the courthouse where Judge Karlin routinely held her cases. There was a recall measure, a petition that was circulated with hundreds of thousands of signatures. The district attorney at the time, Ira Reiner, did send the sentence up to the California Court of Appeals to see if they would change it. The California Court of Appeals came back the week before the [Rodney King] trial ended, with, ‘We will not send this sentence back to the court to be changed because of judicial discretion.’

In other words, the community never lost sight of this case. It continued to be discussed in the churches in South Central Los Angeles, in the very traditional community activist organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP, and, of course, the family's own organization, which is the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]What happened is that five or 10 years later, the media fell back into thinking about the LA rebellion in the way that we typically think about all racial conflict, which is that it's a male event. Rodney King is the kind of perfect victim of white male police brutality. [/quote]

Even though Latasha's death wasn't the precipitating event of the riots, it still played a large role in fueling them. Why don't people outside of Los Angeles know her name as well as they know Rodney King's?

For the older generation, people who live in South Los Angeles, her name is extremely well-known. Anyone who was, at least 12 at the time, remembers who she was and what happened to her. At the time of the event, it was a national news story, because the tension between the Korean-American community and the African-American community was not just [present] in Los Angeles, but also in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

What happened is that five or 10 years later, the media fell back into thinking about the LA rebellion in the way that we typically think about all racial conflict, which is that it's a male event. Rodney King is the kind of perfect victim of white male police brutality. We don't think about females who are involved. It's the same reason why we don't pay so much attention to all of the women who have been killed in the last few years by the police, like Miriam Carey or Kendra James. But everybody knows the names of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Philando Castile.

It seems like the Latasha Harlins story encapsulates so many issues we're seeing play out today. There’s, for example, the dynamic between the black community and the nonblack immigrant community, and then there’s also anti-black misogyny—both of which keep these kinds of stories from reaching the mainstream media in the ways that other, similar stories do.

Or staying in the mainstream media. The nation is patriarchal and the black community is patriarchal. Our imagination is [dominated] by male images—of what happens to men and what men are doing. For example, in the case of Latasha Harlins, the judge is not male. She is female. The person who killed Latasha is not male. She’s a woman. The district attorney in that case is a woman.

But when we really think about the criminal justice system, we think about male police, we think about male judges, we think about male juries, we think about male district attorneys. We don't think about the role that women play in the criminal justice system. Latasha's case is really important because it indicts the system versus indicting only the police. The system failed because the judge decided to criminalize Latasha, versus the person who had been found guilty of murder. It's not the jury. It's not the police. It's not the district attorney. It's the judge. It's the entire system—not just the policeman on the street.

The fact that Latasha was killed by a civilian shows how the police state and state violence extends beyond institutional borders.

But the good news is that the jury didn't buy that. They were like, you don't have a right to kill somebody who's walking out of your store.

What is Latasha's legacy in South LA today?

One of the things that has happened, of course, is the hashtag #SayHerName. Latasha has become one of the foundational pillars of that movement. Her case has really become iconic in the sense that this was a girl who was killed, and people are not saying her name anymore.

But the other thing, too, is that Latasha has been [memorialized] now in documentaries, in books, in songs, and in law articles. That case is very important in the cases that are taught in law school now. In terms of black culture, in terms of a culture of people who are interested in the plight of the oppressed, she is well-remembered. Her family continues to have commemorative events for her, on her birthday, and also on the day that she was killed. She's gaining the kind of recognition that she deserves. It gives her some justice, but not the justice that her family wants her to have.

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