Black teen’s killing sent rip­ples across South L. A.

25 years later, Latasha Har­lins’ death is re­called

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By An­gel Jen­nings

A gen­er­a­tion ago, long be­fore Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, the death of Latasha Har­lins lit a fuse in­side Los An­ge­les’ African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. Latasha, 15, was shot in the back of the head by a Korean woman who owned a South Los An­ge­les liquor store. The killing was cap­tured on a grainy se­cu­rity video.

On the na­tional stage, her case was over­shad­owed by an­other video that sur­faced just weeks be­fore, the one show­ing Los An­ge­les po­lice of­fi­cers beat­ing Rod­ney King.

But in Los An­ge­les, Latasha’s death had a pro­found ef­fect in both the black and Korean com­mu­ni­ties.

For blacks, the killing be­came a sym­bol of the dan­gers and in­dif­fer­ence faced by African Amer­i­can youths. Those feel­ings turned to rage when the woman who shot Har­lins, Soon Ja Du, avoided jail time. That — along with the not- guilty ver­dicts in the King case — be­came a ral­ly­ing cry dur­ing the 1992 Los An­ge­les ri­ots.

For Korean Amer­i­cans, the case prompted soul search­ing and de­bate about the rocky re­la­tion­ship be­tween Korean im­mi­grants who owned liquor stores in black com­mu­ni­ties and their cus­tomers.

“The Latasha Har­lins in­ci­dent made it ab­so­lutely clear that Korean Amer­i­cans are not spectators to the un­fold­ing Amer­i­can racial drama, nor by­standers,”

said Ed­ward J. W. Park, an Asian Amer­i­can stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Loyola Mary­mount Univer­sity. “They were now in­ti­mately and in­ex­tri­ca­bly im­pli­cated.”

Latasha’s killing in­spired songs and a book. But the mem­ory of her death faded in a way that King’s beat­ing never did. The King case re­sulted in changes over the years in how LAPD of­fi­cers were al­lowed to use force. Latasha’s death left no stand­ing mon­u­ments or pol­icy changes, some­thing that haunts her fam­ily.

“All th­ese peo­ple came to the sur­face,” said her aunt, Denise Har­lins. “But noth­ing was ever done. That still both­ers me to this day.”

On March 16, 1991 — 25 years ago this week — Latasha walked into Em­pire Liquor Mar­ket and Deli in South L. A.

Du ac­cused her of try­ing to steal a $ 1.79 bot­tle of or­ange juice. Wit­nesses said that Latasha, who put the or­ange juice in her backpack, in­tended to pay Du and that she had $ 2 in her hand. Af­ter Du grabbed her sweater, the teen punched her in the face and broke free, knock­ing the store owner to the ground. Latasha tossed the or­ange juice on the counter and walked to­ward the door. Du picked up a . 38- cal­iber hand­gun and fired a shot into the back of the girl’s head, killing her in­stantly.

Po­lice later con­cluded that there was “no at­tempt at shoplift­ing.”

A jury found Du guilty of vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter, which car­ried a max­i­mum sen­tence of 16 years in prison. Judge Joyce A. Kar­lin gave her pro­ba­tion, 400 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice and a $ 500 fine.

Latasha “stands as a sad sym­bol of crim­i­nal in­jus- tice,” writer Erin Aubry Ka­plan said. “She was the most in­no­cent of the in­no­cents. She was 15 years old, not even le­gal age. A girl. The com­mu­nity saw this as ex­e­cu­tion.”

The case also ref lected deeper ten­sions. African Amer­i­cans com­plained for years that Korean mer­chants treated them with rude­ness and con­tempt. Korean mer­chants, in turn, said that a lan­guage bar­rier hurt com­mu­ni­ca­tions and that the high num­ber of gang crimes at the time — some of which claimed the lives of Korean store own­ers — put them on edge.

In the weeks af­ter Latasha’s killing, Denise Har­lins launched a cru­sade to pre­serve the girl’s mem­ory.

Har­lins formed two or­ga­ni­za­tions bear­ing her niece’s name. She in­voked the teen’s name dur­ing protests, and she made plans to turn the mar­ket where Latasha was killed into a com­mu­nity cen­ter named af­ter her.

In those early months, there was a swell of sup­port from politi­cians, ac­tivists and res­i­dents. But as the years wore on, the rage that fu­eled a move­ment faded. The crowds at the protests thinned, dreams of a cen­ter died and Har­lins felt forced to move on, al­though she had hoped to be able to make a dif­fer­ence in that sys­tem.

The Latasha Har­lins Jus­tice Com­mit­tee called for Kar­lin, the judge who is­sued Du’s sen­tence, to step down. Ac­tivists protested at her home and on the steps of the court­house where she worked. They col­lected thou­sands of sig­na­tures in two failed ef­forts to re­call her. Kar­lin re­mained a judge un­til step­ping down in 1997. She long de­fended her han­dling of Du’s case.

The com­mit­tee pushed for the district at­tor­ney to ap­peal the sen­tence, which he did. A state ap­peals court up­held the sen­tence in April 1992, just a week be­fore four of­fi­cers were ac­quit­ted in the beat­ing of King, and the en­su­ing ri­ots.

Now, when the na­tion is again grap­pling with the is­sue of race and dis­crim­i­na­tion, Latasha is largely left out of the con­ver­sa­tion.

At a can­dle­light vigil this week to mark the 25 years since her death, rel­a­tives in­serted Latasha into the dis­cus­sion in an at­tempt to keep her name alive.

“As we look at the fam­i­lies of Trayvon Martin and Ezell Ford, we can do the roll call” of racially charged killings, said David Bryant, co­founder of the Latasha Har­lins Jus­tice Com­mit­tee. “We were like … the fore­run­ners to all that mis­ery. But we didn’t learn the les­son then.”

UCLA his­to­rian Brenda Steven­son said Latasha’s case re­mains rel­e­vant, es­pe­cially with the new na­tional de­bate about how the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem deals with African Amer­i­can young peo­ple.

“It’s not just the [ po­lice] that’s this dam­aged arena of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem,” said Steven­son, au­thor of “The Con­tested Mur­der of Latasha Har­lins.”

“It is also the jury, judge and the ... pros­e­cu­tor. Ev­ery level of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is prob­lem­atic with re­gard to race and class, with all kinds of so­cial bar­ri­ers that tend to marginal­ize peo­ple.”

She said Latasha’s killing was one of the rea­sons that ri­ot­ers burned Kore­anowned stores and busi­nesses dur­ing the ri­ots.

Park, the pro­fes­sor, said that al­though Korean Amer­i­cans dif­fered among them­selves in how they viewed Latasha’s shoot­ing, it was “one of the most defin­ing” mo­ments for Los An­ge­les’ Korean Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.

Some Korean Amer­i­cans, he said, felt that Korean mer­chants walked into the middle of long- sim­mer­ing racial ten­sions and were be­ing sad­dled with an un­fair share of the blame. Oth­ers lamented that the killing quashed bud­ding grass­roots ef­forts to bridge African Amer­i­can and Korean com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing the Black- Korean Al­liance, which formed in 1986. Still oth­ers were f lus­tered that the fre­quent vi­o­lent crimes against Korean busi­ness own­ers seemed not to merit much at­ten­tion.

“For Korean Amer­i­cans, the most con­fus­ing thing was, why doesn’t Korean life mat­ter? When will the city mourn the lives lost and the Amer­i­can dreams dashed for th­ese Korean store own­ers?” Park re­called. “If you run a liquor store in an in­nercity com­mu­nity, the price you pay is, you don’t get sym­pa­thy.”

In the af­ter­math of the ri­ots, there were many ef­forts to ease ten­sions be­tween blacks and Kore­ans, in­clud­ing sen­si­tiv­ity train­ing for mer­chants. A decade later, there was gen­eral agree­ment that re­la­tions had dra­mat­i­cally im­proved.

But there also were ma­jor de­mo­graphic changes by then. Some Kore­ans got out of the liquor store busi­ness, as the city pushed to re­duce the num­ber of such busi­nesses in heav­ily non- white ar­eas.

At the same time, South L. A. saw a sig­nif­i­cant mi­gra­tion of blacks to sub­ur­ban ar­eas and a new inf lux of Latino im­mi­grants.

Dur­ing this week’s vigil hon­or­ing Latasha, dozens of her rel­a­tives and peo­ple af­fected by her death gath­ered to cel­e­brate her short life. Some wore black- and- gray T- shirts that said “Gone but not for­got­ten.”

“We are here to re­mem­ber Latasha,” ac­tivist Na­jee Ali said as he held a bot­tle of or­ange juice. “We never for­got her here in the com­mu­nity.”

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

EM­PIRE LIQUOR Mar­ket and Deli in 1992. The year be­fore, the store’s owner ac­cused Latasha Har­lins, 15, of theft. Latasha was killed in the en­su­ing strug­gle.

Genaro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

DENISE HAR­LINS, cen­ter, at a vigil this week for niece Latasha Har­lins, whose death 25 years ago led to the cre­ation of the Latasha Har­lins Jus­tice Com­mit­tee.

LATASHA HAR­LINS’ death in­spired songs and a book, but the case faded from the na­tional stage.

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