Latasha Harlins shooting exposed L.A. race in issues long before Zimmerman

Hector Tobar (Los Angeles Times) | August 1, 2013

Two decades before George Zimmerman spotted a young man in a hoodie walking through a Florida subdivision, another case involving the shooting of an African American teenager roiled Southern California and exposed racial divisions.

Latasha Harlins was 15 when she entered the Empire Liquor Market on South Figueroa in Compton in 1991. She had two dollar bills in her hand to pay for a bottle of orange juice that cost $1.79, but when store owner Soon Ja Du saw her put that juice into a backpack, Du assumed Harlins was shoplifting.

The fisticuffs and the shooting that followed are now at the center of an excellent and methodically researched new history by UCLA scholar Brenda Stevenson, “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the L.A. Riots.”

Early in her book, Stevenson offers this concise and compelling description of the young woman who entered Du’s liquor store that fateful Saturday: Harlins was “a girl at heart, with the body of a young woman and an edgy attitude, she was a complex blend of naivete and maturity, strength and vulnerability … anger and heartbreak all wrapped up in a facade of quiet street savvy.”

The Zimmerman trial, of course, featured a similarly complex and ultimately unknowable dead teenager. Watching the coverage of that trial, one longed for storytelling with the kind of perspective and compassion that Stevenson displays in pulling apart the events that ended with Du, a Korean immigrant, shooting Harlins in the back of the head.

There are no villains in “The Contested Murder.” There is just history of the complicated and messy variety that Americans seem to specialize in creating, involving painful issues of race and social class.

Eight months after shooting Harlins, Du went to trial. She claimed self-defense, but a jury found her guilty of manslaughter. Du faced a possible 16-year prison term, but rookie judge Joyce Karlin sentenced her to probation and a suspended prison term. As several media outlets pointed out, Du’s jail time for shooting Harlins was less than the 30 days that another Korean immigrant received for shooting his dog.

African American L.A. was outraged and took to protests, chanting “No justice, no peace.” Five months later, when the LAPD officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King were acquitted, Los Angeles erupted in rioting — with many arsonists chanting “No justice, no peace!”

For Stevenson, these events become the vehicle for a work of deep historical introspection as she untangles the story of the generations of forbears whose striving helped shaped the three female protagonists in the case of the People vs. Du — Harlins, Du and Karlin.

Read more at:,0,2278824.story

Photo credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times

Posted by on Aug 1 2013. Filed under News, Race. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

1 Comment for “Latasha Harlins shooting exposed L.A. race in issues long before Zimmerman”

  1. dweller

    never let rape gangs get away!

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