Lead Story West Edition

Museum program recalls killing of teen girl, its impact on 1992 riots

WESTWOOD — Twenty-six years later, the anger still resonates. What happened March 16, 1991, and the events afterwards, is still disheartening and unfathomable to many people.

The murder of a young black girl, caught on videotape. Justice was rendered in the form of a $500 fine, 400 hours of community service and five years of probation.

Disbelief from a South Los Angeles community layered with years of unresolved injustice turned to outrage. The community’s payback came by way of the unrest that took place a year later at a cost of an estimated $1 billion.

One of the undercurrent catalysts of the 1992 Los Angeles riots was the cold-blooded killing of teenager Latasha Harlins at the hands of a Korean grocer. The 15-year-old Harlins was shot callously in the back of the head by Soon Ja Du less than two weeks after the infamous Rodney King beating at the hands of four white police officers.

The Harlins shooting was revisited March 29 at UCLA’s Hammer Museum as part of the museum’s weeklong homage to black women. The two-hour dialogue, entitled “Latasha Harlins and the Victimization of Black Girls,” stoked many questions but didn’t really bring about solutions with clarity about the incident that sort of went under the media’s radar because of all the attention that was being paid to the King beating.

Denise Harlins, the aunt of Latasha Harlins, speaks at a memorial to her niece held in March 2016, the 25th anniversary of her death. The death of Latasha Harlins is still considered a factor in the 1992 riots in South Los Angeles.
(Courtesy photo)

The dynamics of Harlins’ killing inside of Du’s Empire Liquor Market underscored the simmering tensions at the time in South Los Angeles between its black residents and the stockpiling of the Asian business community in the grittiest parts of Los Angeles.

That would be further escalated when Du received her lenient sentence from Superior Court Judge Joyce A. Karlin, who was reassigned to Juvenile Court less than a year later.

“Judge Karlin and her decisions and what she says in court, clearly she thinks that Soon Ja Du is the victim,” UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson said during the program. “She never considers Latasha Harlins as the victim. And Latasha is dead.

“She’s buried by her family. Soon Ja Du is alive. She has her children. She has her husband. She has her shops. The way that the decision reads, she is saying that Latasha was at fault.”

The program, moderated by Laura Flanders, was moved along by three African-American women who hold distinct opinions about the now high-profile incident.

Stevenson, UCLA legal professor Kimberlie Crenshaw and Loyola Law School associate professor Priscilla Ocen all expressed their views about the lack of concern about the well-being of black girls and black women, with Harlins’ death cited as a prime example.

“One of the things that strikes me is the way in which anti-black bias — anti-black girl bias — is embedded in the jury’s verdict and is embedded in the judge’s decision to grant Soon Ja Du probation,” Ocen said. “There is no question that Soon Ja Du shot Latasha Harlins intentionally, right?

“She was charged with first-degree murder. That means you have to premeditate and deliberate.

“Latasha Harlins is this walking threat, this 15-year-old black girl, this five-six black girl is a walking threat because she had the audacity to be alive, to be a child and to enter that store,” Ocen later added. “That’s what strikes me about … how the criminal justice system functions with black victims and non-black defendants.”

The panel’s comments ranged from unjustified law enforcement homicides of black women to a disproportionate number of school suspensions of black girls.

In talking about what happened to Harlins, Stevenson, Crenshaw and Ocen illustrated a gamut of articles that strongly suggest this particular demographic group — black girls — by and large is marginalized, if not ignored.

The shooting death of Harlins was at the center of this discussion. For the greater portion of the first hour of their conversation in front of a mixed audience, Stevenson, Crenshaw and Ocen highlighted the Harlins’ case as an example of what black girls and black women deal with all the time under the radar.

“This was during a time when the other big story that was happening here was gang violence,” Crenshaw said. “So I recall almost every week there was a tragic slaying that happened, but pretty much the media didn’t pay much attention to [the Harlins story]. There would be a small story, but it wasn’t front-page news.

“[Gang violence] wasn’t significant to the L.A. Times until a young woman here in Westwood was killed, a young Asian American student was killed, in circumstances that led people to believe that it was gang-related, although no one knew for sure. That became front-page news.”