Twenty-five years after Los Angeles rose up, how far have we come as a nation? Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.
"This is not television. This is not the movies. This is real life." This was how Deputy District Attorney Roxane Carvajal cautioned a jury before showing them the last seconds of Latasha Harlins's life, as captured by a security camera on March 16, 1991. The video showed the 15-year-old girl first struggling with Soon Ja Du, the owner of Empire Liquor Market and Deli on South Figueroa Street, then walking away, and finally falling down, having been shot in the head by Du. According to the Los Angeles Times, the tape "drew gasps" in the courtroom as the jury watched, and Du, sitting at the defense table, cried.
"Was her fear reasonable?" This is the legal standard that Judge Joyce A. Karlin, who heard the case against Du later that year, used to evaluate the then-51-year-old store owner's culpability. Was Du's fear reasonable when she became suspicious of a teenage girl who entered the store at 9:35 a.m. on a Saturday morning? Was Du acting reasonably when she accused Harlins of stealing the bottle of orange juice she had put in her backpack after quickly browsing an aisle? Was Du reasonable when, after engaging in a physical altercation with Harlins over the juice, which Harlins had insisted she was going to pay for, she shot the girl in the head? Was all of this — the final moments of Latasha Harlins's life, the girl lying on the store floor, clutching the dollar bills she had intended to purchase the juice with — the rational result of the reasonable fear that an adult woman might feel of a teenage girl?
Karlin sentenced Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, a small fine, and no prison time. Speaking 25 years after Harlins's death at an event held last month at the Hammer Museum, Loyola Law School professor Priscilla Ocen argued that the court proceedings were marred by the same social disdain that motivated Du's fatal act of racial profiling: "When I see that case … 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's specification — of the gendered aggression that colors the perception of young black girls in public — restores to Harlins's story the precision of its tragedy. In the prestige projects that have emerged a generation after the Los Angeles riots, including Ezra Edelman's notable 2016 documentary O.J.: Made in America, Harlins's death has figured as a sort of informational prologue to the narratives of black men like Rodney King and O.J. Simpson. “It is important for us to remember that [the riots] were not just about Rodney King," said legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw at the same Hammer Museum event. For many Angelenos, Latasha Harlins was the only point.
“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, speaking at a vigil held on the 25th anniversary of Harlins's death. In the ’90s, the committee would conduct yearly protests, demonstrating outside the courthouse where Karlin handed down her decision. “We were … the forerunners to all that misery."
UCLA professor Brenda Stevenson’s The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots, published in 2013, gives readers a detailed portrait of the girl and her familial, geographical, and racial contexts. She was born in Illinois in 1975, and had moved to South Central when she was 6 years old. Harlins's father left Latasha and her siblings when they were still young; her mother, Crystal, was killed at a nightclub in 1985. The trauma, her family surmised, contributed to Harlins’s quiet and shy demeanor, though her grandmother lamented that right before her death, Harlins was showing interest in dating. Tasha, as she was called by friends and family, was raised by her grandmother Ruth, a "strong-willed and dignified" woman from Alabama. They lived about five minutes away from the market owned by the Du family. "[She] told friends that she was acutely aware of eyes watching her every move,” two reporters wrote a few weeks after Harlins's death. "Her grandmother told her not to go inside unless she meant to make a purchase."
Contested Murder, Stevenson writes, "maintains that much about the outcome of this case can be understood when one examines closely the personal biographies and group histories of Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin. Their individual life stories, and those of their ancestors, are windows into their personal socializations and perspectives that must have affected the ways in which they regarded and responded to each other." Stevenson argues that Du, a wife and mother who had been raised in Korea and had been instructed, by various social forces, to be wary of people who looked and dressed like Harlins, reproduced the policing eye that America has toward its "others," even though Du was an "other" herself. Likewise, Karlin, a white woman from an upwardly mobile Jewish family, allocated her judgment on Du and Harlins based on the differences with which white people "other"-ize minority groups.
Stevenson's focus on women shifts the usual framing of this type of race-related violence and miscarried justice. The experiences of black women are often subsumed under a too-capacious race category, one that ignores issues of class and gender especially, and puts all the brutality black people experience under the umbrella of police violence. As Stevenson writes, it wasn't "just the police" that contributed to the riots and resistance in early-’90s Los Angeles. Structural realities — a complex nexus of ethnicity and hostility, economic opportunity and systematic disenfranchisement — shaped the distressed community relations between Korean business owners and the black people who patronized them.
The documentary Sa-I-Gu, Korean for "April 29," is named for the day the looting and burning of neighborhood shops began, hours after a jury acquitted the four officers who attacked King. Three female filmmakers — Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, Christine Choy, and Elaine Kim — interviewed female business owners in the immediate months after the National Guard was sent in to quell the riots. The documentary applies an intensely sympathetic eye to its subjects, rarely providing any insight or space for black perspectives on the issue of race-based brutality and anti-black treatment. It focuses, instead, on waves of gang violence in South Central and adjacent neighborhoods. The women sound defensive — they recognize the injustice done to Harlins, but insist that injustice was also done to them. "I thought America was perfect, since she helped others abroad," says one woman. "Mexicans and blacks — 200 of them, maybe more — looting all night," says another.
The fact of Latasha Harlins's short and tragic life is suspended in the profoundly dissonant views two ethnic communities had of the city and of the country they were living in. That dissonance did not resolve itself. Most grotesquely, in the months after Harlins's death, a naive narrative emerged, one that conjoined her lot in life with Du's — two women, subjects of masculinist racial forces, encountering irreparable "adversity." In more recent years, the work of activists involved with #SayHerName and other intersectional movements has recovered the centrality of Harlins's story to the events that consumed her city just months after Du's trial. They've denied the idea that all female suffering can be equated, or that it is subordinate to the suffering of men. They've given Latasha a narrative of her own.