LOS ANGELES – Latasha Harlins. Long before the modern “Say Her Name” movement and its calls for racial justice, there was the 1991 murder of this 15-year-old by a store clerk. Harlins’ family say his death is a very big part of the story that led to cries of injustice and Black Lives Matter.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and civil unrest. The seeds of these troubles came before Rodney King was beaten by four LAPD officers and acquitted at their first trial. The murder of Latasha Harlins and the court verdict happened around the same time, and her story is synonymous with that uprising.
To understand Los Angeles on April 29, 1992 is to know its backstory. The video of the 1991 beating of Rodney King at the hands of arresting LAPD officers is infamous. Two weeks after the beating aired (rare in those days), the home video was of Harlins’ murder at the hands of a Korean immigrant grocer. Her story and the outcome of her trial would also shake South Central LA to its core.
Harlins was shot, accused of attempting to steal a $1.79 bottle of orange juice from the Empire Liquor store by Soon Ja Du, the owner’s wife. The two fought on the counter. Harlins was left for dead on the store floor, with $2.00 in her hand. Du was found guilty of intentional homicide. The judge gave Du probation.
Shinese Harlins-Kilgore is Latasha’s younger cousin and remembered by an angry community. “It was like Emmitt Till,” she said. “Everyone is ready to go to war. Everyone is ready to fight.”
A few months later, the not-guilty verdicts were entered for King’s beating. Four LAPD officers were acquitted. Rioters took to the streets. With long-running tensions between Korean store owners and the black community already at play, half of the businesses burned or looted – 2,000 of them – were Korean-owned.
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Empire Liquor is now a Numero Uno market filled with food, fresh vegetables, a butcher, and Mexican cheeses on S. Figueroa Street and W. 91st Street.
Thirty years later, the Harlins family continues its work to keep its name alive. Just last year, a playground and a mural of Latasha Harlins were erected at the Algin Sutton Recreation Centre, a few blocks from where the teenager lost her life. A 2020 Netflix documentary about his death earned him an Oscar nomination. A film is in preparation says the family.
Harlins-Kilgore says the family, for the first time, was invited to participate in a healing event on the 29th by the Korean community, including black pastors, as the 30th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots is remembered. Angeles or civil unrest.