The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots, by Brenda Stevenson (Oxford University Press, 423pp, $29.95)
Reviewed by Annie Powers
On March 16, 1991, African-American teenager Latasha Harlins walked into the Empire Liquor Market in South Central LA. She grabbed a bottle of orange juice, slipped it into her backpack, and walked to the counter to pay. Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, concerned that Harlins was trying to steal the juice, tried to take the girl’s backpack. Harlins fought back, and the pair struggled. Harlins threw punches. Du threw a stool. Finally, Harlins disengaged, leaving the orange juice, and turning toward the door. Du grabbed a gun from under the counter and shot Harlins in the back of the head. Latasha Harlins died clutching $2 that she had planned to use to buy some juice. Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a conviction with a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. But Soon Ja Du would serve no prison time. Instead, Judge Joyce Karlin, a Jewish woman, sentenced her to five years probation, community service, and a $500 fine. Less than six months later, police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, and Los Angeles erupted into violence. The LA riots had begun.
The three women involved in the shooting of Harlins and sentencing of Du—a poor black girl, a Korean woman from a small-business owning family, and an affluent female Jewish judge—are the focus of UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson’s new book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins. By focusing on the death of Harlins and trial of Du, Stevenson moves away from a male-dominated narrative that emphasizes the police beating of Rodney King as the main cause of the LA riots. Instead, Stevenson argues, it was the Harlins murder and trial, a story centered on women, that was the real spark for the violence of spring 1992. The Harlins case crystallized frustrations among African-Americans about Korean-American shopkeepers in South Central LA, who seemed to regard their black customers as criminals. In the wake of Du’s sentencing, black Angelenos acutely felt that justice had been denied to Harlins and the black community. It was in reaction to the Harlins case that boycotts of Korean businesses began. It was through the experience of the Harlins case that African-Americans understood the Rodney King verdict and during the riots destroyed Korean shops. Stevenson’s shift of focus from Rodney King to the Harlins murder and verdict changes our understanding of the LA riots.
In her acknowledgments, Stevenson writes that this book has been in the works since 1991. Her long-term effort shows. Carefully assessing the intersections of gender, race, and class, Stevenson explores the circumstances under which Du could shoot Harlins and get off with a light sentence from Karlin. Stevenson does this by probing into the deep pasts of each player, extending her analytical reach into long histories of slavery, immigration, discrimination, poverty, and racism. This book is about Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin, but in many ways, it is about much more than that. It is about the importance of race, gender, and class in crime, justice, and, most crucially, lived experience. And perhaps most of all, it is about the ways in which history bleeds ever-forward into the present.
Photograph at top by Flickr user Dark Sevier