Remembering the L.A. Riots, Remembering Latasha Harlins

It’s been 20 years since the L.A. Riots and I can’t put the grainy footage from that video out of my head. A young black girl approaches a checkout counter. An older Asian American woman reaches across the counter to grab the girl’s clothes and backpack. The girl responds with her fists, knocking the woman down. The woman hurls a stool at the teenager. The teen slams down the product she intended to purchase, turns to leave, then falls face forward, a bullet in her head. The gun drops from the woman’s hands.

That girl was Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old high school student. Her shooter was Soon Ja Du, a Korean American grocer in South Central Los Angeles. The killing happened on March 16, 1991, just over two weeks after four police officers brutally beat Rodney King. In November of that year, Du would be convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but would walk out of an L.A. courtroom with only five years of probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.

On April 29, 1992, when Rodney King’s assailants were acquitted, a culmination of grief and loss fed the flames that burned in Los Angeles for six days. Many evoked the name of Latasha Harlins when they set fires to buildings, including the Du’s Empire Liquor Market Deli. Some mourners were surprised that similar unrest hadn’t ensued right after the Soon Ja Du verdict. A woman who lived next door to the store told Patt Morrison, “After Latasha was killed and they announced the [sentence], I thought that what’s going on now would have gone on then.”

To be sure, protests followed Judge Joyce Karlin’s lenient sentence. Members of the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee joined hundreds of protesters to march in front of the Empire Market and Karlin’s home. They also pushed for an appeal of the case, demanded a recall of the judge, and lobbied the Justice Department to file civil rights charges against Du, which resulted in an award of $300,000 for Harlin’s siblings.

Yet the killing of Latasha Harlins has all but faded from our national memory of the tragic events in L.A. When I spoke to my college students about the anniversary, none knew her name, though most were familiar with Rodney King. Many of them are even too young to recall Tupac’s verse in “Thugz Mansion” when he imagines heaven: “Lil’ Latasha sure grown/Tell[ing] the lady in the liquor store that she’s forgiven/So come home.”

I couldn’t help but think of Latasha Harlins on the anniversary of the riots because of the similarities between her killing and that of Trayvon Martin. Both African American teenagers were profiled by the watchful gazes of those who had been trained to view them as criminals. A neighborhood watchman targeted Martin for simply walking in a gated suburban community. Du presumed Harlins was a thief even though the teen was, we later learned, approaching the cash register with folded dollar bills in her hand. “Orange juice was her Skittles,” Dennis Romero aptly puts it.

Martin is the Harlins of this generation. Yet the similarities are easily overlooked when we talk about the killing of Martins only within the long history of racist violence against black men. When we construct a male-gendered history of racial violence, we erase both the state-sanctioned and the everyday forms of violence perpetuated against black girls and women. As activist and blogger S. Mandisa Moore write in a piece at the Oyster Knife, “Why Don’t We Know Their Names?”:

[We render black girls and women invisible when] we narrowly equate black men as representative of black people; when we focus on the criminalization of black men as if this is the only narrative of criminalization; and when we enable or participate in the collective amnesia that most black women NOT ONLY die as a result of the deadly combination of gender and racial profiling at the hands of private citizens and law enforcement agencies, but also from the hands of our black partners and family members.

Alongside the names of Emmett Till, Rodney King, Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, we have a duty to remember the names of Latasha Harlins, Sakia Gunn, Aiyana Stanley Jones and Rekia Boyd. Instead of viewing racist violence as oppression of black men, what if we were to frame it as a collective injury? What if we were to remember the mob rapes and lynchings of black women? What if we were to respond to the police brutality against black trans women with the same righteous indignation we feel when police profile and abuse black men?

In her four-part article “Who Will Revere Us? (Black LGTBQ People, Straight Women, and Girls),” African American feminist lesbian filmmaker and activist Aishah Shahidah Simmons tasks black communities to demand justice as loudly and vehemently for its LGTBQ members, straight women and girls as it does for straight black men. Simmons contends:

We must move out of the mold of solely addressing the horrific impact of racism and white supremacy on the lives of Black straight men and boys. If we don’t, over half of our Black/African-American/African descended communities will remain unsafe.

This kind of intersectional approach to racist, sexist and homophobic violence will deepen our commitment to justice for those who are marginalized and unfairly targeted for violence.

“The ghost of Latasha Harlins is likely to continue hovering in the smoke of that rage for a long time to come,” Al Martinez wrote in 1992. As we mark the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots this week, let us remember Latasha Harlins’s untimely death, and let us continue to demand justice for marginalized communities and to insist upon the value of all human life.

Photo from Wikipedia.


  1. the fact that latasha harlins hit the storeowner 3 times in no way justifies the murder, and the sentence was 100% unjust, but you consciously represent things in one way. what is your purpose – to show african americans are the innocent victims of asian american oppressors? you use this isolated event to suggest that the african american community is being systemically oppressed by the asian american community (she was korean, this incident was significant because she was korean, but you think it’s ok to implicate all asian americans). you talk about violence and discrimination against the african american community as a whole based on an isolated incident of violence by a korean person against an african american person, yet you completely ignore the much more prevalent incidents of innocent korean storeowners being senselessly murdered by african americans, who somehow consider these asian bodies subhuman. the sensationalized reporting about that incident during that time as if this one isolated incident could truly represent a “black-korean conflict” led to the devastation of the korean american community in la en masse. these immigrants were not to blame for systemic oppression and poverty or the police beating of rodney king, and they were working damn hard to get by in this country, yet they were the ones who paid the greatest price for the anger over rodney king. they were victimized and had their livelihoods completley destroyed because they were korean. i agree it’s important to remember latasha harlins and the miscarriage of justice in her case, but if you want to demand justice for your community, you can’t just forget about the injustices against other communities. korean voices and the complexity of their stories were made invisible so that they could play the convenient enemy and scapegoat. we have to demand justice for all marginalized people and remain accountable for the violence inflicted on others as well.

    • The 1990s were a very turbulent time of racial animosity in Los Angeles and this miscarriage of justice fueled the LA riots. The cops who violently brutalized Rodney King were acquitted by an ALL white jury in a trial that had been moved to a predominately white suburb called Simi Valley. Black residents in LA were fed up with cops being exonerated for beating black people and they were fed up with the culture that black lives didn’t matter in LA as evident by the light sentence given to this store owner for shooting a black teenager in the back of the head over a bottle of orange juice — I mean “GET REAL”. It took a riot and a white person (Nicole Simpson) being a victim of injustice in order for the city to change for the better.

  2. Thank you for your comment Min. The focus of this piece was to make sure that Latasha Harlins’ death remains a part of our national memory about the LA Riots. I didn’t actually detail a perceived black/Korean conflict. It just so happens that Latasha Harlins was shot by a Korean American. This piece by Dennis Romero (which my article links to) talks about the LAPD’s attempts to displace systemic racism in South Central onto Korean Americans. That is also a narrative worth remembering but not one that I chose to focus on.

  3. Stephen says:

    I hate to double up on the criticism since you just got wrongfully accused of being racist against Koreans (still tryin to find that in this piece) But anyhow. I really appreciate how you bring up the silencing of the victimization of black people who are not heterosexual males. Just like week I had the pleasure of relating to a transgender woman of color who was harassed in DC’s Chinatown. I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate this article. My only suggestion would be to spread word of this to your fellow feminists. I am going to go out on a lim here and assume you are a black women. My experiences (I am a black male who used to identify as a feminist) as well as my thesis research has revealed a great deal of racism in the history of feminism. Contemporarily it appears as though racism against black men in feminism takes the form of Eduardo Bonilla Silva’s racism without racists kind of racism. For instance an article in which a woman argued that the Arizona Governor’s mistreatment of our president was an example of a micro-aggressive act against a black person was responded to very negatively in the comments. Society, or at least certain segments seem to understand the plight of black men and thus more attention needs to be drawn to that of black women and members of the black queer community. However it appears that within feminism, that understanding, of black male plight, is virtually non-existent. I will spread word of your article and its messages to those I come in contact with. Could you spread word of the hetero-sexual black male plight to your fellow feminists?

  4. Thanks for the feedback Stephen. I wonder if you’re referring to feminists more broadly or black feminists. In my experience, black feminists have always championed the cause of heterosexual black men (Ida B Wells leading antilynching activism; black women in the civil rights movement “allowing” men to “lead” the movement; Angela Davis working on behalf of prison reform [which includes but isn’t limited to het men of course]).

    • Peter Chesney says:

      Stanton and some other first wave feminists turned on black men after decades of abolitionism and speaking out against lynchings. These early feminists ridiculed the fact that black men nominally could vote while educated, bourgeois white women could not. In the end, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth were uninvited from feminist gatherings as the movement took a turn toward “Progressivism” (code for racist reforms including eugenics, urban improvement via segregation, etc). Ironically, the women who received the vote after the first world war in some ways did beat black men to suffrage as Jim Crow continued to disenfranchise so many through the civil rights movement.

  5. B-thorne says:

    Thank you for not forgetting her.

  6. This was a great article. I never heard of Latasha Harlins before and as a black woman I appreciate your role in bringing awareness. It’s so important for our history!

  7. To the day, it bothers me that the killer only received probation. This was a clear miscarriage of justice, simple and plain, even the DA in the case said as much. If Harlins had killed the store owner, she would’ve received life without parole.

  8. Ally Banks says:

    I really appreciate this article, I didn’t know anything about the name Latasha. As I was listening to my fav.raper Mr 2Pac shakur song”thug z mansion, I said let me c who’s lil Latasha, and oups, I bumped into this article talking about her! I thank you deeply writer! I wish to know much about the fellow black who are the martyre of our freedom! Thanks.

  9. Thugz passion…me too i got here coz of that Pacs song…miss 2pac

  10. The LA Riots were not a “protest”, they were a violent riot in which rioters looted innocent Korean shopkeepers. Also, you do realise Mrs. Du was being assaulted by Harlins?

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