Remembering the L.A. Riots and 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.


Jennifer D. Williams is an assistant professor of English at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her research and teaching interests include 20th and 21st century African American literature and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, particularly in relation to space, race and class.