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Racial Tensions Blamed in Girl’s Death : Shooting: Prolonged distrust, insults and violence between the Korean store owners and their black neighbors are cited by both sides.

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in a neighborhood market in South-Central Los Angeles was the tragic consequence of long-simmering tension and violence between the Korean market owners and their African-American neighbors, members of both ethnic groups said Tuesday.

Many black people who live and work near the Empire Liquor Market Deli on South Figueroa Street had stopped patronizing the store because the owners often shouted insults at customers and frequently accused them of shoplifting, those interviewed said.

“One day I came up to the counter to pay for a bottle of wine and the guy says to me, ‘Oh, you didn’t steal anything today,’ ” said a 38-year-old man who lives around the corner of the market. “I stopped going in there right then.”

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All interviewed had similar complaints about the Du family. They expressed anger over the shooting and demanded that Soon Ja Du, charged with murder Tuesday, be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

The woman’s son, Joseph Du, said Tuesday that problems with shoplifting, vandalism and robbery at the store had him and his parents constantly in fear.

“Our store is in a gang-controlled area,” Du said. “What are we going to do? We have two guns in the store for defense reasons.”

Late last year, the family had suffered through three months of thefts and threats from alleged gang members, ending in the arrests of two people, said Du and the district attorney’s office.

Du also said that he believes his mother is being used as a scapegoat by authorities to appease the black community in the wake of the scandal over the police beating of Rodney G. King.

“Because we are a minority, they think Korean people are weak,” Du said.

Both sides agreed that the atmosphere at the store was ripe for trouble last Saturday when Harlins stuck a bottle of orange juice in her knapsack, then walked to the counter with money in her hand to pay for it.

A security camera videotape shows that Soon Ja Du grabbed the knapsack, apparently thinking that the girl was shoplifting, according to police. After a brief scuffle, the teen-ager left the juice and the knapsack on the counter and was turning to leave the store when she was shot once in the back of the head, police said.

Soon Ja Du has contended that the teen-ager, in addition to shoplifting, was trying to take money from the store’s cash register. Police say the videotape does not show this. Authorities have refused to make the videotape public.

During a brief court appearance Tuesday in Compton Superior Court, Soon Ja Du, 51, with a bruise around her right eye, appeared dazed as her arraignment was postponed to April 2.

Her attorney, Tyson Park, was granted the delay to obtain a Korean translator and to have Du examined for injuries. Park said that his client will claim that she was attacked and injured by the girl before the shooting. A request for bail for Soon Ja Du, who has been held without bail since last Saturday, was denied and she remained in custody.

Tensions have flared before between Korean immigrants who operate stores in black neighborhoods and residents who often claim that merchants are rude and charge exorbitant prices. The store owners often say they are frequent targets of shoplifting and violence.

A multiracial coalition of community leaders called together by the Black-Korean Alliance, declared the girl’s death “the worst type of violence perpetrated upon a consumer by a merchant.”

The coalition expressed hope that “this terrible incident of violence does not aggravate the relationship between African-Americans and Koreans in our community.”

But anger and frustration on both sides seemed all too evident Tuesday.

Ivy Walker, an 18-year-old salesgirl who lives in the neighborhood, said she was shocked but not surprised that the suspiciousness of the Dus led to tragedy “because that’s the way they are.”

A Korean merchant with a nearby store said: “Nowadays, the mood is bad. It’s rough. Very rough.”


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