A Ghost That Won’t Go Away

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There’s a ghost haunting Compton and it won’t go away.

You sense its presence on the streets and in the stores, in office buildings and in churches.

Each time its name is said, the ghost’s presence is enhanced and its longevity assured. The name is said often in Compton.

They say it in anger and they say it in grief. They say it at rallies and they say it in sermons. They say it in writs and they say it in petitions.


The ghost hovers with the persistence of sunlight and the power of a gale. Its existence is a shout for justice and a battle cry for atonement.

Its name is Latasha Harlins.

A black 15-year-old, Latasha was shot dead last March by Korean grocer Soon Ja Du in a dispute over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice.

Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin fined Du $500 and put her on probation and ordered her to perform 400 hours of community service. Few killers are granted such an easy way out.

There was no reason to send Du to jail, the judge said. She wasn’t a menace to society.

That’s when the haunting began. Compton’s African-American community rose up in anger. You shoot a dog, they said, and you go to jail. You shoot a black kid and you get probation.

Committees were formed and rallies held. A recall movement was begun. And the ghost of Latasha Harlins cast its shadow over the city.

Protests generally have short life spans. They come and go like phases of the moon, each enjoying a brief, bright glow in the sky, then ebbing to darkness until the next one rises.


It isn’t that way in the Latasha Harlins case. Her ghost continues to haunt not only the community, but, in a greater sense, the conscience of the city.

A preacher in Compton said to me the other day that it won’t go away until Joyce Karlin is removed from the bench.

“If we lose the recall movement,” the Rev. Richard Sanders said, “we’ll regroup and try again. Whatever happens, we’ll be a constant reminder to Judge Karlin of where she is and what she’s done.”

Sanders is pastor of the 1,200-member Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church. He and Compton City Council member Patricia Moore are leaders in the recall movement.

They represent high-profile elements of a community’s indignation and the institutionalization of a community’s rage. Each is a conduit for that rage.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t receive 50 to 100 telephone calls protesting that sentence,” Moore said the other day, holding up a batch of messages. “They’re not just from people in Compton. They come from Beverly Hills, Hollywood, the Valley . . . everywhere.”


“Karlin was hoping this would all blow over,” Sanders said, “but it won’t. I remind my congregation of it every Wednesday and Sunday. To make heaven our home, we’ve got to deal with issues on Earth.”

Next month, he added, is African-American Month. Both Moore and Sanders promise it will also be Latasha Harlins Month.

The committee to recall Judge Karlin must gather 300,000 signatures by mid-February. Volunteers vow they will visit every merchant, stand on every street corner and knock on every door to get the names they need.

Even though Karlin is up for election in June, to simply vote her out of office isn’t enough, her adversaries say. The recall makes a definitive statement.

They see Karlin as a symbol of repression that must be deliberately and consciously exorcised from public life.

That desire isn’t limited to preachers and politicians. You hear it on the streets from those who can’t even remember Soon Ja Du’s name but who vow to sign any petition that will “kick Karlin out the door.”


In hours of casual conversations along Compton Boulevard, I found passions still stirring over Latasha’s death and the light punishment of her killer.

They deride Karlin as a Barbie doll judge and her sentence of Du a deliberate act of racism.

“She’s got to go,” a woman shopper said in a grocery store. “No black person will get justice with her on the bench.”

“Latasha could’ve been my little sister,” a man outside a barber shop said. “I keep thinking how I’d feel if her killer didn’t get jail time.”

“This is a people’s protest,” Kerman Maddox assured me. He’s chairman of the Committee for Justice that gathered 20,000 signature cards demanding that Du serve time in prison.

“Black people see Rodney King beaten by cops. They see David Duke getting votes in Louisiana. And now this. It’s scary. That’s why this issue isn’t going to go away. It has added fuel to a fire that was already burning. It’s going to keep on burning.”


And the ghost of Latasha Harlins is likely to continue hovering in the smoke of that rage for a long time to come.