AFTER THE RIOTS: THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS : Symbol of Pain Survives Flames : Neighbors Rescue Market Where Latasha Harlins Was Killed
A little south and a bit east of where the fury of last week spent itself, the store where Latasha Harlins died still stands.
That it is still there is not for want of trying.
Four times on the night of April 29, when chances of getting a firefighter were nil, someone tried to torch the Empire Liquor Market Deli.
Four times, with buckets and garbage cans full of water, black men, women and children blotted the fires out.
Someone, during the wild, nightlong rancor, had remembered that history of a wretched sort was made at Empire Liquor.
Thirteen days after Rodney G. King was beaten at the far suburban edge of Los Angeles, Latasha, a black teen-ager, died here in the city’s heart. Her death, too, was videotaped. The flat eye of an automated store camera watched as she grappled with the Korean-born storekeeper over a $1.79 plastic bottle of orange juice, then was shot in the head. Soon Ja Du, the storekeeper, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and placed on five years probation. There was anger over the killing and bitterness at the sentencing.
It certainly was not its history that saved Empire Liquor. It was the people living next door, in the 14 units of the Webb Motel--daily/weekly/monthly rates. They all put out the fires, said the co-manager, Sherriell Johnson, and they all stayed up half the night, “to make sure nobody tried it again.”
For in their common wall, the Korean-American-owned store and the black-managed motel share a common peril. What happened on that Wednesday night could serve as a metaphor for the whole city.
The flames were blazing a corona up a wall and starting across the ceiling when Howard Birkley ran from the motel to help put them out. The 40-year-old plasterer knew to chase the furtive sparks up into the joists, behind the drywall.
“There’s a lot of people talk about burning it down. I tell ‘em, if it goes up at night, with these kids here, somebody’s gonna get killed--another kid is gonna get killed.”
And no one around here is inclined to see the owners collect from fire insurance.
Mary Smith lives with her granddaughter at the Webb Motel, in a room two walls and less than two feet from Empire Liquor. “People have been riding by, saying ‘We should burn that up too--that’s where Latasha Harlins was killed.’ I said ‘no, you shouldn’t.’ Once I said ‘burn it down,’ but that’s when I was angry. They want you to burn it down, they want the insurance money. That’s why we say, do not touch that store.”
But this building has by no means gone unravaged.
Its owners closed it down and boarded it up. In the days and weeks after Latasha died, the pickets and the publicity-conscious laid first claim to the shuttered store. Across the front, they hung a butcher-paper banner--"Closed for Murder & Disrespect of Black People"--on which others added their own injunction: “Burn This Mother Down!”
The graffitists followed. The fire bombers cruised by, and a couple of small fires flared up desultorily and failed. Last Thanksgiving, Birkley caught a bunch of children mounding trash against it to set ablaze, and sent them packing. Nobody could bear to look at the place, yet nobody wanted it burned down.
And at last the druggies and drifters wrenched apart the scissored steel gates at one side and took up residence. A man turned up dead in the store a few weeks back, Johnson said, right inside the front door.
Within Empire Liquor’s ivory stucco walls lies wreckage that predated last week’s pillage: a mangled tumble of racks and shelves and grocery carts and food gone stiff and moldy or rotted away.
Liver sausage was $2.29 a pound the last time business was conducted here. Budweiser’s giveaway calendar of the Raiders’ 1988 season is still tacked up near the counter. Unbroken amid the glass and metal shrapnel lies a mug from a Korean herbalist shop. (Du was known to be chronically weary, with frequent headaches, even before the shooting.)
In these parts, there weren’t many places to shop even before Empire Liquor closed. There are far fewer now. The nearest ABC market burned. If you have a car, the closest gas station without long lines is at Pacific and Slauson.
“This is what the riot was,” Birkley said. “People didn’t think of the afterwards.”
Living right alongside the store, Johnson figured that “after Latasha was killed and they announced the (sentence), I thought that what’s going on now would have gone on then.”
Gina Rae, with the Latasha Harlins Foundation, wondered the same thing. Now she is wondering abut the Justice Department’s pledge to look into the King matter. “Rodney King is alive and Latasha dead--how can his civil rights be violated and not Latasha’s?
“If you speak of one, you’ve got to speak of the other. . . . If the U.S. government is going to take action on one half and not the other half, that’s a miscarriage of justice.”
Birkley took a couple of steps back and tipped his head to look up at the roof line next door.
“It should be a black-owned business. If it’s not a black-owned business, the city should come tear it down. It’s a death trap. Someone’s going to get mad or drunk again one night, and come set it on fire again.”
Denise Harlins, one of Latasha’s aunts, drove through the anarchy that night to help put out the fire because she has her own plans for Empire Liquor.
“I would like to see that building become something . . . some type of a cultural center, a place where kids in the community can come and learn who they are, their heritage, their culture, their roots.”
Johnson’s hopes are more modest.
“I hope someone buys it and puts in a grocery market and maybe a coin laundry.” That would be nice for the tenants. The nearest coin laundry is so far that they sometimes wash their clothes in the shower if they don’t have to wear them the next day.
Birkley is still anxious, ready to grab tools and clothes and run for it if someone gets it in his head to put a match to the place again. As he told the men who tried to start a fire last year, there are kids living here.
“It’s not worth it over something that’s already happened,” Birkley said. “The girl’s dead; the lady’s on probation. Let it rest. Don’t hurt other people because of it.”