25 years later, vigil marks Latasha Harlins’ death, which fed anger during Rodney King riots
Pastor Issac Reed prays with relatives of Latasha Harlins and community members who gathered on the 25th anniversary of the teenager’s shooting death. The vigil was held outside the former store where Korean-born shopkeeper Soon Ja Du shot Latasha,
Two weeks after the beating of Rodney King, a Korean-born shopkeeper shot a 15-year-old black girl named Latasha Harlins in the back of her head in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice.
Unlike King, the teen did not live to tell about it.
The two racially charged incidents sparked outrage in Los Angeles that eventually boiled over into the 1992 L.A. riots. Some rioters invoked the teenager’s name as they torched buildings in South L.A.
On Wednesday, the 25th anniversary of Latasha’s death, her family and community activists gathered at the site where she was slain, holding candles and sharing memories of her brief life.
Ruth Harlins, center, in scarf, grandmother of Latasha Harlins, and other family and community members raise candles in memory of Latasha on the 25th anniversary of her shooting death along Figueroa Street in Los Angeles.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Shinese Harlins, left, cousin of Latasha Harlins, receives a hug from Tracy Blackwell at a vigil held on the 25th anniversary of Latasha’s shooting death in Los Angeles.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Richard Lloyd Brown Jr., second from left, uncle of Latasha Harlins, receives a hug as Latasha’s grandmother Ruth Harlins, center, and community members attend a vigil for Latasha on the 25th anniversary of her shooting death along Figueroa Street in Los Angeles.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Relatives and community members hold a vigil for Latasha Harlins on the 25th anniversary of her shooting death along Figueroa Street in Los Angeles.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Shinese Harlins wears a T-shirt in her cousin Latasha Harlins’ honor at a vigil on the 25th anniversary of Latasha’s shooting death in Los Angeles.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A 1992 photo shows Empire Liquor Market Deli in South Central Los Angeles.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Grocer Soon Ja Du, shown in a 1992 photo, fatally shot Latasha Harlins after a scuffle at Soon’s store.(Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times)
Numero Uno Market stands on the site of Empire Liquor, where Latasha Harlins was killed two weeks after the Rodney King beating.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
A pedestrian walks past Numero Uno Market on South Figueroa Street. The store is at the location where Latasha Harlins was fatally shot by a Korean American grocer in 1991.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Her aunt, Denise Harlins, reminded the crowd that if she were alive, Latasha would have turned 40 this year. Perhaps, she said, Latasha would have realized her dream of becoming an attorney.
“She represents so many that are not here that would have been something to somebody,” Harlins said.
During a much more violent era in L.A.’s history, Latasha’s death highlighted the tension between African Americans and Korean Americans, particularly business owners.
On March 16, 1991, Latasha walked to Empire Liquor Market and Deli on 91st and Figueroa streets, put a bottle of orange juice in her knapsack, then went to the counter. Soon Ja Du, the store owner, accused the girl of trying to steal the juice.
Witnesses said Latasha told Du she intended to pay and revealed two dollar bills in her hand; police later concluded that there was “no attempt at shoplifting” by Latasha.
But Du grabbed the teen’s sweater and as the two struggled, Latasha broke free after striking Du in the face, knocking her down. Latasha tossed the juice on the counter and walked to the door. Du picked up a .38-caliber handgun and fired a shot into the back of Latasha’s head, killing her.
The deadly confrontation was captured by fuzzy security footage.
A jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, with a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. The judge gave her probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.
Latasha’s family launched a years-long battle to overturn the sentence and recall the judge. Both efforts were unsuccessful.
In the generation since the girl’s death, she has been memorialized in songs by rappers Tupac Shakur and Ice Cube, and most recently, New York-based singer Gabriel Kahane.
That widespread commemoration has not eased the pain. At the vigil on Wednesday evening, David Bryant, an activist who helped found the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee with Denise Harlins, said the family is still trying to heal.
Outside the shop where Latasha died, now a Numero Uno grocery store, a pack of white balloons was released into the sky as night fell. Dozens of people lifted their candles upward, and the group waved, exclaiming, “We love you.”
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