Forgotten flashpoint: A week after Rodney King

An amateur videographer testing his new camera recorded the beating of Rodney King by police officers in the early morning hours of March 3, 1991. The tape was still being played and replayed on the evening news two weeks later when grocer Soon Ja Du shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins after an argument over a bottle of orange juice at Empire Market, also known as Empire Liquor, on Figueroa at 91st Street. The store security video depicting the shooting also got considerable airplay.

After a jury found Soon Ja Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter and recommended a 16-year prison sentence, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin on Nov. 15, 1991, sentenced Du to probation. The sentence was upheld on appeal the following April 21. A week later, the jury in the trial of the Rodney King officers returned a not-guilty verdict, and the city went up in flames.

The shooting and the sentence underscored “the devaluing of black life” in Los Angeles, Community Coalition Chief Operating Officer Joanne Kim said Saturday, two decades after the Du probation sentence was upheld. Kim and other coalition leaders toured supporters through South Los Angeles to measure the progress made since the violence, as well as the problems that remain.

Empire Liquor was nearly burned to the ground in the 1992 riots, but neighbors helped put out the flames. When Numero Uno took its place and applied for a liquor license in 2004, the market initially prevailed over efforts by the coalition and other activist groups to block alcohol sales. On appeal, the activists won, and the market operates now without selling alcoholic beverages. it is located across the street from a dual-diagnosis clinic, where patients with addictions and illnesses are treated.

News reports at the time played up the conflict between African Americans and Koreans in the Harlins shooting and in the riots. But coalition president and CEO Marqueece Harris-Dawson said the problem in the community was the alcohol sales. The liquor attracted drunks and desperate people, which in turn attracted violence.

“It was the fact that it was a liquor store that made the owner so scared that she had a gun behind the counter,” Harris-Dawson said.


Lessons for L.A. from 1992

Rodney King, 20 years after L.A.'s riots


Post-'92, a weeding out of South L.A. liquor stores