Common Ground: Brenda Stevenson’s “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins”

By Rachel MonroeSeptember 29, 2013

    The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins by Brenda Stevenson. Oxford University. 432 pages.

    ON THE MORNING of March 16, 1991, a 15-year-old girl named Latasha Harlins stopped by a liquor store near her home in South Los Angeles. She walked to the back of the store, grabbed a carton of orange juice, and stuck it in her backpack. The woman behind the counter, Soon Ja Du, assumed that Harlins was stealing the juice. As the teenager approached the cash register, Du grabbed her sleeve and yanked her across the counter, trying to snatch her backpack away. Harlins fought back, punching Du in the face four times and knocking her down. What happened next depends on who you believe: either Harlins threatened to kill Du, or she told her she just wanted to pay for the juice. In any case, Du grabbed the gun her husband kept behind the counter and pointed it at the girl. Harlins picked up the orange juice, which had fallen to the floor during the scuffle, and placed it on the counter. As she turned to walk out of the store, Du shot her in the back of the head. When the police arrived, they found Harlins dead, clutching two dollar bills in her left hand. (The orange juice cost $1.89.) Six months later, a jury convicted Du of voluntary manslaughter, a crime that carried a penalty of up to 16 years in prison; many thought that Du would face the maximum punishment. Instead, Judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Du to time served, plus 300 hours of community service and five years’ probation. It was one of the most lenient sentences handed down for a gun-related crime in Los Angeles County that year.

    In the weeks after the shooting, community action targeted Korean-owned businesses in majority-black neighborhoods: inspired by Harlins, Los Angeles entrepreneur/activist Danny Bakewell called for a boycott “to invoke economic paralysis on any business that chooses to operate with disrespect and disregard for African-Americans in the community in which we live,” and the Brotherhood Crusade circulated a list of guidelines regarding the treatment of black customers. But Karlin’s ruling engendered a larger outpouring of rage and despair. As its subtitle suggests, part of the project of Brenda Stevenson’s The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Race, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots is to recover the central role that Harlins’s death and Du’s light sentence played in the lead-up to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.  Although a different legal ruling — the not-guilty verdict for the LAPD officers who were filmed brutally beating Rodney King — provided the riots’ immediate instigating event, Rodney and Latasha’s names were often invoked in the same breath: “Tell me what’s a black life worth / A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts […] Ask Rodney, Latasha, and many more,” Tupac Shakur rapped in “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto.”

    At the time of Latasha Harlins’s death, tensions between Korean shopkeepers in south central Los Angeles and their mostly black clientele were fraught, to say the least. Since 1965, Los Angeles had boasted the largest Korean immigrant community in the United States; in 1968, the first Korean-owned market opened in South Los Angeles. Korean immigrants bought up businesses in majority-black neighborhoods because they were cheap, and there wasn’t extensive competition. The community was still working to rebuild from the Watts riots, and this period of redevelopment coincided with a boom in Korean immigration. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, predominantly black residential neighborhoods south and west of downtown Los Angeles saw an influx of Korean-owned businesses, many of them small markets and corner liquor stores. By 1990, Koreans owned two-thirds of all businesses in South Central.

    Some neighborhood activists worried that Korean-owned shops stymied the development of black-owned businesses; Korean store owners’ tendencies to give jobs to family members instead of local residents didn’t help improve relations between the communities, either. Business owners rarely lived in the neighborhoods where their stores were located, and so had little incentive to get involved in community development. Shopkeepers complained that they felt threatened by their customers, while customers felt that shop owners didn't respect them. (In many cases, they were probably correct; according to a 1992 survey of Korean shopkeepers in New York City, 70 percent believed that blacks were more criminally oriented than whites, and 61 percent believed they were less intelligent.) Despite efforts of organizations like the Black-Korean Alliance and the Black-Korean Christian Coalition, mistrust between the two groups was rampant. Eight months after Harlins was shot, an unarmed black man ducked into a Korean-owned store to hide from a drive-by shooting; the shopkeeper, believing he was about to be robbed, shot and killed the man. A year before his wife shot Latasha Harlins, Billy Du forced a group of local residents out of his store. Those men, too, had been fleeing a drive-by; one was subsequently shot and killed.

    Store owners’ anxiety about their own safety was hardly baseless: In September 1986 alone, four Korean merchants were murdered during robberies in South Los Angeles, and 15 were killed in the 18 months before Harlins’s death. Much was made of this culture of fear during the trial. Du’s lawyers argued that she had been operating in a hostile environment, faced with the constant threat of violence and intimidation from her customers. Du’s son Joseph, perhaps attempting to bolster his mother’s defense with stories of threats and persecution, testified that the store had been burglarized as many as thirty times per week (police records report only three robberies and three break-ins). And the defense team did its best to collapse any distinction between the 15-year-old victim and the gang members who also lived in her neighborhood. “She punched awfully hard,” defense attorney Richard Leonard said in his summation. “Possibly as tough as any guy at the same age.” Even as Harlins was masculinized, defense attorneys took pains to present Du in exaggeratedly feminine terms, stressing her frailty, her vulnerability, and her role as a wife and mother.

    In handing down her sentence, Judge Karlin sided with the narrative presented by the defense. “The District Attorney would have this court ignore the very real terror that was experienced by the Du family before the shooting and the fear, whether it was reasonable or unreasonable […] experienced by Mrs. Du on the day of the shooting,” Karlin explained in her sentencing statement. “But these are things that I cannot ignore.” Of course, Du was presumably not the only one to feel fear that morning; Stevenson persuasively argues that “in order to counter the defense’s argument that Soon Ja Du acted out of a context of urban black terror, the prosecution had to explain that Latasha acted out of a context of Korean shopkeeper persecution.” But prosecutor Roxane Carvajal didn’t do this, or at least not well enough to satisfy Judge Karlin, who gave Du a sentence that was remarkable in its leniency. In 1990, every person convicted of a similar charge in Los Angeles County had been sentenced to at least some jail time. Around the same time as the Harlins case, a teenager accidentally shot and killed a friend at a prom party in Orange County (both were white). The shooter received the maximum sentence: 16 years. Even more notorious at the time was the case of Brendan Sheen, a Korean immigrant who was sentenced to 30 days in jail for kicking his dog. People angered by Karlin’s ruling seized on Sheen’s case as a clear example of a biased and inequitable justice system: in the eyes of the law, a dog’s well-being mattered more than that of a black girl.

    Stevenson chronicles the failure of various attempts to oust Karlin from the bench by members of the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee, who staged months of protests outside her courtroom and her home. (Karlin did eventually step down for unrelated reasons.) Some of the anger the case inspired was released in the spring of 1992, in what Stevenson calls "The Los Angeles uprising/riot/rebellion/rage/resistance.” Stevenson’s unwieldy phrasing is revealing: In her telling, the riots were not purposeless chaos; they were a form of (destructive) dissent. Approximately half of the businesses destroyed in the riots were Korean-owned, and Korean-owned businesses in South Los Angeles — the neighborhood where Harlins was killed — had even higher rates of damage. The Empire Liquor Market, the store in which Harlins had been shot, was one of the first to be firebombed, though it had already closed long before, thanks in part to a community-wide boycott. A sign on its door announced that it was Closed for Murder and the General Disrespect of Black People.


    As Stevenson notes in the book’s introduction, the Harlins case was remarkable in that each of its leading actors — the victim, the defendant, and the judge — was female; each was of a different race or ethnicity (Harlins was black; Du is Korean; Karlin is Jewish); and each was from a different socioeconomic class (Harlins was a working class teenager; Du a middle-aged shopkeeper; and Karlin a wealthy judge from a powerful Hollywood family). The case, in her reading, was not just about race; it was about gender, class, and ethnicity as well. “It is clear […] that the US judiciary system has a cultural foundation rooted in Western ideals, philosophies, and conventions, including gender conventions,” Stevenson writes. “As such, one might imagine that a person’s ‘place’ and ‘treatment’ in this system would depend, in part, on one’s gendered and racial relationships to western (European, US) patriarchal cultures.”  Not only will her book track the shooting, the trial, and their aftermath, Stevenson promises; it will also examine the “legal, social, economic, and cultural trajectories […] that laid the foundations for [these events]. 

    This is a lofty goal, and one that makes it impossible to see the case as the isolated event that many at the time insisted it was. (“We hope that [Harlins’s death] is seen as a dispute between a retail store owner and a customer,” Yang Il Kim, president of the National Korean-American Grocers Association, said shortly after the shooting, and “that this event is not looked on as a racial event […]  and that it is not exploited in apolitical manner.”) Instead, each woman’s individual history is woven into a larger account of gender, justice, race, and class. To that end, the chapter on Latasha Harlins touches on post-Civil War migration trends, 19-century “legal lynching” in Alabama, and early black self-help organizations, while the chapter on Soon Ja Du explores the Korean blackface pop phenomenon Bubble Sisters, early-20th-century Hawaiian sugar plantations employing Korean immigrants, and San Francisco’s Chinatown brothels.

    Everything, in Stevenson’s narrative, is connected to everything else: the Civil Rights movement that inspired Latasha Harlins’s grandmother to move to Los Angeles in search of a better life also led to Congress’ overturning of the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924 — which in turn contributed to the boom in Korean immigration to Los Angeles. Stevenson’s approach to the story also has the advantage of being more or less even-handed. Each of the women she focuses on coped with some level of discrimination (although her distaste for Karlin occasionally peeks out, as when she describes the judge as “the petite, curly top, rich-girl with the Hollywood connections”). 

    But the book does not entirely succeed in presenting a history of gendered black, Korean, and Jewish experience in America — perhaps because that’s too large a task for any one volume, especially one that has its own compelling story to tell. At times, Stevenson tries to compress too much history into too few pages, resulting in a narrative that manages to feel at once rushed and tedious, despite its accounts of various historical horrors. In contrast, the extensively researched chapters that focus on the Harlins family, the trial, and the riots are more tightly focused and ultimately more affecting. After all, while injustice happens in the aggregate, tragedy is located in the particular.


    In Lexington, Kentucky, near where they hold the farmer’s market, the local government has installed a memorial “dedicated to all innocent victims of crime.” The first time I saw it, I was bothered for the rest of the day. What exactly, I wondered, would a “guilty” crime victim look like? A prostitute murdered by a client? A drug dealer shot by a rival? A high school student who smokes weed? A black teenager wearing a hooded sweatshirt? Who decides whose victimization deserves memorialization, and who is excluded from our sympathy?

    Reading Stevenson’s book during the 2013 trial of George Zimmerman and its aftermath, it’s hard not to note the resemblances between the deaths of Latasha Harlins and Trayvon Martin:  The snack food errand turned deadly. The supposedly suspicious clothing. (Du testified that she assumed Harlins was in a gang because her son had told her what gang members tended to wear: “some pants and some jackets, and they wear light sneakers, and they either wear a cap or a hairband, headband,” she testified. “And they either have some kind of satchel, and there were some thick jackets. And he told me to be careful with those jackets sticking out.”) And, of course, the unarmed black teenager, shot dead in a moment of highly questionable — but legally affirmed — self-defense.

    In both Du’s and Zimmerman’s trials, no one disputed that the defendant had shot and killed someone; the question was whether those actions were defensible. In trying to determine culpability, the judge and jury ended up weighing whether the shooter was correct in feeling afraid enough to kill another (younger, unarmed) person. And in both cases, the prosecution worked hard to invert the roles of victim and aggressor: “Mrs. Du in this case was vulnerable, not Miss Harlins,” Du’s defense attorney Charles Lloyd proclaimed in 1991, and twenty-two years later, Zimmerman’s lawyer Mark O’Mara would argue that “[t]he person who decided to make the night violent was the guy who didn’t go home when he had the chance.” Even though Du and Zimmerman were the ones with the guns, and Harlins and Martin were the ones who ended up dead, an insulting conclusion that not only let the killers off the hook, but also implied that the victims were to blame for their own deaths: If only these teens wouldn’t walk around looking so suspicious, wearing their hoodies and jackets, trying to buy snacks! 

    Of course it’s more complicated than that; there are issues of jury instructions and precise definitions of manslaughter. But something larger than legal niceties is at play here. In part, both cases engendered an outpouring of outrage and despair because they seemed like deep failures of empathy — at first on the part of the shooters, and then later replicated by the judicial system. Consciously or unconsciously, certain actors were slotted into the roles of victims or villains, innocent bystanders or aggressive instigators. Certain stories were believed. Certain fears (Du’s fear of Harlins; Zimmerman’s fear of Martin) were legally affirmed, while others (Harlins’ fear of Du; Martin’s fear of Zimmerman) were declared irrelevant. “In the end,” Stevenson writes,

    Judge Karlin’s sentencing decision reflected what she perceived to be her differences from Latasha and the common ground — as a woman, wife, member of a model minority, and descendent of shopkeepers — she found with Du.

    The consequences of this failure of empathy, failure of imagination, whatever you want to call it, are severe and widespread: In states with Stand Your Ground laws, 17 percent of white-on-black shootings are deemed justifiable, while only 1 percent of black-on-white shootings are deemed the same. “Did Mrs. Du react inappropriately to Latasha Harlins? Absolutely,” Karlin said in her sentencing statement. “But was that overreaction understandable? I think it was.” Understandable: I suppose that depends on who you are, where your unconscious sympathies lie, what kinds of violence you’re willing to excuse, and what you think a black life is worth. 


    Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Marfa, Texas.

    LARB Contributor

    Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Marfa, Texas.


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