LOS ANGELES (News4usonline) – Thirty years is a long time for justice to come. Latasha Harlins’ family still has not received the type of justice they believe should have been warranted for the reckless murder of the young Black girl that once occupied their everyday lives.
The killing of Harlins on March 16, 1991, at the hands of a South Los Angeles grocer pushed an already racially-teetering Los Angeles to the brink of civil unrest. The acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of Black motorist Rodney King a year later turned the city into a ball of fire and destruction.
The Los Angeles Riots was here, the fruition of all the racial tensions and divisiveness outlined crystal clear in the four white officers getting off. The precipice to all of this, however, was undoubtedly the murder of Harlins. The aftermath of the price tag damage was roughly $1 billion in property damage, while thousands were arrested and injured.
“Those of you who lived through that know that it was a direct result of the murder of Latasha Harlins,” noted activist Najee Ali said. “Tensions were still high and after the verdicts were returned by the Simi Valley jury acquitting the four white officers who nearly beat Rodney King to death, our community was in anger and frustration, and 30 years ago, the city nearly burned down.”
The death of Harlins and the beating of King, along with the acquittal of those white police officers are all intertwined with one another in the chain of events that led to the rebellion in 1992. The Harlins family received nothing less than a spit in the face when it came down to her killer being put behind bars.
But in marking the 30th year of her passing, there was celebration instead of sadness from the Harlins family.
“We’re not where we want to be, as far as injustice; not yet,” said Shinese Harlins-Kilgore. “But we’re humbled. We are happy that we are somewhere. We are a lot further than when we first started 30 years ago. We’re happy, we’re humbled.”
Harlins-Kilgore, like the rest of her family, is excited that something has finally been done to honor her cousin. Thanks to efforts spearheaded by Ali and Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the City of Los Angeles first put up a mural of Harlin’s likeness at the Algin Sutton Recreation Center near where Harlins was killed.
The city then renamed the playground at the South Los Angeles recreation center in Harlin’s name. That playground is now officially called the Latasha Harlins Playground. Janice Duncan, the creative producer of the Oscar-nominated short A Love Song for Latasha, was overcome with emotion.
“I’m at such a loss for words,” Duncan said. “My heart just beams so much light and love right now…just knowing how much Latasha deserves to still be here and knowing the care and consideration that is taken by her family, by her loved ones, by this community to make sure her name and legacy will always be here. It’s a beautiful, beautiful day.”
For Dr. Christina Rogers, renaming the playground in her older sister’s name is only fitting considering that the two of them would come and play there.
“She would always bring me here,” Rogers said after the renaming ceremony on April 29. “This is the playground. That’s why it was so emotional for me because this is the location where my sister brought us to play, to have fun, and to have those memories and to have the city honor here brings back a lot of memories, good memories.”
Harlins was a 15-year-old teenager looking to buy some orange juice when she walked into Empire Liquor Store. This seems innocent enough. Have your money ready. Go to the store and pick up some juice, exit the premises, and head home after paying for the item. Harlins never made it home.
That’s because an exchange between the teenager and Soon Ja Du turned from confrontational to violent. Harlins was attempting to walk away when she was shot in the back of the head by Ja Du. The young girl who dreamed someday of becoming an attorney fighting against societal injustices was now herself the victim of discriminatory attitudes and prejudicial actions.
The bottle of orange juice that Harlins was attempting to buy cost $1.79.
“She’s my granddaughter. I love her, and oh, my Lord…this has happened to her,” said Ruth Harlins, Latasha’s grandmother. “When you talk about it, it be painful when you talk about it. I get emotional when I’m talking about my granddaughter. I was at home when I heard that somebody had gotten shot at Empire [Liquor] store.
“I said, ‘Somebody got shot?”They said it’s a girl,” Ruth Harlins stated. “Then, later on, I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, somebody got shot there. Who was it?’ After a while, then I seen the police coming down the driveway and told me that Latasha Harlins had gotten shot and killed. My daughter Denise was there and we could do nothing but get emotional and crying and everything. It was just a sad day, a sad day for that to happen.”
Harlins’ family did not get judicial justice owed to them, a remedy that is supposed to be the likely outcome of a perpetrator committing vigilante violence. In this case, Harlins’ killer was a middle-aged Korean-American woman who showed no remorse whatsoever during her consequential criminal trial. Ja Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
But instead of being adequately punished for the crime she committed, Ja Du walked. Judge Joyce Karlin, who is white, sentenced Ja Du to 10 years in state prison and then turned around and suspended that penalty. Instead, Ja Du conveniently received five years of probation and 400 hours of community service.
“It’s painful. And it hurts when I begin to talk about it,” Ruth Harlins said. “I thank the Lord that her legacy will be remembered in the United States. I love her, and I just wish that she was here.”
And so without justice for Harlins, Los Angeles didn’t have any peace. Los Angeles was already simmering and fraught in the racial relations department when Harlins was murdered. Just 13 days prior to her death, a videotape of the King beating shook the world.
Interestingly enough, just a week before the verdict came down in the trial of the four police officers who beat King, an appeals court upheld Karlins’ decision regarding the fate of Ja Du.
Ja Du was a free woman. A week later after the four officers were acquitted, Los Angeles was on fire. It is safe to say that while the King beating verdict was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the death of Harlins laid the groundwork for possible civil unrest.
Three decades after losing her cousin to gun violence, Harlins-Kilgore said it’s been a winding journey for her family to finally have something about Latasha that they can hold onto.
“It means a lot to us to see the city recognizing her and the legacy that she did leave at the young age of 15,” Harlins-Kilgore said. “It was a huge accomplishment for myself and my family. It’s something that my mom fought hard for but didn’t get a chance to be here for the moment. By me completing the task of getting it to where it is, is a humbling experience.”
Featured Image Caption: A mural of Latasha Harlins is planted on a building at the Algin Sutton Recreation Center in South Los Angeles. Photo credit: Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline
Dennis is the editor and publisher of News4usonline. Dennis has written about social justice, civil rights, education, politics, and crime. He covers the NFL, NBA, MLB, as well as other sports. Dennis earned a journalism degree with a minor in criminal justice from Howard University. The real HU!! “I’m just a guy who enjoys being a storyteller.”