Two weeks after officers with the LAPD furiously beat Rodney King after a traffic stop, a 15-year-old girl named Latasha Harlins lost her life when a convenience store owner named Soon Ja Du sh*ot her dead after an argument over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Like the officers involved in the beating of King, Jo Du did not serve any prison time for Latasha’s m*urder. These two events detonated the high racial tensions already present in Los Angeles, leading to the LA Riots that erupted the following year. This is the story of Latasha Harlins.
Latasha Wants a Drink
Latasha Harlins walked from her home in South Central Los Angeles to Du’s Empire Liquor Market on March 16, 1991. Soon Ja Du and her husband owned the store. Harlins often came into the store, and most of the workers knew her well. Ja Du didn’t help the customers and didn’t know Latasha.
Latasha took an orange juice from the cooler and put it in her bag. On her way to pay for her drink, she looked at a few other things. To pay for the drink, Latasha took out two one-dollar bills from her pocket.
Latasha Accused of Trying to Steal Orange Juice
When Latasha walked up to the counter, Ja Du started to call her a bitch and say she was trying to steal the juice, which was seen by people in the store and on security footage. Then Ja Du grabbed her by the shirt and pulled her toward the counter. Harlins tried to get away but couldn’t, so she punched Jo Du, which threw her back and let her go. Then Ja Du threw a stool at Latasha, who had already left the shop.
Harlins had set the bottle on the counter, and the orange juice fell and broke on the floor.
Ja Du Sho*ots Latasha
Latasha had taken no more than a few steps away from the counter when Ja Du picked up a .38 caliber revolver and fired, sh*ooting Latasha in the back of the head at a distance of 3-ft. away. She died instantly.
Ja Du’s husband sat outside in the couple’s van when he heard the sh*ots. He ran inside and witnessed Latasha dead on the floor. His wife told him that she tried to rob her. He called 9-1-1.
Surveillance footage captured of the tragic sho*oting:
Ja Du Arrested
The police caught Ja Du. She told them she was scared for her life when Latasha walked up to the bar because she thought she was going to steal the juice. She said that over the years, a lot of things had been stolen at the market. Ja Du revealed that she had changed the trigger on the gun so that it didn’t fire very hard.
A year later, angry residents burned down Korean-owned businesses as they protested in front of Emprir Market in honor of Latasha. This was after the judge in her manslaughter case overturned the conviction and gave her k*iller, Ja Du, probation plus 400 hours of community service instead of the original 10-year sentence that had been given. The highest sentence that was asked for was 16 years in prison.
Empire Market was one of the stores that burned down that day.
Racial Tensions in L.A.
At this point, there were a lot of racial issues between Black Americans and Korean Americans who owned stores. People who lived in the poor area thought the business owners were rude and raised prices too much. Also, the shop owners wouldn’t hire anyone who was Black.
At the same time, Operation Hammer was going on in Los Angeles. This was a plan to question people who were thought to be members of a gang. There were 83 claims against the LAPD for using too much force against these suspected criminals from 1980 to 1990. More than $15,000 was given out by the city.
It was racism and unfair treatment of Black Americans in Los Angeles that led to the LA Riots of April 1992.
Who Was Latasha Harlins?
As of January 1, 1976, Latasha was born in East Saint Louis, Illinois. She was the daughter of Crystal Harlins and Sylvester Acoff Sr. Vester Jr. was her younger brother, and Christina was her younger sister.
She moved to South Central Los Angeles with her family when she was 6 years old, in 1981. Her dad worked at a steel factory and her mom ran a pub in the area. Vester beat his wife in front of their children and was mean to her. In 1983, they got a divorce.
Soon after, terrible things happened to the Harlins family.
Crystal Harlins M*urdered by New Girlfriend
After four years, Crystal, Latasha’s mother, was kil*led outside of a bar by Vester’s new girlfriend, Cora Mae Anderson. Latasha moved in with Ruth, her grandma.
It was her dream to be a doctor, and she loved basketball. Latasha was very upset when her mother died, and she started to act out and protest.
Latasha went to high school at Westchester.
At the Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs, California, she was buried next to her mother.
Never Forget Latasha Harlins
The tragic end to Latasha’s life is memorialized through son lyrics and dedications and documentaries, including “A Love Song for Latasha,” available on Netflix.
Rapper Tupac Shakur mentioned Latasha in many of his songs, including “White Man’z World,” “I Wonder if Heavan’s Got a Ghetto,” and “Hellrazor.”
Tell me, what’s a black life worth? A bottle of juice isn’t an excuse; the truth hurts.
“Little girl like Latasha had to die. Please hear me, Lord. Tell me why.” The little girl never saw the bullet; she only heard it. Her body couldn’t handle it; it shook and fell. When I saw on the news that she sucked up a girl and kil*led Latasha, I finally lost it.
During an interview before his dea*th, Tupac said:
“Y’all know how bad it is out there. Y’all watch the news how I watch the news,” he once said. “It’s all these little kids dying. The world’s just bugged out. It’s not like how we remember it … I remember a lot of problems, but it wasn’t as bad as it is now for the younger generation. We have to be more compassionate.”
My condolences to the entire Harlins family. Rest easy, Latasha. #NeverForget