A Fallen Black Girl: Remembering Latasha Harlins

The 1991 grocery-store shooting of the 15-year-old, which Brenda Stevenson recounts in her new book, haunts the present-day story of Renisha McBride’s tragic death.

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Latasha Harlins Shooting at Empire Liquors
The Empire Liquors grocery store where Latasha Harlins was killed in 1991

Latasha Harlins would not live long enough to witness the birth of Twitter or the era of the hashtag. Yet it’s difficult not to summon her name—or her story—amid hashtag memorials for another dead black girl, 19-year-old Renisha McBride, who was shot in the face earlier this month after knocking on a door in suburban Detroit.

Latasha, age 15, was shot in the back of her head by grocery-store owner Soon Ja Du two weeks after the infamous Rodney King beating in 1991. It happened during a dispute at Du’s South-Central Los Angeles store and ended with Latasha lying dead on the ground with a $1.79 bottle of orange juice sitting on the counter and two crumpled dollar bills in her hand. The memory of Latasha’s shooting eerily haunts the present as we confront the recent death of McBride, whose shooter claims self-defense.

As UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson observes in her new book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots, much about Latasha’s life and death is all too familiar. As Du testified during her murder trial, in Latasha she didn’t see a black girl who loved BBD—the around-the-way girl with the “New Edition Bobby Brown button” on her sleeve that LL Cool J once lovingly observed. Rather, per Du’s teenage son, what she saw instead was a “gang member.”

Latasha’s sartorial choices—described by a friend in Stevenson’s book as “blue dickies, a white T-shirt, and a black hoodie, always the black hoodie”—reflected her desire, no doubt, to simply fit in. As another friend of hers recalled, “Tasha was just very quiet and shy ... And she was hard, you could tell. You didn’t mess with her. She was like in her own world.” None of which suggests that she deserved to die on a Saturday morning in a grocery store doubling as a liquor store, in her own neighborhood.

It is conventional wisdom that the dramatic deaths of black women and girls simply don’t inspire the spirit of agitation that many might recall in the invocation of the names “Emmett Till” or “Trayvon Martin.” And to be sure, we’d be hard-pressed to think of a black woman or girl who resonates in our collective psyche the way Emmett and Trayvon do. 

Emmett and Trayvon were middle-class boys who we believed would become solid citizens, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Latasha might be forgotten in the shadow of the case in which four L.A. police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King. Yet Latasha became the catalyst for the most sustained example of black rage since the Watts insurrections of 1965. 

Stevenson reminds us that when the phrase “No justice, no peace!” became the anthem of the insurrections that set Los Angeles afire in April of 1992, “Rodney King was not the symbol of injustice that catalyzed the protest: Latasha Harlins was. Indeed the uprising’s slogan ... was chanted by protesters at the Empire Liquor Market immediately after Latasha was killed, a full year before ... ”

How, then, was it that the death of this 15-year-old black girl was able to inspire the level of collective response that she did? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that Latasha’s murder, despite our collective memories about anti-black violence, was a rarity.

Given that the vast majority of homicides occur within a single racial group, and the majority of females are killed by males, Stevenson notes, “Harlins’ death at the hands of Du was quite unusual. Harlins’ shooting challenged the Black-White divide that often accompanies narratives of anti-Black violence. Du was not only Korean born, but also a woman, as was Judge [Joyce] Karlin, who presided over Du’s trial, and eventually sentenced her to ‘no further jail time.’ ”

Equally rare, according to Stevenson, was that at the time, homicides of black girls in Latasha’s age group (14 to 17) represented less than .01 percent of the murder rate in 1991. That we know so well, today, the examples of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Hadiya Pendleton and Renisha McBride—during an era when, overall, black-youth homicides have declined since the late 1980s—speaks volumes about the surreal nature of their deaths as well as our ability to access and share information about such violence.

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