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. 

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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.

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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.

The public’s access to the footage, before the days of widespread Internet access, gave Latasha’s shooting and the King beating a sense of immediacy that was akin to what was experienced by the generation that first saw Emmett Till’s bloated and mutilated body in the pages of Jet magazine in 1955. Videos of both events circulated on local and national news broadcasts in ways that carried the same gravity of the televised images of young civil rights activists being hosed on Southern streets. As then-Deputy District Attorney Roxane Carvajal asserted before the opening of Du’s trial, “This is not television. This is not the movies. This is real life … You will see Latasha being killed. She will die in front of your eyes,” her comments anticipating reality television—MTV’s The Real World launched weeks after the so-called L.A. Riots—and social media.

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It can be argued that our immediate access to these images of anti-black violence has desensitized us to such violence, and such arguments have long been made about the violence that some witness every day in their communities, whether in the Middle East or Chicago. Social media has also allowed us to take the everyday micro-aggressions that we have long survived—and have created playful strategies to resist—and to elevate those strategies to digital protests.

Yet much remains the same. As Stevenson writes, “Judge Karlin and Soon Ja Du … shared similar ideals about appropriate gender behavior for females, and those ideals excluded Latasha.” Although the images of black women and girls circulate in radically different ways than they did 20 years ago—in no small part because of the role of corporate media in overrepresenting and distorting the pathologies of black life—there remains little space for black girls to be children and black women to be … human. In this regard, it is conceivable that Soon Ja Du saw Latasha Harlins no more clearly than Theodore Paul Wafer would see Renisha McBride two decades later.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

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Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter