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Killed over a $1.79 carton of juice

On 16 March 1991, a young black teenager named Latasha Harlins was dropped off at the corner store near her home in South Central Los Angeles. The shop’s name was Empire Liquor, on the intersection of 91st street and Figueroa Ave, and she was there to pick up some orange juice for her family.

Harlins walked into the store and pulled a carton from the fridge. It cost $US1.79. She placed the juice in her bag and fished out $2 to pay for the item and walked to the register.

Moments later she would be dead – shot point blank in the head and killed instantly by the owner of the store, who claimed that she was convinced Harlins was stealing the juice. Harlins was 15 years old. She was found with the money in her hand.

Harlins’ death, just weeks after the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, sparked outcry among the African American community in California. These two incidents were the fuel that sparked the flame of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, six days of protests and unrest that swept the city, as young Black men and women demanded that their lives and their safety no longer be ignored, almost 30 years before the reckoning of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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But despite high profile media coverage at the time, like her inclusion in a Tupac Shakur song begging for justice, Harlins’ name has largely been forgotten. On September 21, though, Netflix will release the documentary A Love Song For Latasha, a short film that celebrates Latasha’s life and delves deep into her legacy.

Originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the documentary film is an intimate and moving portrait of a young woman whose life was cut all too short, telling the true story of Latasha Harlins for a new audience.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO LATASHA HARLINS?

When Latasha Harlins walked into Empire Liquor on the morning of 16 March 1991, owner Soon Ja Du was serving two other customers. Her husband Billy Du, who had worked late the previous evening, was sleeping in a car outside.

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According to eyewitness testimony, Harlins picked up a carton of orange juice and proceeded to the register to pay. She had the money in her hand. But when she got there, Du claimed that Harlins had attempted to steal the juice. She called Harlins a “b***h”, asking her to pay for her drink.

“What orange juice?” Harlins responded. It was then that Du grabbed Harlins by her shirt, trying to wrestle the juice from her backpack. Harlins fought back and hit Du twice, causing her to fall backwards.

Later, while on trial for manslaughter in court, Du testified that Harlins threatened to kill her and that she feared for her life. So she reached for a gun. At that point, Harlins put the orange juice on the counter, but Du knocked it away.

Harlins turned away to leave and it was then that Du shot her in the head. She died instantly, the money in her hand. Du’s husband rushed into the store and called 911, reporting the case as an attempted robbery.

LATASHA HARLINS CCTV FOOTAGE

All of this was captured on grainy security video, footage that was circulated widely after Harlins’ death and played during the manslaughter trial against Du, causing members of the jury to gasp when they saw it unfold.

The event was also witnessed by two key individuals: Lakeisha Combs, 13, and Ismail Ali, 9, who happened to be in the store at the time. It was their testimony as eyewitnesses that ended up proving the most devastating. While Du maintained that she killed Harlins in self-defence, claiming in court testimony that she feared for her life, Combs and Ali’s statements showed differently.

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Alongside the security camera video, which painted a damning picture of the incident for the members of the jury, Combs and Ali’s statements revealed that Harlins never attempted to shoplift from Du’s store. That she had money in her hand to pay for the juice. That she was a 15 year old girl just trying to get home. That she had turned to leave the shop, leaving the juice on the counter, when she was shot. Ultimately, the Los Angeles police concluded that “no attempt at shoplifting” had been made.

HOW SOON JA DU ESCAPED JAIL

Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. This is a crime that carries jail time – a maximum of 16 years of it, in fact. But the judge presiding over the case, Joyce Karlin, ignored the recommendation from the jury and sentenced Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service and fined her the sum of $500.

According to Judge Karlin, Du reacted inappropriately but, according to her, in an “understandable” manner. Du’s store had been the target of thieves before, Karlin argued. Her response was, therefore, “understandable”.

“This is not a time for revenge,” the judge urged.

The fact that Du was given not a single day of jail time caused immediate outrage. “When I heard the sentence, I screamed, fell to my knees and cried. I just couldn’t believe it, I must have died and went to hell,” Latasha’s aunt Denise Harlins has said.

It was Denise who spearheaded campaigns to protest outside Judge Karlin’s house, and held vigils for her niece ever year on the anniversary of Du’s sentencing – outside Du’s house. When Karlin eventually resigned from legal life, Denise celebrated. “She didn’t belong [on the bench] anyway,” she said at the time.

THE AFTERMATH OF LATASHA’S DEATH

Empire Liquor became a target for protests. In August 1991, a small fire broke out just before the trial kicked off. Then in 1992, during the Los Angeles riots, the building was burnt down and never reopened.

Across the city, and particularly in the South Central area where Korean businesses were predominantly based, tension between Black and Korean communities ran high. In the 1992 riots, some 2200 Korean businesses were vandalised, leading to US$400 million in damages, according to research.

“The Latasha Harlins incident made it absolutely clear that Korean Americans are not spectators to the unfolding American racial drama, nor bystanders,” Edward J.W. Park, an Asian American studies professor at Loyola Marymount University told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “They were now intimately and inextricably implicated.”

Almost 30 years later, and the story of Harlins’ death still shocks. This is partly because, despite Harlins’ family continuing to agitate for justice, awareness and societal change, her name has faded from the headlines.

There are many people who have never heard about the tragedy that happened at the Empire Liquor corner store on the morning of 16 March 1991. A Love Song For Latasha hopes to put the name Latasha Harlins back in the spotlight again and to tell her story to a new generation. Pieced together from interviews with her family and friends, the documentary is a reminder of who Harlins was, and how much life she had left to live.

“Origins matter, and it’s important for people who may be familiar with the LA uprising of 1992 to under that it was really a Black girl’s murder that did all of that,” UCLA professor Marcus Anthony Hunter told Teen Vogue. “Black girls deserve compassion when telling their stories.”

A Love Song For Latasha streams on Netflix from 21 September.

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