In the matter of Latasha Harlins: A Regrettably Late Apology
The murder of Latasha Harlins stands as one of the most shameful acts committed in Korean American history. On the morning of March 16, 1991, at Empire Liquor Market on 9127 S. Figueroa Street in South Central Los Angeles, Soon Ja Du stole the promising life of an innocent child through an act of senseless and racially-motivated gun violence.
Latasha’s grandmother Ruth had warned her not to shop at the Du’s store, which was only a few blocks from their home. Latasha’s Uncle Richard had worked there and found the Dus to be rude to both their customers and their Black employees, suspicious everyone was stealing from them – among other racially-charged offenses. He stated, “They fired me because I refused to work overtime…And [Billy Du] said, ‘You supposed to work for free, do what Black people are supposed to do.’ And I looked at him, stamped my foot, and said, ‘No, I’m not working for free.’ And he said, ‘Fine, go home.’ So I went home” (1). The Du family understood their relative privilege within America’s racial hierarchy, and they exhibited pointedly antiblack behavior on multiple occasions.
Although, as Korean Americans, the Dus were viewed as affluent “model minorities”, Empire Liquor was not a particularly lucrative or safe business. The store had been burglarized thrice, and the owners’ son Joseph Du was being threatened by gang members of the Main Street Crips against whom he had previously testified in court. Soon Ja’s husband Billy Du met with gang members in hopes of resolving the conflict but was unsuccessful: the gang members had requested employment, but Billy refused to hire them. Further amplifying this tension was a 1990 drive-by shooting wherein witnesses sought refuge in the store but were ejected by Billy, resulting in one of them getting shot and dying. Local residents considered the Dus to be callous and unkind.
On a sunny Saturday morning, Latasha Harlin’s friend, with whom she had stayed the night before and who was not welcome in the Du’s store, dropped her off at Empire Liquor Market. Latasha headed straight for the refrigerator section to make her selection. She chose a small carton of orange juice, which cost only $1.79, and put it in her backpack to carry home. When she approached the cash register, Latasha held two dollars in her hand, but shopkeeper Soon Ja Du accused her of stealing the juice. Although Latasha attempted to place the money on the counter, Du seized the young girl by her sweater and backpack. Predictably, a scuffle ensued. Frustrated but maturely retaining composure, Latasha left the juice on the counter and turned to walk away. Soon Ja Du then drew her gun and fired a single shot into the back of Latasha’s head, killing her.
In court, Du claimed the 15-year-old looked like a gang member. She claimed that she feared for her life, despite video footage, witness testimony, and physical evidence showing this could not have possibly been the case, and she took advantage of existing racial and societal prejudices to evade punishment for her crime by painting the teenaged girl as a vicious criminal. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Deeply affected by the slaying of her mother Crystal when she was only nine years old, Latasha cried “every time [she] passed a local cemetery” (2). ‘Tasha was “very quiet and very shy” (2). At the time of her death, she was attending Westchester High School. Although she cut classes and her grades were poor, she was intelligent: in middle school, she was on the honor roll. “Her inner circle described her as the girl who was always smiling that ‘beautiful smile” (3). She was described by her peers as “real attractive…with a nice figure…really cute and she had a lot of boyfriends” (3). Her nickname was “Lil Gizmo”, a reference to the furry, loveable Mogwai from the popular movie Gremlins (3). Latasha’s high school rebellions were mild and included “staying out after dark. It wasn’t big like getting a hole in her nose or a tattoo. ‘Tasha wasn’t like that” (4). Her peers thought of her as a “protector” and “pillar” of her community (5). She had a family who loved her dearly, including an Aunt Denise who fought tirelessly for justice for Latasha until her own death.
Latasha Harlins should not have died. As Koreans, whose ancestors endured the trauma of Japanese colonization and whose families survived the Korean War, we are all too familiar with the anguish of ethnic oppression and systemic violence and with grief over injustice. In fact, we have a word for this: han. After Latasha’s death, many Korean Americans publicly condemned Soon Ja Du’s actions and donated “Gifts of Love” to the Harlins family. Korean community leaders worked with Brotherhood Crusade President Danny Bakewell to issue a “Merchants Code of Ethics”, hopefully facilitating greater cooperation between Korean small business owners and the Black communities they served. However, we failed to steadfastly protest alongside the Black community for the maximum sentencing of Du, and, in this way, we failed to demonstrate that we believe Black Lives Matter. Not only should we have condemned Du’s deplorable crime as an act of racism that should be punished to the fullest extent, but we should have centered our efforts around erasing anti-blackness in the Korean American community. Instead, driven by a fear of being further condemned as unwelcome and dangerous foreigners, we denied that racism played any role in Latasha’s death. In doing so, we inadvertently upheld a system of white supremacy that relies upon our hostility towards each other as people of color. Moreover, we unraveled the fragile camaraderie that Black and Korean community leaders in Los Angeles had been working together to build for half a decade.
We, Korean Americans, issue this apology today because we want to stand on the right side of history. We acknowledge that we cannot right our wrongs until after we admit having done them, and, furthermore, we realize that nothing can ever bring back Latasha. Nearly thirty years after Latasha’s death and this miscarriage of justice, non-Black people, especially police, are still getting away with murdering Black people. As non-Black people, our silence and deflection indicates our consent to this practice and, therefore, implicates us in these heinous crimes, and we do not want to passively accept this genocide any longer. In honor of Latasha Harlins and all Black life, we, Korean Americans, promise to utilize our privilege for attaining justice and equality for all people but especially Black Americans who continue to endure overwhelmingly disproportionate racial injustice. We refuse to be accomplices and bystanders in the face of tragedy, and we pledge to raise up the voices of Black people and to support policies that respect, revere, and pursue restitution to Black lives. We will work to dismantle antiblack racism within ourselves and our own communities, and we will listen to and learn from the greater Black American community whose bravery, compassion, and determination has continuously compelled this country towards a more fair and equitable society. We will take action to protect Black people.
With our deepest sympathies and regret, we, the Korean American community, express our sincere remorse for the murder of Latasha Harlins and our failure to aggressively and overwhelmingly pursue justice on her behalf. Moreover, we are deeply regretful for the ways our actions upheld a despicable disregard for Black life. We are sorry for the pain caused by Latasha’s death, and especially, for the devastating grief this caused her family, her friends, and the larger Black community of America. Most of all, we are sorry that Latasha Harlins lost her young life.
We fully accept responsibility for the ways in which our ignorance, cowardice, apathy, and learned antiblackness widened the cultural divide between Black and Korean American communities. Our greatest hope is that we may make amends for these grave injustices and bring about increased equality and respect for Black life.
May we no longer be inhibited by the spectre of our past mistakes, and, together, may we build a life of true equality, liberty, and justice for all.
Rest in power, ‘Tasha.
1., 2., 3., 4.: Stevenson, Brenda E. The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots. Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 70, 46, 50, 51.
5. The Dope Years:The Untold Story of Latasha Harlins. IndieGoGo, https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-dope-years-the-untold-story-of-latasha-harlins–2#. Accessed 20 May 2020. “Who is Latasha Harlins?”.