It was a Saturday morning on March 16, 1991. 15-year-old Latasha Harlins walked into a store a few minutes from her home in South-Central Los Angeles to buy a bottle of orange juice.
Harlins, a student at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, California, picked up the $1.79 bottle of orange juice and put it into her backpack, where it jutted out from the top.
She subsequently walked towards the counter to pay for the juice but the store owner, Korean-born Soon Ja Du who thought Harlins was attempting to steal the juice, yelled: “You bitch, you are trying to steal my orange juice,” an eyewitness later narrated.
Harlins then lifted her hand, showing two dollar bills she had. She explained that she was about to pay for the juice but 51-year-old Du didn’t take that. Instead, she grabbed Harlins by the sweater, and the two started fighting.
Harlins, in order to break free, struck Du in the face four times and knocked her down. The 15-year-old then picked up the fruit juice which had fallen and placed it on the counter.
She began to walk away. That was when Du reached under the counter to retrieve a handgun. She fired at 15-year-old Harlins from behind at a distance of about three feet, shot her in the back of her head, killing her instantly, reports Blackthen.
Harlins died with the two dollars in her left hand. Her death would spark riots in L.A. a year later as hundreds of Korean-owned businesses would be torched by protesters.
It is important to note that years before her death, L.A. had its own issues. Accounts state that racial tensions at the time were high, particularly between local Korean store owners and their black customers who frequently complained about surcharges.
Black people were also finding it difficult to acquire jobs in these stores.
Born on July 14, 1975, in St. Louis, Illinois, Harlins was only six years old when her family moved to South-Central L.A. by Greyhound bus.
Four years after, her mother was shot dead in an L.A. nightclub, leaving Harlins and her two siblings in the care of their grandmother.
On the day Harlins was shot dead, her grandmother had warned her not to step foot in that store – Empire Liquor – due to the treatment its owners meted out to black customers.
Following her killing, storeowner Du was taken into custody, where she later claimed self-defense, adding that she felt her life was in danger.
In court, a jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter and recommended the maximum prison sentence of 16 years.
But white Judge Joyce Karlin gave Du probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. She was then released.
“This system of justice is not really justice,” Harlins’ grandmother said outside the courtroom.
Tension immediately began brewing in the neighborhood but things got worse in April of 1992. Four police officers who had brutally beaten a black man named Rodney King some weeks before Harlin’s death were freed by a white-dominant jury.
That was when black folks in L.A. felt enough was enough.
“The streets erupted in protests and riots, fire and gunshots. For five days, southern L.A. burned, and the LAPD left the area to fend for itself. Residents shouted Latasha Harlins’ name as they torched Korean-owned businesses — including Soon Ja Du’s own Empire Liquor,” according to an article on ati.
By the time the riots ended, over 50 people had lost their lives. More than 2,000 were also injured while the city was left with $1 billion in damages, records showed.
Following the riots, two of the officers who beat King were made to serve time in prison but Harlins never got justice.
Today, she is not only remembered for the 1992 L.A. riots but in some of the tracks by legendary rapper Tupac Shakur.
In fact, Tupac dedicated his song, ‘Keep Ya Head Up,’ to Harlins.