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Latasha Harlins' death and why Korean-Americans were targets in the '92 riots




A picture of teenager Latasha Harlins, who was killed in South L.A. in 1991.
A picture of teenager Latasha Harlins, who was killed in South L.A. in 1991.
Screenshot via KNBC report

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The 1992 Los Angeles Riots began with a disturbance at a liquor store near West Florence and Normandie avenues in South Los Angeles.

That's not a coincidence.

A year before the verdict in the Rodney King case, another liquor store only 7 minutes away attracted the wrath of a neighborhood. It was a major reason why Korean-Americans believed they were targeted during the 1992 unrest — the death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins at the hands of a Korean-American in 1991.

Empire Liquor was a nondescript, blocky white store owned by the Du family near West 91st and South Figueroa streets.

Tensions had been building for years between blacks who lived in South L.A. and Korean-Americans who, like the Dus, ran businesses there.

"Korean-Americans said that African-Americans shoplifted and were dangerous customers," said UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson, author of "The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins." "African-Americans accused Korean-Americans of being racist."

It was Saturday morning, March 16, 1991, when a friend dropped Harlins off at the store following a night out.

"Latasha was coming to buy some orange juice to take home to her family," Stevenson recounted.

Harlins lived just a 5-minute walk away.

"Although her grandmother asked her not to come here, because the store had a reputation — that, as the owners — for accusing neighborhood children of stealing," Stevenson said.

Empire Liquor in South L.A., 1991. Teenager Latasha Harlins was killed by store owner Soon Ja Du. The store never reopened after Harlins' death.
Empire Liquor in South L.A., 1991. Teenager Latasha Harlins was killed by store owner Soon Ja Du. The store never reopened after Harlins' death.
Screenshot via KNBC report

But Harlins didn’t have much choice. The store was one of the few places in the area to get groceries.

So she went to the fridge and put some juice in her backpack. It cost $1.79 back then.

Soon Ja Du, the matriarch of the family that ran the store, was working the cash register.

Harlins approached Du with $2 in her hand.

"But she doesn’t have an opportunity to present the money because as soon as she gets to the counter, Soon Ja Du asks her if she’s trying to steal from her," Stevenson said.

Du, herself, had been on edge. Her family ran several stores, but she rarely worked at this location.

Her son had recently testified in court against gang members in the area because they were stealing from the store and harassing staff, so Du had taken over for him that morning.

Believing that Harlins was stealing from her, too, Du reached over the counter to grab at her backpack.

"And so, you know, a fight ensues," Stevenson said.

Harlins pushed Du back.

But Du got up and tried to grab at Harlins’ backpack again, only to be knocked over one more time.

"When [Du] comes up the second time, she’s got a gun in her hand," Stevenson said. "Then, as Latasha turns around to walk out of the store, she shoots Latasha."

Point blank in the back of the head.

Harlins' body lay motionless in a pool of blood. When the police arrived on the scene, they found $2 in her hand.

(Warning: Graphic content)

Security footage from the March 16, 1991, shooting of Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du at Empire Liquor. (Courtesy: KNBC)

Harlins' death, and how Korean-Americans became 'the problem'

Months later in November of that same year, Soon Ja Du was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. But the sentence was light: five years probation.

"The girl was killed and essentially murdered without provocation," said Larry Aubry, an African-American who, in the '90s, was working in his South L.A. community to build bridges with Korean-Americans.

But at the time all he heard from African-Americans was anger.

"They called it a criminal injustice system," he said.

Korean-Americans, meanwhile, had a different take.

"People said that shop owner Mrs. Du was an individual who made a grave mistake," said Angela Oh, a Korean-American civil rights attorney who was working with her own community at the time. "People also prayed for the well-being of the family of the teenager who had been killed."

But they did not see themselves in the middle of a race war.

"They did not see themselves as potential targets," she said.

Korean immigrants and Korean-Americans started businesses in South L.A. because real estate there was cheap and was one of the few places they could afford.

But they did not arrive knowing the country’s racial past. They did not know about the historic struggles of African-Americans.

So in the decades leading up to this moment, Korean-Americans were unaware of how they became part of that struggle too.

Police quell looters and fires near 924 S Vermont Ave in Koreatown on April 29th, 1992. Few Koreans received help from the city in rebuilding their stores after the riots.
Police quell looters and fires near 924 S Vermont Ave in Koreatown on April 29th, 1992. Few Koreans received help from the city in rebuilding their stores after the riots.
Mae Ryan/KPCC with archival photo by Gary Leonard

But blacks did, Aubry said, and they had a grudge.

"That’s the broader context in which all of this occurred," he said.

African-Americans saw opportunity pass them by.

Many weren’t able to gather up the money or secure a loan to start a business, yet here were Korean-Americans moving to the neighborhood who could.

"And they didn’t hire black people, either, for the most part," Aubry added.

When Latasha Harlins was killed in 1991 and Soon Ja Du got probation, blacks saw it as another example of injustice.

"There’s no question that Latasha Harlins fed right into the community's negative feelings about law enforcement and how black people are treated," he said.

So that anger and frustration simmered before exploding on April 29, 1992, with Harlins’ case at the back of rioters' minds.

That's why Angela Oh thinks the unrest eventually moved from South L.A. to Koreatown.

"Well, the name Koreatown," she said. "There were a lot of things that identified Koreans as the problem."

That's despite that it was the LAPD and city government on trial in the Rodney King case.

"[Rioters] didn’t try to set fire to any state, municipal or federal building. It didn’t happen!" Oh said. "They went after small businesses owned by immigrant families who had a foreign face."

"The Korean thing gets mixed up in the whole thing with law enforcement," Aubry said. "They perceived them as enemies on one side." 

The liquor store where Latasha Harlins died never reopened after her death.

The former site of Empire Liquor is now a Latino grocery store.
The former site of Empire Liquor is now a Latino grocery store.
Leo Duran/KPCC

It was a shell of a building for years before a Mexican grocery store took it over in the early 2000s.

Angela Oh said Korean-Americans would ask her afterwards, "What have we done? We didn’t do anything wrong?"

The Harlins case and Empire Liquor is the answer, and it had just as much to do with the riots as the anger over Rodney King’s beating.