Before Trayvon Martin, before Jordan Davis, before Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Michael Brown and Yvette Smith and Walter Scott and so many others who’ve fueled the Black Lives Matter movement as of late, there was Latasha Harlins, the South Central Los Angeles teen who’s senseless murder was one of the catalysts for the L.A. Riots.
In 1991, Harlins was just 15-years-old when she was shot in the back of the head after a brief altercation with a Korean store clerk. While the merchant accused the teen of trying to steal a bottle of orange, police concluded there “no attempt at shoplifting.” The entire scene–the argument with the shopkeeper, and the shot to the head–was caught on grainy surveillance footage and broadcast on the news, pushing an already tense city even closer to an explosion.
Seeing Harlins’ execution on TV would stay with me for my entire life. As a young girl living in South Central less than a mile from both the scene of Harlins’ murder and the epicenter of the riots, Harlins’ death felt incredibly personal. Harlins and my older brother attended the same high school, and at the time, I remember thinking he or I could have easily met a similar fate, gunned down by a shopkeeper who viewed us suspiciously because we were Black and from the ‘hood. The incident would only further become etched in my mind when Harlins’ killer avoided prison, which only fueled my budding awareness about the unfairness of the justice system.
Like many Black female crime victims, Harlins’ story and her life is often forgotten, save for a mention in a handful of songs.
Yesterday, on the 25th anniversary of her death, Harlins’ family gathered to remember the teen’s life.
“She represents so many that are not here that would have been something to somebody,” Harlins aunt, Denise Harlins, said during the vigil.
Her sister, Christine Harlins, said Latasha’s death was still “devastating for our family.”
After Harlins’ death, Soon Ja Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a crime that could have resulted in a 16-year prison sentence. However, a judge sentenced Du to five years probation, fueling racial tensions throughout the city.
These days, things have calmed down in Los Angeles, but with the growing movement to protect Black lives from state and race-based violence, Harlins’ aunt Denise said people need to come together.
“We got all this racism, hate going on. People getting pitted against each other,” she said. “Please don’t believe the hype. Support one another, all nationalities. Because we’re going to need it.”