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The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots

The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots

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Reprinted from The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots by Brenda Stevenson with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © Brenda E. Stevenson 2013
Reprinted from The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots by Brenda Stevenson with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © Brenda E. Stevenson 2013

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Published by: scprweb on Aug 26, 2013
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The Decedent
e autopsy report was devastatingly clear: “
e decedent,Latasha Harlins, died as a result of having sustained a gunshotwound .
. to the back of the head.
. .
e entry wound was
 inches below the top of the head.
. .
e exit wound .
. is
 inch from the mid line of the back of the head.”
 Latasha Harlins was
years old when Soon Ja Du shot her.She died shortly therea
er, face down on the
oor of her localconvenience store, the Empire Liquor Market located at
 South Figueroa Street in South Central Los Angeles. On thatday, Latasha became part of a gruesome national statistic:
 of homicide victims are female. Still, Latasha’s murder wasunusual—only about
African American girls her age, out of every 
, were killed that year.
e police investigators found two one-dollar bills crum-pled in Latasha’s hand.
e elastic band of the UCLA Bruins capshe wore that morning broke when the bullet passed through it.Paramedics ripped open the front of her multicolored blouse,searching for a heart beat. Blood seeping from her head stainedthe back of her shirt and jacket, eventually reaching her bluepants. Blouse, pants, cap—seemingly ordinary, casual clothingfor a teenaged girl to wear on a Saturday morning. But on thatday—March
—the ordinary became extraordinary.Store owner Soon Ja Du testi
ed that her son Joseph had told
The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins
her about people who wore clothes like Latasha’s: they were, accordingto him, gang members and dangerous. Latashas clothes, her age, and thecolor of her skin made her, in Du’s estimation, an “other” who was notto be trusted, but who was to be feared. Du’s perception of Harlins as aracial and/or ethnic stranger as it were, also resonates with nationalhomicide statistics.
ree out of ten homicides are interracial when the victim is a “stranger.” Most “stranger homicides” also involve a gun.
 Latasha Lavon Harlins was born on January 
, at the ChristianWelfare Hospital in East St. Louis, Illinois, the
rst daughter of 
-year-old Crystal Harlins.
e Harlins family, led by Crystal’s mother Ruth,had been in East St. Louis since the late
ey were an extendedfamily, with at least three, sometimes four, generations living together.Latasha, her mother, her two younger siblings named Vester, Jr. andChristina,
along with Sylvester Aco
, father of Latasha’s siblings, joinedRuth Harlins in Los Angeles in
Denise and Shinese, Latasha’smaternal aunt and
rst cousin moved from Atlanta to join the family in
. Richard Brown (a.k.a. Harlins), her maternal uncle, also lived inthe home.
is is the story of Latasha Harlins. It explores her tragic life in LosAngeles, her family, her community, and the forces—historical, polit-ical, economic, cultural, legal, and criminal—which shaped who shewas, how she behaved, what she thought, and what happened to her onthat morning in the late winter of 
that ended her life.
e homicide detectives on the scene seized Latasha’s backpack,along with its contents—a jar of cream, a pair of female underpants, atoothbrush, some other toiletry items, and a few other articles—as evi-dence.
e police took photos of her dead body and then walked fromhouse to house in the working-class neighborhood near the site of theshooting, trying to get a positive identi
cation of the murdered youth.Neighbors kept pointing them toward one apartment building, then toone apartment in particular leased by Ruth Harlins. Denise Harlins,Ruth’s daughter, opened the door and spoke to the policemen. As hisdescription of what happened to Latasha wa
ed backward and
lled theroom with unexpected dread, grandmother Ruth collapsed. Shinesewent screaming through their home.
e dead girl was not only hercousin, but also her best friend and roommate; Latasha had borrowedShinese’s lime-green backpack with a clock on the front when she le
home the previous evening. Soon Ja Du later testi
ed that she was cer-tain Latasha had a weapon in that clock-faced backpack. She was certainLatasha had a weapon that she was going to use to kill her.
e policerecovered no such weapon.
een is a di
cult age for most girls, particularly for one growingup without her mother or father and coming of age in South Central inthe early 
s. Certainly Latasha, or ’Tasha as friends and family calledher, had a family that loved her. Her grandmother Ruth had risked a lotto take in Latasha and her two siblings when their mother Crystal waskilled and their father disappeared. Her aunt Denise also was in thehome with her. Latasha had the support, comradeship, and a
ection of her cousin Shinese and the rest of the Harlins clan in Los Angeles aswell. Still, her short life had been hard and painful.
e toll it took showed—Latasha seemed something of a loner and o
en was very quiet.But no one expected her untimely death or the alleged reasons Du gavefor it.
e Harlins family has never been able to understand why Duthought Latasha had a weapon in her backpack with which she intendedto kill the shopkeeper.“’Tasha was just very quiet and very shy. She didn’t hang with many people. And she was hard, you could tell. You didn’t mess with her. Shewas like in her own world,” a friend from her middle school recalled.JonSandy Campbell also remembered that she, ’Tasha, and two othergirls, Tunisia and Sandra, would spend their lunch time at Bret HartePreparatory Middle School talking about clothes, boys, and especially music. “She was a good dancer. Her favorite group was BBD [Bell Biv Devoe].
. . We were all kind of outsiders, you know. I came to the schoolnew that year so I didn’t know anyone; but she had been there. We gottogether because we were both alone and very quiet.
JonSandy realizedthat Latasha too was an outsider, but she never really understood why.She had no idea that Latashas mother had been killed a few years earlier,and that she had never emotionally recovered from the loss.’Tasha never talked about her family or any of her problems—none of that. We were just silly girls, sitting around talkingabout music, gossiping about people at the school, you know how girls talk. She didn’t think she was pretty, but I thought shewas cute. She was dark complexioned. She always wore her hair

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