By Duchess of Hackney

Hackney livin' n lovin'. Sarky frosty knickers always gobby, and perpetually pissed off for good reasons. Wind up merchant extraordinaire, but a nice old fashioned unusually unusual gal... Writing lots of wrongs.

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Trayvon Martin and the killing of Latasha Harlins

Trayvon Martin and the killing of Latasha Harlins


A tweet from Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin after the verdict.


The verdict is in and George Zimmerman was found NOT GUILTY.  It came as no surprise to me in the early hours of Sunday morning as I watched it announced live.  Florida just legalized lynching.

Again, American justice proves just as in the UK, Black males are expendable and their lives cheap.  But are you surprised? Remember it took an out cry from the Black Community, black bloggers and social media to bring Trayvon Martins killing to the attention of the authorities and main stream media and then it was 6 weeks before Zimmerman was arrested.

Regardless of the job the prosecution did, they were doomed from the start, first by not having the lesser charge for the jury to go with and second, the psyche that pervades  so much of America. Those five white and one Hispanic women, were going to set Zimmerman free after killing a teenager. Millions of words have been written about Trayvon, the trial and George Zimmerman’s acquittal and there’s little left for me to say, but it’s important pressure is kept up on the Justice Department to see this through.


Latasha Harlins

The killing of Trayvon Martin brought back memories of  the killing of another Black child, this time in South Central Los Angeles. The killing of 15 year old Latasha Harlins by a Korean convenience storekeeper on March 16 1991, is especially poignant because an acquaintance of mine, the late Gina Rae, a local LA activist was very active in the fight for justice following Latasha’s killing.

Gina was amongst some of the first people I was introduced to, when I moved to Los Angeles in the 1980’s. She was probably old enough to be my mother and although we had two mutual friends, we moved in different circles but I always had a quiet respect for her.

The morning Latasha was killed, she had walked into the Empire Liquor Market, in South Central LA, picked up a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, placed it on the tip of her  backpack, but had $2 in her hand to pay for her purchase.  The 51 year old storekeeper,  Soon Ja Du tried to grab Latasha by her sweater,  snatched her backpack and threw it behind the counter.  Understandably Latasha pounded her a few times with her fist,  knocking Soon Ja Du to the ground. As Latasha composed herself and backed away, Du threw a stool at her.

Latasha picked up the bottle of orange juice that ended up on the floor during the scuffle, placed it on the counter and was walking away when Du reached under her counter, retrieved her gun and shot Latasha 3 feet away in the back of her head. She died instantly with two $1 bills still in her hand.  Soon Ja Du crawled up on the checkout counter and looked down at Harlins body. Her husband who had been outside heard the shots, ran in and called emergency to report an attempted hold up.

Like Zimmerman, Du claimed self-defense, claiming she was in fear for her life. The Jury thought otherwise and found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Her testimony was blown after footage from the stores security camera was shown and witnesses gave evidence.

In the state of California ,Voluntary Manslaughter carries a maximum of 16 years, however Judge Joyce Karlin did the unbelievable. She sentenced Soon Ja Du to 5 years probation, four hundred hours of community service, and a $500 fine. Like George Zimmerman, she shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, but unlike Zimmerman, she was found guilty but she still walked free from the court house.

Brenda E Stevenson a history professor at UCLA whose research and publication include African American history  made an interesting observation in a paper she wrote for the The Journal of African American History, titled:  “Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin: A Case Study of Multicultural Female Violence and Justice on the Urban Frontier.”  In it she cites the following;

“This case, for example, points to the extraordinary power that affluent European American women have in their relationships with women of color, particularly poorer women of color. Moreover, it suggests that influential European American women, like their male counterparts, use their control, not only to distance themselves from these women, but also to configure the hierarchical terrain on which women of color interact. When faced with a crime that involved an aspiring middle-class Korean woman and a lower-class black girl, Judge Joyce Karlin imposed an hierarchial framework on the two women. This framework was meant to maintain the elite white hegemony in which she shared as well as to reward the woman who, because of her political ideology and cultural values, posed the least threat to that hegemony. Judge Karlin’s privileging of Soon Ja Du’s perspective reinforced Du’s social, legal, and moral power vis-a-vis Latasha Harlins. Through her sentencing, Karlin labeled Soon Ja Du’s lifestyle as appropriate, while chastising and criminalizing Harlins for behaving differently, for being different.

“The manner in which Joyce Karlin treated Harlins in the courtroom, just as Soon Ja Du had treated her in the storeroom, also underscores how popular, historic myths about race and gender inform interethnic/interracial female relations. This case reveals, for example, how much of society, even across class and ethnic lines, operates on the belief that Asian women are meek and deferential and that black women and girls are aggressive and violent. This revelation, in turn, exposed race and class as gendered social categories. Judge Karlin and Mrs. Du’s legal representatives effectively use Latasha Harlins’s race and class to deny her gender, to masculinize and criminalize her.”

Latasha’s murder was overshadowed by the Rodney King police beating which occurred two weeks before she died. Unlike King, her name is not ingrained in the psyche of Americans and no matter how much you search the internet, the only images that can be found are a grainy black and white scanned from a news paper or a blurry colour picture. Outside of Southern California it got little to no media attention. However when rioters set blaze to the streets of LA after the jury at a Simi Valley court acquitted 3 LAPD officers charged in the brutal beating of Rodney King, many believe it was also a delayed response to the killing of Latasha Harlins, and led to Korean owed businesses being destroyed, many burnt to the ground.

Her aunt, Denise Harlins vowed to fight for justice and keep her memory alive and along with Gina Rae, friends and supporters formed the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee. They held annual vigils, demonstrated outside Soon Da Ju’s family home in the San Fernando Valley, some times outside Judge Karlins home and the courts, but eventually more and more lost interest and the committee evaporated. They were never able to garner enough support to defeat Karlin and she won a six-year judicial term in 1992. The group tried to file civil rights charges against Soon Ja Du, but federal investigators at the US Dept of Justice later dropped the case.

Latasha’s life was short and troubled. Her mother was murdered in a nightclub when she was 9 years old and her father who lived in Illinois, had little contact with his children. Denise and Latasha’s grandmother were her main care givers.  A settlement of $300,000 from Soon Du Ju’s insurance company was awarded to her 2 younger siblings following a wrongful death lawsuit filed by her grandmother.

Trayvon Martins murder has been immortalized by technology, it was the conduit that channeled it. The internet was not as we know it today, and back in 1991 and there were no social networks or bloggers, so it’s good to see that Latasha Harlins killing, finally gets the attention it deserves in Brenda Stevenson’s recently published book; The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots.  I’ve just ordered what I believe is going to be a helluva read.

This past Sunday, the day after Zimmerman’s acquittal, would have been Latasha’s 38th birthday had she lived.


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