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LA Confidential

CounterPunch: 2014


On the morning of March 16, 1991, two weeks before Rodney King was beaten by police, Latasha Harlins entered the Empire Liquor Market in South Central Los Angeles. Standing behind the counter was Soon Ja Du. Du worked up to fourteen hours a day and she suffered from migraines. The store had been robbed more than thirty times, including the previous Saturday.


In Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Generation, Jeff Chang describes what happened next: “Harlins had spent the night at a friend’s place and as she walked home, she decided to purchase a bottle of orange juice for breakfast. She put it in her backpack and went to the counter to pay for it. Du grabbed Harlins’ sweater and screamed, ‘You bitch, you are trying to steal my orange juice! That’s my orange juice!’ Harlins yelled back, ‘Bitch, let me go! I’m trying to pay for it.’


“In the video, the two are pulling on the bottle of orange juice. Harlins swings at Du a few times and then backs away. The bottle falls to the floor. Du picks up a stool and throws it over the counter at Harlins. The girl ducks and reaches down to pick up the bottle. She places the bottle on the counter. Du swipes it away. She has unholstered the gun. Harlins pivots and prepares to step away. Du has raised the gun. Harlins shudders and falls out of the frame.”


The cost of the juice was $1.79. Court records would later show that Latasha Harlins had two one dollar bills in her possession.


The story of this deadly confrontation is fleshed out in UCLA professor Brenda Stevenson’s excellent new book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins (Oxford University Press, $29.95). It begins as the story of two countries and two immigrant paths taken by two women to one city—Los Angeles.


The Harlins family came from the deep South where their ancestors had been slaves. They moved to East St. Louis where a daughter, Latasha, was born on New Year’s Day in 1976.  In the early 1980s the family moved to South Central Los Angeles, where they found better weather and, in theory, better prospects. But in 1985, nine-year-old Latasha’s mother Crystal was shot and killed by another woman in an early morning bar fight.


On the other side of the world, Soon Ja Du entered adolescence during the Korean War. She grew up in the midst of great violence, her country devastated by a conflict which left millions dead and the nation divided. Soon Ja’s home province of North Chungcheong was the site of the Bodo League Massacre in 1950, where tens of thousands of political prisoners, as well as civilian men, women, and children, were executed by the Rhee government. 


Latasha Harlins grew into adolescence in a Los Angeles neighborhood marked by violent crime and police brutality. Yet she became an honor student, an athlete, and a camp counselor.


35-year-old Soon Ja Du and her family arrived in California in the year that Latasha Harlins was born. In her native South Korea, Du had been a doctor’s daughter and the educated wife of an Army officer. Coming to America, she worked outside the home for the first time—at factory jobs and then as a mainstay at the Empire Liquor Market her husband had purchased in South Central LA.


Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why

Little girl like Latasha, she had to die


— Tupac


The killing was seen as racial by many. “Girls who knew Latasha Harlins [in high school] reported in grief counseling after her murder that they felt harassed when they walked into a Korean-owned store,” Stevenson writes. “’All of these kids have felt like victims,” school psychologist Barbara Snader said. ‘They walk into a store and felt like people suspect them…looking them up and down. It’s a very humiliating experience. It’s like they’re guilty because they’re black.’”  


The focus on racial motives increased when, shortly after Latasha Harlins’ death, a black man named Lee Arthur Mitchell was also shot and killed in a local Korean-owned liquor store, this time in a dispute over 25 cents. No charges were filed.


Korean immigrants’ negative attitudes toward blacks were ingrained before they reached the shores of the United States. In Korea, they observed the American military, whose presence was accompanied by segregated restaurants, bars, and brothels and by the concentration of black soldiers at the border with North Korea while white soldiers had easier assignments in Seoul. 


The racism in the U.S. military eventually found a reflection in Korean culture. Stevenson writes: “Whether it is an entertainer in blackface imitating R&B singers or a commercial to sell fried chicken that features Africans in tribal clothing about to physically assault a Korean man until he whips out a bucket of delicious chicken, the message is the same: blacks are different, and that difference indicates inferiority.”


These attitudes hardened as nineteen Korean-American grocers in Los Angeles were killed working behind their counters in the 1980s.


Seven months after the death of Latasha Harlins and six months to the day before the outbreak of the LA rebellion, Ice Cube’s album, Death Certificate, hit the streets. On the song “Black Korea” Ice Cube rapped about boycotting and burning down Korean businesses and did so with extremely offensive lyrics.


Yet despite all the conflict, blacks and Koreans actually have a very inter-connected history.


The U.S. Civil Rights Movement created a political space such that the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was closely followed by legislation which opened U.S. shores to significant Asian immigration for the first time. As a result, LA’s Korean community quickly grew to half a million people.  Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Movement broke the bonds of sharecropping with the result that Southern emigrants increased LA’s black population from 63,000 in 1940 to 736,000 in 1970.


During the Vietnam War, 4,678 troops from Korea were killed in Vietnam, as were 7,241 American blacks. There were other blood-drenched ties--the U.S. Army suppressed uprisings in both the U.S. and Korea. First, the Watts rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965. Then, in 1980, the revolt in Kwangju, Korea in which two thousand Koreans died in an insurrection against the ascendance of military general Chun Doo Hwan to the South Korean presidency. At the time the South Korean military was officially under the operational control of the U.S. Army.


In an article about their 1993 telegram campaign against the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea, a Young Koreans United member wrote: “Korean Americans see a direct connection between the presence of U.S. troops in Korea and the lack of funds for domestic programs in Los Angeles.”


While these connections between blacks and Koreans were somewhat indirect, they were accompanied by others that were very direct. Korea was a colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945 and one result was that over 1.1 million Koreans were conscripted to work in mining, construction, and other branches of manual labor throughout Japan.  After World War II and the end of the colonial relationship, Koreans living in Japan were denied the rights of citizenship and blocked from jobs, education, and welfare benefits. Inspired to a great degree by the U.S. civil rights movement, the Koreans in Japan, known as zainichi, began a long battle for equality.


As part of that movement, the writings of Martin Luther King were translated and studied, as were books such as God of the Oppressed by black liberation theologian James Cone. Cone traveled to Japan to speak and lend support while U.S. blacks contributed money to the cause through their churches. When the Korean Christian Church in Japan held a meeting called “A Strategic Missionary Meeting on Minority People,” U.S. blacks, Native Americans, and Mexican Americans attended.


All these connections serve as part of the back story for the divisive trial of Soon Ja Du, which Brenda Stevenson uses to expand her narrative into a feminine triangle, the third leg of which is the judge, Joyce Karlin.


Joyce Karlin was born in Los Angeles in 1951. Her father was a former military intelligence officer who became a wealthy Hollywood executive, eventually president of Warner Brothers International. Movie stars came to the Karlin home for parties and young Joyce hung out on the set of Ben Hur in Rome.


At the time of the trial, Joyce Karlin was married to William Fahey, another prosecutor, who in 1992 unsuccessfully ran for Congress while he chaired the Bush/Quayle campaign in Los Angeles County.  As a Superior Court judge, Karlin was paid more than a U.S. Supreme Court justice. The prosecutor duo lived in a big house in Manhattan Beach, an oceanfront outpost favored by professional athletes. Joyce Karlin was later elected to two terms as Manhattan Beach mayor. 


In due course in Joyce Karlin’s courtroom, the jury convicted Soon Ja Du of manslaughter. Probation officer Patricia Dwyer’s 39-page report stated that Du “took no action to assist the victim, exaggerated her injuries and feigned unconsciousness. This can only be viewed as a deliberate attempt to manipulate public opinion and underscores her unrepentant attitude.” Indeed, Soon Ja Du said “I would do the same thing again.” Dwyer recommended that Du serve the maximum sentence of sixteen years.


Judge Karlin ignored the report and, incredibly, gave Soon Ja Du no jail time at all. Despite the fact that Du’s unrepentance indicated she might become a repeat offender, Karlin said: “Does society need Mrs. Du to be incarcerated in order to be protected? I think not. Is state prison needed to encourage the defendant to lead a law-abiding life or isolate her so that she cannot commit other crimes? I think not.”


What if things had been reversed? What if Latasha Harlins had killed Du and said she had no regrets and that if she could she would pull the trigger again? Would she get off with no time? It’s more likely she would have gotten the sixteen years plus an extra strike for stealing orange juice.


Joyce Karlin was no rogue judge. Although sentencing records in LA County for 1990 show that every person convicted of a charge similar to Du’s received jail time, the Second District Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Karlin’s sentence. 


The trial was not a simple case of white versus black. Soon Ja Du’s lawyer, Charles Lloyd, was black. He drove a Rolls Royce to court, where the centerpiece of his defense was that Du was justified in killing Harlins because of her fear of young blacks. The travesty of justice that was the Du trial represented a wealthy judge and a wealthy defense attorney against a poor murder victim.


Deeper alliances along similar lines were revealed in the wake of the trial. In 1992 the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section awarded Joyce Karlin the title of “Trial Judge of the Year” and gave Charles Lloyd an award as “Trial Attorney of the Year.”


The Du verdict was also not a simple case of Asians versus blacks. K.W. Lee, publisher of Korea Times, spoke out against the verdict, pointing out that while Du got not one day for taking a human life, another Korean immigrant got a month in jail for hurting a dog. Adding insult to injury, there was a public outpouring of support for the dog, including ten thousand dollars in donations.


Not at all by coincidence, the LA rebellion began only eight days after the appeals court affirmed Karlin’s whitewash of Latasha’s murder. 


Du’s de facto acquittal reflected the growing economic polarization in the city.  At the time Latasha Harlins was killed, the mayor of Los Angeles was Tom Bradley, a former high-ranking cop and the first black elected to that position. Not only was Bradley the loyal foot soldier of Eli Broad and other billionaire developers, he was a law partner of Soon Ja Du attorney Charles Lloyd. Bradley appointed Lloyd to the LA Harbor Commission. When the Harlins family led an effort to recall Joyce Karlin, Bradley stayed out of it.


Danny Bakewell got into it. As president of the Brotherhood Crusade, Bakewell made a lot of media noise in support of Latasha Harlins but his bona fides were shaky. At the same time Latasha Harlins was gunned down, several South Central tenants in units Bakewell owned were suing him for refusing to maintain their already substandard apartments. Bakewell, who is black, owns three luxury homes and once proclaimed that his goal was “to have an astronomical net worth.” Check that off his bucket list.  Bakewell lives in Bradbury, a city of horse ranches nestled in the mountains near Los Angeles. In 2010, Bradbury’s zip code of 91008 was number one on Forbes’ annual list of America’s most expensive zip codes, with a median home price of $4,276,462.  While Bakewell claimed the mantle of leadership in seeking justice for Latasha, he also had a conflict of interest--Du’s lawyer Charles Lloyd was head of fundraising for Bakewell’s Brotherhood Crusade.


After the LA rebellion, poor Koreans who lost their jobs were not given one cent from the victims funds collected with great fanfare by the Korean elite. The “victims associations” formally barred the poor and mocked their desire to be compensated.


While the media touts Chinese and Koreans as “model minorities,” the reality is more complicated. In the Koreatown section of Los Angeles, Korean businessmen are notorious for their exploitation of Korean immigrant employees. LA also contains dozens of employment agencies which funnel Chinese immigrants, often undocumented, to jobs where there may be no wages, only tips. “The bosses are bad,” one Chinese worker told the LA Times. “They should treat other Chinese well. Instead, it’s Chinese taking advantage of Chinese.” Recently, Latino immigrants have started using the same employment agencies.


In life and in death, Latasha Harlins illuminated the class split among blacks. Teka-Lark Fleming, now publisher of the local Morningside Park Chronicle, went to Westchester High School with Latasha Harlins. She told me that the school was predominantly black and predominantly prosperous (actresses Regina King and Nia Long were there at the time) and that Latasha Harlins was there as a result of “economic busing.” When Latasha was killed, students were told not to talk about it. School administrators didn’t want anyone to know that poor people went to the school.


The yawning class divide in Los Angeles was summed up the night that Denise Harlins, Latasha’s aunt,  interrupted an awards ceremony at the Biltmore Hotel for Charles Lloyd, shouting: “All you people sitting, applauding, over a child killer.” Joyce Karlin and Soon Ja Du’s son were there to help honor Lloyd.


Rodney King’s plaintive plea of “Can’t we all get along?” still echoes through the American psyche. Well, we can’t, in large part because unity between people who are unequal is not possible. The Korean immigrants who are able to buy liquor stores have two things most of their customers do not—college degrees and investment capital. The fact that everyone exists in the same maelstrom of violence isn’t enough to bridge that gap.


Billy and Soon Ja Du lived in the middle class enclave of Mission Hills, where the per capita income was twice that of Latasha Harlins’ South Central neighborhood.  The average family income of Koreans in Los Angeles in 1990 was $46,307 while that of blacks was $26,849. In 1990 unemployment for black males was just under 50% in Latasha Harlins neighborhood. It comes as no surprise that Billy Du refused to hire the locals who asked for work. South Central liquor stores echo the relationship which existed when plantation merchants sold booze to slaves.


Stores rip people off, that is their economic function. The ill will this generates cannot be wished away, even though it is the corporations whose products are sold there who are the primary beneficiary of the retail arrangement. The corporate owners are on the golf course when store owners or employees or customers get shot.


There was a series of boycotts of Korean-owned stores in many cities across the U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s. But the primary issue wasn’t race, it was high prices combined with customer poverty,


During the period of the boycotts, customer poverty was getting worse. For example, in Los Angeles by the end of the 1970s many major employers which had provided good jobs for South Central residents--Ford, GM, Chrysler, Goodyear, Bethlehem, Firestone—had closed their local factories. 300,000 more jobs were eliminated in Los Angeles in 1991, a year in which eleven Korean merchants in Los Angeles County were killed in robberies.


Yet all this conflict and inequality shouldn’t blind us to the growing commonality of the past twenty-five years in Los Angeles and across the United States. Consider the success of Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, an album that was far more than an anti-Asian diatribe. Released in the year Latasha Harlins was shot with almost no airplay and a meager promotion budget, Death Certificate debuted on the album chart at number two. Its popularity was across the board--from inner city mom-and-pop stores to the mall-dominated, 1,000 store Musicland chain, where Ice Cube’s album was the best seller during its first week of release. The problems of poverty and violence described by Ice Cube were spreading throughout society. In 1991, only one in three poor children lived in the inner city. It was the suburbs which had the fastest-growing poverty rate.


The history of Los Angeles in the past quarter century has been marked by a series of attempts to seek justice, build unity, or just survive. Sometimes organized, sometimes not, they come and they go, but viewed together they reveal an expanding quilt of great potentiency.


In between Latasha Harlin’s killing and the LA rebellion, the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee launched a petition campaign to put a measure on the ballot to recall Joyce Karlin. They had only a short time to gather the required 400,000 names. Amazingly, they got 200,000 signatures. Compton City Councilwoman Patricia Moore was active in the effort and, Brenda Stevenson writes: “Moore reported that she received between 50 and 100 calls each day concerning Karlin’s sentencing of Du. These calls, she made clear, did not come only from traditionally black and Latino communities, but from across the city, including the Westside, Hollywood, and the San Fernando Valley.”


During the 1992 LA rebellion, several thousand people were arrested--51% Latino, 36% black, 11% white, all poor. Most arrests weren’t for acts of violence, they were for taking food and diapers or for curfew violations.


In August 1996, Tupac and Snoop Dogg spoke at a Los Angeles press conference called to oppose the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 and to denounce the three strikes law. Tupac, who had sold twelve million CDs in the first eight months of that year, talked of the political force that could be forged if his fans and Snoop’s fans could be brought together.


In 2006, over a million immigrants marched in Los Angeles for the right to live legally in the U.S. (in 2014, polls showed that 81 per cent of all California residents support the right of immigrants to live here regardless of immigration status).


Since 2008, tens of thousands of Los Angeles County residents of every color and nationality have struggled to stay in their homes when faced with foreclosure.


In 2012, echoing the Karlin recall effort of 1992, over two million people across the United States signed a petition demanding that George Zimmerman be arrested for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Nearly one hundred thousand of those signers were in Los Angeles.


Beginning early in this millennium and continuing today, Korean and Latino restaurant and market employees in LA have banded together to fight for better wages and working conditions. 85 per cent of Korean and Latino restaurant workers are undocumented.


Many links have been forged in Los Angeles over the past few decades but each is an isolated entity unto itself.  There is no organized chain to bring them together so that common interests can come to the fore. Creating that chain is the next step. So many have eloquently talked it, now is finally the time we can begin to walk it.


Lee Ballinger:

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