Latasha Harlins died on March 16. She was 15 years old. She had never been convicted of a crime – never even been arrested. She had been an honor student before high school, and was doing well in her first year of high school. Latasha Harlins died after being shot in the back of the head by Soon Ja Du, the owner/clerk of a South Central L.A. liquor store and quickie mart.
Latasha Harlins went into the store, picked up a bottle of orange juice, strolled the isles, and then went to the counter to buy the juice. Every step of her journey was recorded on the store’s videotape security system. Her murder was also observed by eye witnesses in the store. When she got to the counter, she was holding $2 in her hand. The bottle of orange juice was priced at $1.79.
Instead of taking payment, instead of even demanding payment, Soon Ja Du grabbed Ms. Harlins and tore her backpack away from her. Ms. Harlins then struck Soon Ja Du with her hand. After Soon Ja Du had taken Ms. Harlins’ backpack away from her, Ms. Harlins put the bottle of orange juice on the counter and turned to leave the store. As she walked away, Soon Ja Du raised a pistol and fired a single shot into the back of Ms. Harlins’ head.
When the police arrived on the scene, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was still clutching the $2 for the juice in her hand. When the police photographed the body of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, lying in the Florida night, he was still clutching his Skittles in his hand.
Latasha Harlins was murdered on March 16, 1991. Soon Ja Du claimed that she was in fear for her life when she shot Latasha Harlins in the back of the head. Trayvon Martin was murdered almost exactly 21 years later, on February 20, 2012. His murderer, George Zimmerman, claimed that he was in fear for his life when he shot Trayvon Martin in the chest.
Soon Ja Du was tried and found guilty of the intentional killing of Latasha Harlins. George Zimmerman was tried and found not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin. A few months after George Zimmerman was acquitted, another Florida ‘tough guy,’ Michael Dunn, opened fire on a car full of black teens, killing one of them. Like George Zimmerman, he claimed to be in fear for his life – this time because the music the teens were playing was fatally offensive to him.
Many people see racism in the shootings of Latasha Harlins and Trayvon Martin. But by focusing on the racism of the shootings, we may overlook less overt racism that is more insidious because it is less conscious on the part of its actors. By focusing on individual victims, we may overlook a broader problem that makes individual tragedies inevitable.
A mostly white jury found Soon Ja Du guilty of “voluntary manslaughter”. This means a finding that Soon Ja Du intended to kill Ms. Harlins. She wasn’t acting in self-defense. And firing the gun was not an accident. She was well represented by experienced attorneys, and her defense was not limited by the budget woes that most defendants face.
The jury found that Soon Ja Du intended to fire the gun, intended to kill Ms. Harlins, and was not acting in self-defense. Judges decide questions of law and juries decide what facts the evidence shows. But in the Latasha Harlins murder case, Judge Joyce Karlin overruled the jury’s determination of the facts.
Judge Karlin said that the shooting wasn’t intentional. She said that the gun went off by accident. She said that Soon Ja Du was defending herself against a dangerous gang-banger. She said that Soon Ja Du did not intend to kill Ms. Harlins. Judge Karlin relied on her experience as a gang prosecutor to “know” that honor student Latasha Harlins, who had never been arrested, was actually a dangerous gang member, even though Ms. Harlins’ name had never arisen in any of the gang cases Karlin had investigated or prosecuted as a D.A.
Judge Karlin was the wealthy white daughter of a successful international movie executive. She had grown up in homes around the world. She was raised in wealth and privilege, but had also seen some of the world’s worst poverty and discrimination. After college and law school, she became a prosecutor, and after a successful career was appointed a judge by Governor Pete Wilson.
Judge Karlin’s interactions in life with poor black people was limited to seeing them as servants or television characters, and after she because a prosecutor, as crime victims and perpetrators. Nothing in her experience exposed her to poor black people trying to eke out a living at menial jobs, while trying to raise their children in crime infested neighborhoods. She had no reason to know or care about the underfunded, understaffed, overly burdened schools that children like Latasha Harlins attended.
Judge Karlin also “knew” that Soon Ja Du was the ‘real victim’ in the incident. She knew that if a liquor store in South Central charged $1.79 for a bottle of orange juice that cost $0.99 in any supermarket in her neighborhood, it wasn’t because the store was exploiting shoppers who didn’t have supermarkets to go to, who didn’t have choices of where to shop. It was because the crimes of gang bangers forced the stores to charge high prices, and forced the store owners to take home much higher profit margins than any supermarket earns.
Judge Karlin ruled that Soon Ja Du was the victim of Latasha Harlins’ misconduct – the misconduct of walking up to the store counter, holding two dollars to pay for the orange juice. Judge Karlins decided that the jury was wrong, and that Soon Ja Du was justified in shooting a child in the back of the head. She decided that the trial and negative press coverage of the murder had been enough punishment for Soon Ja Du. She sentenced Soon Ja Du to no prison time, but did impose the munificent sum of $500 as a fine for taking Latasha Harlins’ life.
Judges get sentencing reports that study a convict’s attitudes, motivations, thinking and other factors relevant to determining how much time should be served. The Soon Ja Du sentencing report revealed that the convict had no remorse for the crime. She felt that she would do it again, if she got the chance. The sentencing report disclosed that, even after months of press coverage of the murder, enormous amounts of time with psychologists, with members of her church, and through the trial, and all the testimony about the lack of self-defense, and the lack of any criminal conduct by Ms. Harlins, Soon Ja Du remained unrepentant, and more importantly, utterly bewildered. She did not understand why society would get so upset over the killing of a mere black person. The report suggested that Soon Ja Du be sentenced to significant prison time, in line with sentences given to other people who intentionally killed.
Judge Karlin’s sentencing statements and sentence disclosed that, even after years of working “with” black crime victims, and after watching the videotape of Ms. Harlins’ murder, and after receiving the jury’s factual findings of intentional killing and no self-defense, she was unable to see the black child shooting victim as anything more than an incipient gang member. A threat to society. An unpleasant burden on Soon Ja Du’s honorable reputation.
Thirty years before 15-year-old, black Latasha Harlins was murdered for trying to buy orange juice in a Los Angeles liquor store, 14-year-old, black Emmett Till was murdered for speaking disrespectfully to a white woman in a Mississippi grocery store. Twenty-one years after she was murdered, 17-year-old, black Trayvon Martin was murdered after shopping in a Florida 7-11.
Popular culture tells us that these cases are isolated, individual, separate matters. But in each case black children were murdered, and their families were then subjected to humiliation, and lies in the media about who their children were and how they acted. In each case, the “justice” system denied the children and their surviving family members any justice. The denials were because neither the individual actors, like Judge Karlin, nor the society at large was yet ready to be introspective about their own preconceived notions of who and what these children were.
After letting Soon Ja Du off with no real sentence, Judge Karlin spent five years presiding over cases in Juvenile Court. In that assignment, she got to use her judicial powers, to deal with children of color younger than Latasha Harlins – giving them the benefit of her insight into their incipient gang membership and crime careers, without interference from any jury that might actually consider evidence concerning the children.
And so another generation of children, like Emmet Till, like Latasha Harlins, like Trayvon Martin were taught what white society thought of them. What white society expected of them. How white society would pigeonhole them.