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

This is a painful read from Counter-Currents:

The Rodney King Riot is now more than two decades past. With such distance, it is possible to examine the riot and see what the long-term effects really were. The conflict started on the afternoon of April 29, 1992, after the four white Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers who had been filmed beating the riot’s eponymous black motorist were acquitted by a Simi Valley jury. However, the Rodney King Riot was really the culmination of black-Korean racial and social tensions that shifted into high gear when a Korean woman, Soon Ja Du, shot a teenaged black girl, Latasha Harlins, in the back of the head over a petty assault and on suspicion of shoplifting. Soon Ja Du was given a minimal sentence with no jail time by Judge Joyce Karlin after Du was found guilty in a racially-charged trial. University of California, Los Angeles historian Prof. Brenda E. Stevenson explores the intersecting lives of the Korean shopkeeper, Soon Ja Du, the deceased Latasha Harlins, and the Jewish judge, Joyce Karlin, in this excellent book…

Latasha Harlins

Stevenson tells the story of the Harlins family from their days as ex-slaves and sharecroppers in the Deep South just after the Civil War. She gives a standard “the South is evil” story regarding this and then describes the Harlins family’s next major jump – from Mississippi and Alabama to East Saint Louis, Illinois in 1949. The Saint Louis metropolitan area was a magnet for migrating Negro sharecroppers and agricultural workers immediately after the Second World War.[2] After moving to East Saint Louis, the Harlins’ family matriarch, Ruth, went through a series of “romantic” engagements as an unwed teenager, and they resulted in two daughters who are critical to the story: Crystal and Denise. The myth which claims that, prior to desegregation in the 1960s, the black family was in good condition is clearly not the case with Ruth Harlins, who seems to have never married the men who fathered her children in the 1950s.

The Harlins family’s behavior came right out of the ghetto with uncertain parentage and a great many people meeting a violent end. Two of Ruth’s brothers were murdered in a black-on-black shooting, and her daughter Crystal was killed by a sexual rival on Thanksgiving Day, 1985. Crystal is the Latasha’s mother.

The behavior of the Harlins family is precisely the reason for segregation, restrictive-covenant laws, and the South’s various other policies that attempted to manage blacks and which make the politically correct swoon with fright. Latasha’s violent death continued a family tradition of engaging in crimes and other behavior that was risky enough to lead to a Harlins being killed. Her behavior, which was dangerous both to herself and others, also occurred in the home: after she “became irritated,” Latasha threw a fork at her little sister and permanently blinded her in her right eye.[3]

At the end of her short life, Latasha was well on the way to furthering the Harlins traditions of marginal economic performance and bad behavior. She was “romantically” involved with two much older men, and someone at her school described her as a “teacher’s worst nightmare.” The Dean of Students at her school related that she cut classes, was a poor academic performer, and was disruptive when she was there.

She was shot on the morning of March 16, 1991.[4] She had gone to the Empire Liquor Market, removed a bottle of orange juice from the refrigerator, put it in her bag, and headed to the front counter. The Korean clerk, Soon Ja Du, accused Latasha of shoplifting. They exchanged blows and Latasha was fatally shot in the back of the head. Latasha had two dollars in her hand, implying that she had been going to pay.

This flurry of activity at the checkout counter was shades of grey, going on greyer. Latasha Harlins was from a community that was known to commit violent crimes, and she had displayed insensitive and destructive behavior to others (and no doubt, gave off a dangerous vibe), and yet when she was faced with resistance from Soon Ja Du, she put down the drink, turned, and walked away. Soon Ja Du then shot Latasha as she was leaving and no longer a threat.

Latasha’s murder became a symbol of black Los Angeles’ frustration with Koreans. For three decades, Koreans had been moving into black areas and then dominating the market. What is not mentioned in the book, but which is certainly unfair, is that Koreans also qualified for government-backed small business loans for minorities, even though they had arrived from abroad like invaders. The South Korean government restricted capital leaving their country, but Korea is so extremely corrupt that it is difficult to believe that the cash restrictions were actually enforced, so the Koreans were by no means starting “from nothing.” Stevenson shows that black-Korean frustrations had been building since at least 1974….

Soon Ja Du

There is no subsidy provided by the American government quite as absurd as what is provided to Korean shopkeepers who are profiting from sales to Negroes. The Koreans benefit from a vast military security effort. The blacks buy from the Koreans with money obtained from a vast welfare scheme. White Americans bear the burdens of both efforts.[6]

Californians had worked very hard to keep Asians out of their state. During the nineteenth Century, Chinese men were a major part of the working population, and their potential to drive wages down, among other issues, was the cause for much alarm. After decades of activism, organizing, and hard work, California’s whites made Los Angeles a paradise for middle- and working-class American whites (often from the Midwest), but the 1965 Immigration Act allowed people like Soon Ja Du and her family to immigrate to the United States.

Soon Ja Du was from the top of Korean society. Her father was a physician and her husband had been a Major in the South Korean Army. When they arrived in the United States, their lack of English skills and cultural understanding put Soon Ja Du and her family lower on the social scale than before. Their financial situation was also less secure. The family needed to work long hours in risky ventures. The Empire Liquor Mart lost a great deal of merchandise due to shoplifting by blacks, and for that and other reasons, it was losing money. There were other risks across Los Angeles in the early 1990s, including the fact that many Koreans had been murdered by black thieves. Additionally, Soon Ja Du’s son had been threatened by a local Negro street gang. Soon Ja Du and her family were openly contemptuous of their black client base and occasional black employees.[7]

Interestingly, Soon Ja Du’s fellow congregants at their Korean church were critical of her and her family selling liquor. Ironically, “a significant slice”[8] of the Korean immigrant community was selling liquor themselves, or else were active in the seedy nightclub and massage parlor trades.

As one reads about the story of Soon Ja Du, it becomes apparent that it would have been better for everyone had she and her family stayed in Korea. It is clear to this reviewer that Soon Ja Du’s children got no real advantage from growing up in the United States as opposed to South Korea. South Korea is a wealthy nation with as many educational opportunities as in the States. Ultimately, the Du’s store was burned to the ground in the Rodney King Riot, resulting in a total loss. After Soon Ja Du shot Latasha, her husband “Billy” Du beat her. After she was arrested, Soon Ja Du acted as though she was about to faint, but would straighten up and act normally when she thought nobody was looking.

Joyce Karlin

…Joyce Karlin was as high on the Los Angeles social ladder as a person could get. Her father, Myron Karlin, was a Hollywood executive. He’d worked in the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Joyce was accomplished herself. She was an experienced trial lawyer with a solid education. Joyce’s husband Bill Fahey (Catholic) was also of high social status and became a judge. Both Fahey and Karlin were members of the Republican Party. The Latasha Harlins murder case was Joyce Karlin’s first jury trial as a judge…

The Media Spin and Trial

The shooting became a media sensation. Black activists agitated across the city and boycotted the Empire Liquor Mart in particular. They were led by Danny Bakewell, a mostly white Louisiana Creole involved in the Black Power movement in southern California. The local media kept the affair in the public mind and whipped up passions until the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill scandal blew up and overwhelmed the Latasha story. Meanwhile, a different Korean shopkeeper killed a black under dubious circumstances and was not arrested or charged, and several more Koreans were killed by blacks in “robberies gone wrong.”

The more experienced and politically savvy judges such as Lance Ito (yes, that Lance Ito) maneuvered to remove themselves from the trial, and the relatively inexperienced Joyce Karlin ended up as presiding judge. In November 1991, the lawyers made their respective cases. The prosecution argued that Soon Ja Du had not been in danger as Latasha had already put down the drink and walked away. The defense argued that Soon Ja Du had a credible fear due to previous gang problems and such things, although Latasha had not been involved in a gang. The jury deliberated for three days; at one point, they had an argument so heated that people could hear it in the hallway.

During the trial, the Du family’s credibility was destroyed on the witness stand. The three Dus clearly stretched the truth and their stories didn’t match. Soon Ja Du’s son’s “. . . testimony was outlandish, because it was not only inflated to the point of perjury but because it also conflicted with his father’s earlier testimony.”[11]

While the Harlins and the black activists had sympathetic media support, Soon Ja Du’s friends in LA’s Korean community were present in the courtroom throughout the entire legal process. On some days they came in the hundreds, monopolizing the seating.[12] The rival camps jostled each other, and Karlin struggled to keep the courtroom under control.

The jury found Soon Ja Du guilty. At this point, justice could have been served and the risk of semi-organized racial violence among Los Angeles’ blacks avoided. However, Judge Karlin made two critical errors. First, she determined that Soon Ja Du was not a flight risk, thus keeping the Korean out on bail. Secondly, at the sentencing, Judge Karlin suspended the jail sentence, citing the concerns over black criminality and the fact that Soon Ja Du, while a convicted killer of a fifteen-year-old girl, was not a habitual criminal. Karlin only ordered Soon Ja Du to pay Latasha’s funeral expenses, a five hundred dollar fine, and to perform community service.

Had Judge Karlin put Soon Ja Du in prison following the guilty verdict, but before the sentencing, she could have appeared to show consideration for the shopkeepers under threat from black violence by releasing Soon Ja Du with time served. As it was, Soon Ja Du got no jail time for killing a young Negro girl, while at around the same time another Korean got a thirty-day sentence for abusing a dog. Additionally, Soon Ja Du never showed remorse, was deceitful throughout the legal proceedings, was disinterested in the Harlins family’s situation and loss, and showed more stress over “losing face” in the Korean community than anything else. Blacks were furious, and their burning anger was transferred to the Rodney King affair.

Blacks weren’t calmed until then-President George H. W. Bush put the LAPD officers involved in Rodney King’s beating up for double jeopardy in a federal, “civil rights” case. Whites always pay a price for supporting non-whites, whether or not they are blacks or Koreans, but in a way often unforeseen. In the early ‘90s, the price was paid by blue-collar police officers who had no “community organizers” supporting them. Fear of black rioting also became a factor in the later O. J. Simpson trial.

Ignoring the White Point of View

Contested Murder is a good book. Stevenson writes clearly and fairly, especially when she describes the rising tensions between blacks and Koreans and Asian-“American” culture. The book is filled with facts and figures that paint an excellent portrait of the economic circumstances of the three women and the larger society they lived in. If the book has a weakness, it is that it doesn’t take the white viewpoint into consideration at all. In 1991, white Americans were so mainstream and passive that scholars don’t think to look at their attitudes. In the future, a more aggressive white identity movement will compel scholars to think about white motives in racial conflicts, even in issues that are color-on-color.

For example, the phenomenon of white flight in East Saint Louis is largely unexplored by Stevenson, even though the East Saint Louis riots of 1917 are examined in depth. From the close of the Civil War to the 1950s, that city was one of the largest and most prosperous in southern Illinois. It still hosts one of the tallest buildings in the region, the Spivey Building, which is now a ruin. Today, the town is entirely black, and if it was outside the United States it would be no different than Haiti or the Congo. There is no explicit statement in the book that the behavior of the Harlins family was reflective of the “black community” as a whole, and might possibly be the reason for white flight. On a darker note, if whites can’t “fight” (like in the East Saint Louis riots of 1917), then they opt for “flight.”

Likewise, the book describes the black activism of the 1990s, but doesn’t point out how immoral black activism can appear to an outside observer. In the early 1960s, black activists demanded inclusion in white society. At that time, their calls for integration came from within their churches and were sung with the hymns of Christian universalism. In the 1990s, when faced with Koreans, black activists emerged from those same churches with firebrands while singing songs of hatred. Korean immigration might be bad policy, but why should whites cede moral authority to black activists when their methods display nothing but pure hypocrisy? Additionally, black activists fail to condemn the rampant criminality of their own, a criminality that compelled liquor store clerks to keep loaded pistols under their cash registers.

The Rodney King Riot, from a white point of view, is a damning indictment of Asian immigration. American whites might owe something to American blacks, but they most certainly don’t owe anything to Koreans seeking to make a buck in LA.

Food Deserts and Other Considerations

The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins is about one of the objective problems with multiculturalism. Had all the parties in the case been of one race, there would not have been so much community anger. Indeed, had no low-IQ, low-impulse control blacks been forced to live alongside Soon Ja Do, there wouldn’t have been an accusation of shoplifting. There might not even have been a need for a pistol under the counter.

There are some important Alt Right ideas to explore here now that two decades have passed since the Rodney King Riot. First, it is clear that immigration into the United States isn’t necessarily a good thing for those from the Third World who are of a high social class in their native lands. In the decades following the Korean War, South Korea became a land of peace and prosperity. Soon Ja Du and his family migrated from that harmonious land to a nation with a burning racial conflict that they did not understand. Their presence in America made the conflict worse.[13]

Immigration is also a policy endorsed by most of corporate America and the billionaire class. A way to get ahead in business ventures is to sell underperforming assets to some other sucker. In the late 1960s, blacks burned white-owned shops across America. White merchants pulled out of the “inner city” market. One must wonder if “the suits” at the corporate headquarters for franchise shops saw Asian immigrants as suckers who they could unload underperforming businesses onto in black, high-crime areas.[14]

Since the Rodney King Riot occurred, there don’t appear to be any suckers left. Today, black neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets and convenience stores. There is a new situation: that of a food desert where shops that sell fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables are too far away to be easily accessible from the homes of people in a particular community. In the decades after the Rodney King Riot, parts of Latasha Harlins’s hometown of Compton have become a food desert.

The Rodney King Riot created a “whites and Asians together” myth. This alliance is a mirage which will not shimmer forever. The competition for university slots and prestige jobs among the children of the elites of these two races will quickly cause problems. Indeed, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has already fired the first shot: “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think . . . A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” I might add that America’s white rulers have a duty to refuse to import people who might agitate blacks. Furthermore, the cheating and dishonesty rampant in Asian culture (an example of which was in the Du family’s testimonies) will eventually increase white consciousness and anti-Oriental attitudes.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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