The 1992 Los Angeles Riots (also known as the Rodney King Riots) were born from years of police brutality against African Americans. Two incidents in March of 1991, however, are linked to the riots more than anything else. The first is the beating of Rodney King on March 3, an act that was videotaped and shown all over the news. Two weeks later, fifteen year-old Latasha Harlins was killed when she was shot in the back of the head by a Korean liquor store owner.
On the night of March 16, 1991, Harlins went into the Empire Liquor Market and Deli to buy a bottle of orange juice. She put the orange juice in her backpack and approached the counter. Soon Ja Du, the owner of the store, accused Harlins of stealing but Harlins insisted she was not, holding up two dollars to pay for it. A tussle ensued when Du grabbed the teenager and Harlins broke free, slamming the orange juice on the counter. As she walked away, Du pulled out a .38 caliber gun and shot Harlins in the back of the head, killing her.
According to an April 16, 1991 L.A. Times article commemorating 25 years since Harlins’ death, police believed “there was no attempt at shoplifting.” Regardless, Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter but the judge sentenced her to 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine along with probation. Suffice to say, the community was outraged.
Compared to the nationwide attention that the Rodney King video received, Harlins’ death seemed like it was swept under the rug by the news media. There was security camera footage of the incident although it was not quite as clear as the beating of Rodney King. Despite that, it was clear enough to see Du grab the gun, shoot Harlins, and Harlins’ body dropping to the floor instantly.
The lack of punishment for Du put the African American community of South Central on edge. A little more than a year later, they would watch the four police officers that beat Rodney King get acquitted for their blatant brutality. The combination of the two incidents of injustice is a huge reason the L.A. Riots happened.
Below is the video of Harlins’ death. You can judge it for yourself. Disturbing content obviously.