Q&A: Brenda Stevenson on Latasha Harlins

Dr.  Brenda Stevenson, writer of "The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins"

Dr. Brenda Stevenson, writer of “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins” | Skylar Endsley Myers

Brenda Stevenson is a UCLA history professor whose research and writings focus primarily on the 18th and 19th century American South. Recently, however, she has turned her attention to contemporary Los Angeles. Stevenson’s new book, “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins,” discusses the 1992 Los Angeles riots  by analyzing the murder of Latasha Harlins.

Harlins was 15-years-old when she was killed by Korean grocer Soon Ja Du, who assumed Harlins was stealing. Although not as widely known as the Rodney King beating and trial, the incident is considered just as important a trigger for the 1992 rebellion.

Intersections South LA: The L.A. rebellion of 1992 occurred over 20 years ago. Why do you feel the story of Latasha Harlins is important to tell today?

Dr. Brenda Stevenson: I feel like it’s a very important story to tell because it hasn’t been told completely. This is a major case that led to the L.A. Riots of 1992 and, more importantly, the rebellion because it was about justice, or in this case, injustice. The rebellion aspects of what occurred at the beginning of May were very much concentrated on the sentencing, or lack thereof, of Soon Ja Du in this particular case. She was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and in the case 16 years were recommended [as sentencing] and she received no time in jail whatsoever. The Black community and the supporters were completely incensed, and this played out in the rebellion that took place at the end of April and beginning of May in 1992.

It is important for people to realize that when you melt down the event looking only at what happened with Rodney King you lose the impotence and obstruction that occurred during that time. Certainly people were upset about what happened to Rodney King, but Rodney King was still alive. Latasha Harlins was dead. In the case of Rodney King the people were found not guilty, but in this case of Latasha Harlins, Son Ja Du was found guilty. The case had been completely settled at that time and the woman had received no jail time.

So, there was an extreme sense of injustice and it’s very important that people understand that these rebellions were not just about stealing. It’s not about destroying things. It is the quest for justice. That is at the base of what this country is really is about. Your founding documents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, all speak to the issue of justice and the importance of having a just court system. African Americans of course expect no less, and they ask no less of their citizenship rights than to have justice.

In an interview with KPCC, you said Rodney King “received so much more attention because it was conflict males.” Could you expand on that?

I think we live in a patriarchal society and this nation has historically been patriarchal. The ways in which we look at racial conflict is through the lens of what has happened to Black men and the Rodney King incident — as horrific as it was — falls right into that kind of construct. This is a young Black man who was chased down and beaten senseless by White men under authority. This is a typical scenario in our history … it really caught everyone’s imagination because it filled the usual categories of racial abuse.

So you feel Latasha Harlins story has been masked because she was female and didn’t fit the expected mold?

I don’t think it was masked so much. I feel as though people in South Central and across Los Angeles knew all about it. People were very aware and focused on it. If you look at the news coverage of the rebellion you will see the Rodney King beating tape and then the Latasha Harlins shooting tape. They were always shown together in a continual loop. But over time what happens is we tend to simplify and to boil things down to one truth, one view. And so those things that may have been very important at the moment disappear and fade. Although, her case has never faded. People remember it. They might not remember her name but they remember the event. So, I think it’s important for the entire story to be told because it’s important to African American history and to L.A. history and to our nation’s history.

I’m a South L.A. native who was alive during the rebellion. I have video recordings of my 2-year-old birthday party, held when South L.A. residents were given a curfew because of the rebellion. I pride myself on knowing the history of both South L.A. and African Americans — yet I didn’t know about Latasha Harlins until I learned of your book. What do you think that says about cultural memory and the influence of popular media?

Well, I think what happens is it was probably encoded in the way you were socialized as to how to behave when you go into a store. Whether or not people were hostile to you. Whether they were profiling you for stealing. Cultural memory gets coded into those kinds of instructions. And so, in the background your parents, your relatives, and the people around you in the back of their heads  have that memory specifically of the name, of the place, of the time. When they say, ‘don’t wear that when you’re going to the store,’ ‘don’t do that when you are going into the store,’ ‘people will act as if you are stealing.’And that’s how it is coded into our memory. That’s why I think some people might not know why specifically what happened. But they have learned the lesson of what happened. What is derived.

So, you are saying the case created a social structure that permeated a type of behavior. Sort of as if the ruling caused us to behave a certain way towards each other? The rules came through us?

The rules come through us. Not just developed from this case, but from a long history of Black youth being killed. Trayvon Martin, for example, because we’re not finding justice in the courts. And because you don’t find justice in the courts, you’re also not getting aggressors to stop doing it. So, what parents do and what family members have to say is,  ‘Don’t go into that store,’ ‘Don’t buy from them,’ ‘Make sure that your money is out.’ So, those ideas get coded into historical memory.

Prior to writing this book, your research was focused on slave women during the Atlantic Slave trade. Do you feel the topic you research most and the topic of contemporary discrimination and injustice influence each other? Or do you feel they’re separate histories?

There’s a long trajectory of abuse of Black women, Black men, and of people of color in general in this country and around the world. I do think the two histories are linked because they are about a people who are marginalized because of their race, because of their gender, because of their class. As a result of the marginalization they are not treated with all the rights a U.S. citizen should receive. It wasn’t even until the 14th amendment that African Americans were considered citizens. We had already been in the country for 250 years and we were not citizens and did not have citizenship rights. So we are still on the young end of citizenship. And it wasn’t until the civil rights movement that more citizenship rights came to us. We’re still working for rights to be considered and be considered as equal citizens. There’s a long history connected. There’s an unbroken chain of abuse and marginalization and injustice that connects us.

What was your research process like for the book?

My research process was a really lengthy one, because I didn’t really think it was going to be a book. I thought it was going to be an article. I work on the 18th and 19th century American South, but little by little I became more and more into Latasha Harlins’ story, because the women were so different. They were different age groups. They were different classes. Racial and ethnically different. I wanted to understand the place of young African American young females in an urban society like Los Angeles. When they interact with other women outside of the race, outside of their class, and outside of their generation, what happens? Who’s deciding what happens to them?

So, we have in this case a Jewish American woman who is a judge — a young judge, new judge, very wealthy — and the court has given her the right to decide who is the victim when these two women of color came together. Whether it was the Korean grocer, or whether it was Latasha Harlins, an African American teenager. It was left up to this Jewish female judge to decide what really did happen, who really was the victim, and who really should pay for it.

So, I was really interested in the interactions between these three different kinds of women, who would have control of this situation, and how they interacted with each other given their differences and that’s how it really became a book. And then I really wanted to understand the historical constructs of where they came from. What their experiences were within their own group as racialized groups in American history themselves.

Latasha Harlins | Courtesy of 'The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins'

Latasha Harlins | Courtesy of ‘The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins’

The book seems to explore not only L.A.’s ethnic diversity, but also the interactions between the various ethnic communities in the city and how these communities even migrated to L.A. in the first place.

“It does. It explores the history of Jewish Americans, because the judge was Jewish and it traces her family back to Russia and how they migrated at the end of the 20th century and when they moved from Boston to Los Angeles and moving up the ranks her father became really big in the movie industry. And so that context for her versus Soon Ja Du in her hometown and her life in Seoul, Korea with her husband and her children.  Their first purchase of the stores and their relationships with the community prior to the shooting of Latasha Harlins. And then for Latasha Harlins, tracing her family back to her slave ancestors back in Mississippi and Alabama. What life was like for them there and then their move to East St. Louis. And then their eventual move to South Central Los Angeles and what their life was like during that time, the 1980s, the era of crack, the loss of industries in the area, Black unemployment, among other things.

Then is this more of a narrative than an academic text?

Both. It’s a very well-researched history and it’s told in three different perspectives. In the middle of the discussion of these three different histories I talk about the actual court case. I go through every day of the trial and the testimony of every day of the trial, the statements that were made by the prosecution of the defense and how the community weighed in on the case. As well as the media and the media’s role in the case.

You were telling me about the way culture is created — that one particular event out of many is often what remains in the collective memory. What has been your experience with the Latasha Harlins case over time? 

Every anniversary for the rebellion/riots people return to remember Latasha Harlins. There was always a news story for this particular case for every major anniversary: 5th,10th and even last year for the 20th anniversary of it. So, it hasn’t been forgotten. It’s always been in the media. There were commemorations by the Latasha Harlins Justice Committee. They continued to protest the judges sentencing. There were two recall attempts based on this particular case. People ran against the judge because of this case. There was an attempt to get the justice department involved for civil rights violations for Latasha Harlins. So, her memory is still alive. I wrote the book so those who aren’t invested with the memory will remember her name.

What do you think this case in particular says about Black, working class women living in Los Angeles?

It says that we as Black women don’t get the consideration that other people receive. Often we don’t even get the consideration that Black males receive. Black women are just as much overrepresented in prisons as Black males. Black women receive more time and less protection as victims just like Black males do. But who is out there beating that drum? Who’s out there talking about it? And this is not to say that Black men don’t deserve this kind of support, but Black women deserve it as well. We don’t have the same kind of outcry when Black women are killed by the police.Stevenson_LatashaHarlins

Ultimately what  would you like readers to take away from the book?

Ultimately I would like people to take away the memory of Latasha Harlins and what happened to her. To read particularly closely the trial transcript and understand the guilty verdict she received was one that Soon Jong Lu should have received. And to remember that Black women also are victims within the system — and other women are sometimes the ones victimizing them. It’s not just white males, the Man, anymore. We’ve found ourselves in a place where your race or gender doesn’t automatically make you an ally, but rather mixed with your experiences charges your behaviors and interactions towards other inter-sectioned groups.

The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Stevenson’s book can be purchased at the Eso Won Books in Leimert Park and online at Amazon.

Click play to hear Stevenson discuss her structure for storytelling.


  1. Thank you for this interview and I will be reading this book. People need to remember the life and death of Latasha Harlins and how she never received justice. Black women’s lives do count and are important.

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