In March 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins went to her local store to buy a bottle of orange juice. The market was near her home in South Central Los Angeles.

Latasha approached the cash desk, with money in her hand, but the Korean owner spotted the orange juice bottle poking out of the top of her backpack.

Soon Ja Du presumed that the teenager was attempting to steal the orange juice, so she raised a 0.38 pistol and shot the girl in the back of the head.

Latasha’s name became the battle cry of residents in her neighborhood when they stormed onto the streets in anger.

Korean businesses were targeted in a frenzy of vengeful attacks, with many razed to the ground. This was a turning point in the history of Los Angeles.

“You Always Have Dreams”

Latasha Harlins moved to South-Central L.A. with her family in 1981 at the age of six. St. Louis, Illinois had been her birthplace, but the family moved to find a better life in California.

“When you go someplace else, you’re always expecting things to be better,” her grandmother, Ruth Harlins said. Sadly, that was not to be for this doomed family. Four years after moving to L.A., Latasha’s mother, Crystal, was shot dead in a nightclub. Latasha, and her two siblings, were left in the care of her grandmother.

Trouble Had Been Brewing In South Central L.A.

At that time, the neighborhood was bubbling with underlying tensions. Korean business owners were notoriously rude to black customers. Besides the cultural differences and misunderstandings, the black community felt angered by unfair pricing and the lack of job opportunities for black people in the stores.

Operation Hammer

An initiative by LAPD, called Operation Hammer in 1987, fuelled the tension in South-Central L.A. Police Officers were delegated to black neighborhoods to root out suspected gangsters.

This made things worse and lawsuits against the LAPD for using excessive force are evidence of their heavy-handed tactics.

The Story Of Rodney King

Rodney King was a victim of excessive force used by the LAPD. He was pulled over for speeding and was met with abuse by officers. They shot him twice with a Taser, beat him, and then handcuffed him. He had broken bones and teeth, several skull fractures and permanent brain damage as a result.

Anyone would agree that it an excessive force for a speeding misdemeanor. Or was the reason for the violence the fact that he was black?

A video of the event reached the public domain and sparked worldwide indignation. The day before Latasha’s murder, the policemen responsible were charged with a felony.

She Did Not Heed Her Grandmother’s Warning

Everyone knew that the Korean owners of Empire Liquor were disrespectful to their black customers.

Latasha’s grandmother had warned her not to go into the shop unless it was necessary.

On that fateful Saturday morning, Latasha Harlins had full intentions of buying something. She wanted to purchase a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, and she had the money to pay for it.

After taking the short walk from her home, she entered and picked up the bottle of orange juice.

She placed it inside her backpack, with the top clearly visible. Approaching the counter, she held her hand out with the money.

Ismail Ali and his sister witnessed what transpired next. When, Soon Ja Du saw the girl she shouted, “You bitch, you are trying to steal my orange juice.”

Latasha showed the shopkeeper her two dollar bills and tried to explain that she wanted to pay for the orange juice.

Du was not having a bar of it and grabbed Latasha’s sweater. There was a struggle as she tried to get the woman to release her but to no avail. She called out for Du to let her go, but the woman held on fiercely.

Eventually, Harlins hit Du in the face four times, knocking her to the floor. She retrieved the bottle of orange juice that had fallen to the floor and placed it on the counter. Then she turned to leave.

As she walked towards the door, Du pulled out her gun and shot the teenager in the back of her head. She fell to the floor, dead.

Black Protests Outside Empire Liquor

The anger of the black residents for the killing of a teenager was fast and ruthless. There were angry protests outside the store. The anger simmered, until the assault on Rodney King in 1992 when it finally boiled over.

When Du went to trial a few months later, Latasha’s family was praying for justice. Security camera footage revealed the truth.

Deputy District Attorney Roxane Carvajal is reported to have said, “This is not television. This is not the movies,” before showing the tape. The courtroom watched in horror as Latasha was killed in cold blood.

Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and she was sentenced to the maximum prison sentence of sixteen years.

However, in a move that pushed the anger of the black community to the boiling point, white judge, Joyce Karlin granted Du probation.

She was also given 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine. Du had walked free.

“They Murdered My Granddaughter!”

Harlin’s heartbroken grandmother said, “This system of justice is not justice!”

Anger exploded onto the streets of L.A.  Following the exoneration of the policemen who beat Rodney King to within an inch of his life, the black community of South Central knew no bounds.

The streets exploded into violent protests that lasted five days. Black residents shouted Latasha Harlins’ name as they burnt Empire Liquor to the ground. Many Korean-owned businesses followed suit.

The LAPD retreated and residents were left to vent their anger. Violent protests, shootings, and arson attacks took place. Eventually, the California National Guard stopped the riots. Thousands had been injured and 50 people  died. Damage costs reached $1 billion.

“Cause A Bottle Of Juice Ain’t Something 2 Die 4”

Finally, as a result of the protests, two of the LAPD officers responsible for the merciless beating of Rodney King were sentenced to jail.

But no justice for Latasha Harlins. Rapper, Tupac Shakur, wrote a song to ensure that she would always be remembered and dedicated “Keep Ya Head Up” to the teenager – “Cause A Bottle Of Juice Ain’t Something 2 die 4.”

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