On April 29, 1992, a Los Angeles court found four police officers not guilty in the brutal beating of black motorist Rodney King. Within hours, the city was on fire, and it burned for days, becoming a defining moment for black resistance and the long, dark history of race in America […]
On March 16, 1991, 13 days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a 15-year-old girl named Latasha Harlins stopped by a liquor store near her home in South Los Angeles. She walked to the back of the store, grabbed a carton of orange juice, and stuck it in her backpack. The woman behind the counter, Soon Ja Du, assumed that Harlins was stealing the juice. As the teenager approached the cash register, Du grabbed her sleeve and yanked her across the counter, trying to snatch her backpack away. Harlins fought back, punching Du in the face four times and knocking her down. What happened next depends on who you believe: either Harlins threatened to kill Du, or she told her she just wanted to pay for the juice. In any case, Du grabbed the gun her husband kept behind the counter and pointed it at the girl. Harlins picked up the orange juice, which had fallen to the floor during the scuffle, and placed it on the counter. As she turned to walk out of the store, Du shot her in the back of the head. When the police arrived, they found Harlins dead, clutching two dollar bills in her left hand. (The orange juice cost $1.89.)
Six months later, a jury convicted Du of voluntary manslaughter, a crime that carried a penalty of up to 16 years in prison; many thought that Du would face the maximum punishment. Instead, Judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Du to time served, plus 300 hours of community service and five years’ probation. It was one of the most lenient sentences handed down for a gun-related crime in Los Angeles County that year.
The community was outraged and boycott on Non-Black businesses in the Black community was organized. Latasha’s death was one of the main catalyst for anger in the Black community that led up to the Los Angeles Riots. On August 17, 1991, while Du was awaiting trial, a small incendiary fire occurred at her store but the store wasn’t badly damaged. During the Los Angeles 1992 riots, Du’s store was burned, and it never re-opened.
Rapper Tupac Shakur was deeply affected by her death and dedication many songs to Latasha throughout his career. “Keep Your Head Up” was dedicated to Latasha, as well as “Something To Die For” in which Tupac said in the interlude, “Latasha Harlins, remember that name… ‘Cause a bottle of juice is not something to die for”. In “I Wonder If Heaven Has A Ghetto” Tupac says, “Tell me what’s a black life worth / A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts / And even when you take the shit / Move counties get a lawyer, you can shake the shit / Ask Rodney, Latasha, and many more”
Looking back at the 1992 Los Angeles riots, people often remember tensions between African-Americans, white law enforcement officers and Korean small business owners. That story gets even more complicated when you step into Pico-Union — a neighborhood that was, and still is, predominantly Latino.
In the wake of the Rodney King verdict, riots broke out around the city. The first day, they erupted in South Central; by the second, they had spread north to Pico-Union. And while people all over the city had to deal with looting, fires, and general chaos, many residents of Pico Union had to deal with an additional fear — the threat of deportation.
Mike Hernandez was the neighborhood’s city councilman in 1992. He said that in the 25 years since the riots, Pico-Union hasn’t changed that much. The area is still more than 80 percent Latino, with lots of immigrant families from Mexico and Central America. And, in 1992, a majority of Pico-Union constituents were living below the poverty line in crowded conditions. Hernandez said he knew long before the riots started that Pico-Union was just as combustible as South Central LA. “We had twice the density here of Manhattan,” Hernandez said. “And our fire station here, Fire Station 11, was the busiest fire station in the nation.”
But in the midst of the burning and looting, Hernandez said the few law enforcement officers who made it to Pico-Union were not protecting and serving. He partially blamed it on the fact that in the early 1990s, “Latino” was often synonymous with “illegal” in California. In a 1992 interview, he told NPR that his request for reinforcement during the unrest didn’t get him the results he wanted. “The response to me when I said I needed the National Guard to protect the people of the area and I needed to protect the businesses and protect the homes, they gave me the Border Patrol. It was totally an insult,” he said.
“The mainstream media made it sound as if the 1992 L.A. riots were caused by black-Korean conflict,” [Kim-Gibson] said. “That boiled my blood, because that was not the case. Black-Korean conflict was one symptom, but it was certainly not the cause of that riot. The cause of that riot was black-white conflict that existed in this country from the establishment of this country.”
Media reports that pitted the African American community against their Korean immigrant neighbors, Kim-Gibson felt, “were tremendously wrong. So I decided I could not have the mainstream media tell our stories. We had to go and tell it ourselves.”
Following the 1992 LA riots, leftist commentators often opted to define the event as a rebellion rather than a riot as a way to highlight the political nature of people’s actions. This attempt to reframe the public discourse is borne of ‘good intentions’ (the desire to combat the conservative media’s portrayal of the riots as 'pure criminality’), but it also reflects an impulse to contain, consolidate, appropriate, and accommodate events that do not fit political models grounded in white, Euro- American traditions. When the mainstream media portrays social disruptions as apolitical, criminal, and devoid of meaning, Leftists often respond by describing them as politically reasoned. Here, the confluence of political and anti-social tendencies in a riot/ rebellion are neither recognized nor embraced. Certainly some who participated in the London riots were armed with sharp analyses of structural violence and explicitly political messages - the rioters were obviously not politically or demographically homogenous. However, sympathetic radicals tend to privilege the voices of those who are educated and politically astute, rather than listening to those who know viscerally that they are fucked and act without first seeking moral approval. Some Leftists and radicals were reluctant to affirm the purely disruptive perspectives, like those expressed by a woman from Hackney, London who said, 'We’re not all gathering together for a cause, we’re running down Foot Locker.’ Or the excitement of two girls stopped by the BBC while drinking looted wine. When asked what they were doing, they spoke of the giddy 'madness’ of it all, the 'good fun’ they were having, and said that they were showing the police and the rich that 'we can do what we want.’ Translating riots into morally palatable terms is another manifestation of the appeal to innocence - rioters, looters, criminals, thieves, and disrupters are not proper victims and hence, not legitimate political actors. Morally ennobled victimization has become the necessary precondition for determining which grievances we are willing to acknowledge and authorize.
Against Innocence: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Safety