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”