Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin: a case study of multicultural female violence and justice on the urban frontier.

Author:Stevenson, Brenda E.

How do you tell people to get together, to forgive and forget, if the judge doesn't show any concern for the community? Justice includes punishment, and there was none in this case. (1) It was midafternoon on a warm day in late April 1992, when the nation and the world turned its attention to Los Angeles. For the next five days, they watched in horror as thousands of residents took to the streets to burn and loot, sometimes even to assault and kill. "No justice, no peace!" was the anthem of the day as local blacks, Latinos, and even a sprinkling of Asian Americans and whites joined in the five-day "rebellion" that purportedly underscored the injustice of the first verdict in the Rodney King police brutality trial. But for many who actively joined in the rebellion, and for the thousands who stayed at home, but understood all too well why others acted, Rodney King was not the symbol of injustice that was being protested; Latasha Harlins was. (2)

On 16 March 1991, at approximately 9:35 A.M., Latasha Harlins walked into the Empire Liquor Market located at 9172 South Figueroa Street in Compton, California. Within the course of five short minutes, she lay on the floor in front of the store's counter, suffering from a single close-range gunshot wound to the back of her head. Two dollars lay crumpled in her left hand. Soon Ja Du, her face beginning to swell and discolor from the four punches Harlins landed during a brief struggle between the two, ostensibly over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, crouched on top of the counter trying to see where Harlins had fallen. Two neighborhood children ran terrified from the store. (3)

Blood still had not started to seep from Harlins's motionless body when Billy Du, who had been asleep in his van outside the market, rushed inside. Soon Ja Du was hysterical, screaming that she was being robbed, that the robber had tried to take money out of the cash register. She then seemed to lapse into a coma. Seeing his bruised wife to his right and Harlins's body with the money to his left, he made a desperate call to the police department. "'We got a hold up," he told a 911 operator. The thief was "'taking the money out of the cash register" and his wife"' shot the robber lady." (4)

Eight months later, Soon Ja Du, convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the death of Latasha Harlins, sat in a small, packed courtroom in downtown Los Angeles. The change of venue for the case from Compton to downtown Los Angeles purportedly gave the advantage of a secure courtroom: bullet-proof glass shielded the defendant, judge, and lawyers from anguished and angry spectators alike, all demanding some kind of justice. Judge Joyce A. Karlin heard defense and prosecution statements as she waited to deliver her sentence in a criminal trial by jury, the first sentence that she would render in a jury trial since she had taken the bench a few months earlier. (5)

This is the story of a young African American female, Latasha Harlins, at two important urban sites: a small liquor/convenience store in her neighborhood and a courtroom in downtown Los Angeles. It also is the story of her interactions with two women: Soon Ja Du, a middle-aged, naturalized Korean American shopkeeper's wife, and Joyce Karlin, a relatively young, quite affluent European American judge. Their "diversity," manifest by their different racial, class, and generational affiliations and identities evoke the "female side" to the U.S.'s fundamentally conflicted relationship with "others." There were profound differences, but there were also some important similarities. Perhaps the most important similarities were that all three were females; that they were all migrants to Los Angeles; and that each came as part of a family that had great hope for what they could accomplish in this vibrant "urban frontier." Their similarities, however, did not outweigh their differences, and the impact that these differences had on the manner in which they regarded one another and chose to interact.

Vital issues of race and privilege, justice and scapegoating, human worth and economic autonomy abound in this tragic and controversial case. So too do issues that center on fundamental indexes of personal identity, particularly gender, emerge and complicate, if not confound, the way in which we understand the interplay between Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin. Read through a context of female interaction and conflict on various urban planes/plains, an exploration of the nuances of this case suggests a more complex understanding of the "place" of young black females in contemporary urban society. (6)

This study explores where women of various class, racial/ethnic, and generational affiliations stand in relation to each other and in relation to the larger society--underscoring the conflicting and complementary nature incumbent in, and in spite of, female diversity in contemporary urban society. It proposes the concept of an operative female hierarchy shaped by the sociopolitical and socioeconomic context of American society, historically and contemporaneously, exposing some of the power relations incumbent in this hierarchy and how race and class often are at the base of those relations.

This case, for example, points to the extraordinary power that affluent European American women have in their relationships with women of color, particularly poorer women of color. Moreover, it suggests that influential European American women, like their male counterparts, use their control, not only to distance themselves from these women, but also to configure the hierarchical terrain on which women of color interact. When faced with a crime that involved an aspiring middle-class Korean woman and a lower-class black girl, Judge Joyce Karlin imposed an hierarchial framework on the two women. This framework was meant to maintain the elite white hegemony in which she shared as well as to reward the woman who, because of her political ideology and cultural values, posed the least threat to that hegemony. Judge Karlin's privileging of Soon Ja Du's perspective reinforced Du's social, legal, and moral power vis-a-vis Latasha Harlins. Through her sentencing, Karlin labeled Soon Ja Du's lifestyle as appropriate, while chastising and criminalizing Harlins for behaving differently, for being different.

The manner in which Joyce Karlin treated Harlins in the courtroom, just as Soon Ja Du had treated her in the storeroom, also underscores how popular, historic myths about race and gender inform interethnic/interracial female relations. This case reveals, for example, how much of society, even across class and ethnic lines, operates on the belief that Asian women are meek and deferential and that black women and girls are aggressive and violent. This revelation, in turn, exposed race and class as gendered social categories. Judge Karlin and Mrs. Du's legal representatives effectively use Latasha Harlins's race and class to deny her gender, to masculinize and criminalize her.


At age 15, Latasha Harlins was struggling to find her place in a troubling world. She had lost her mother, Crystal Harlins, when she was only 8. Crystal had been killed--shot to death in a drunken brawl on 12 November 1985. Less than a year later Latasha's father, Sylvester Acoff, left the area, suspending all financial support and contact with Latasha and her two siblings. Latasha lived with her maternal grandmother, Ruth Harlins, and an extended family comprised of four children (Latasha, her brother Joshua, her sister Veronica, and a cousin Shinese), and two adult maternal siblings, her Aunt Denise and Uncle Richard. (7)

Latasha's grandmother was the head of the Harlins clan in Los Angeles. She was a proud, strong-willed woman whom her granddaughter loved deeply. Profoundly religious, Ruth Harlins insisted on holding a tight rein on Latasha and the other members of her household. She had been born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, part of a family of sharecroppers and domestic workers. After her parents separated, Ruth lived for a while with her paternal grandparents, Lula and Ed Thomas. When she was 8, her mother moved to East St. Louis, taking Ruth with her. By the time that she was 17, Ruth Harlins was living on her own. She was determined to improve her life, but was only able to attend college for two years before she became pregnant and had to quit. She raised her children in East St. Louis, but after a failed marriage and other family tragedies, she looked further west for better opportunities. In 1981, Ruth and her adult children, and their children, migrated to Los Angeles. (8)

Latasha was only 5 when her family moved west. She was then with both of her parents. Her mother worked as a waitress at night and studied to be a real estate agent by day, her father worked in a local steel foundry, and her grandmother was a clerk at the Department of Public Services. "When you go someplace else, you're always expecting things to be better," Ruth Harlins explained of her initial exodus from the Deep South and her family's subsequent move from East St. Louis to Los Angeles. "You always have dreams." (9) Latasha had dreams too. Friends and teachers spoke of her desire to attend law school. Law appealed to her because she believed it was the way to seek and gain justice--a justice that Latasha defined in part as keeping the woman who had killed Crystal Harlins incarcerated for more than five years. (10)

Latasha's dreams, like those of her family, confronted the difficult realities of her urban environment. The Harlins family lived in Compton, a densely populated section of South Central Los Angeles known more for its "typical" urban problems--crime, poverty, dysfunctional schools, troublesome gangs, and corrupt politicians--than anything else. Moreover, Los Angeles hardly proved to be a mecca of racial tolerance and black opportunity. With 117,368 African American residents in...

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