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Book Review: A Trayvon of another time….

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Author and UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson had no way of knowing that her new book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins:  Justice Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots, would be so tragically timely.  The headlines she dissects could have been written about the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida – but this innocent teen was gunned down more than two decades ago in a corner store in Compton.

Brenda Stevenson, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Book Cover: The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins (2013)

Book Cover: The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins (2013)

Review by Elaine Elinson

The unarmed African American teenager was shot and killed.  The shooter, claiming self-defense, served not one minute of jail time.

The sorrow, anger and disbelief in the Black community was palpable.  One mother wrote to the daily newspaper that she feared the justice system has “told us it is open season on our children.”

This might have been last month’s headline about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case in Florida.  It actually happened more than two decades ago, across the country in Los Angeles.

Just two weeks after the brutal beating of Rodney King at the hands of four Los Angeles police officers, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was gunned down in a neighborhood market in Compton by store owner Soon Ja Du. The proprietor, a Korean immigrant, had accused Latasha of attempting to steal a $1.79 bottle of orange juice.  The police who came to the scene found two dollar bills crumpled in the girl’s lifeless hand.

The jury convicted Du of involuntary manslaughter and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin – presiding over her first criminal trial  — sentenced her to a suspended ten-year sentence, 5 years probation, 400 hours of community service, a $500 fine and reimbursement to the family for Latasha’s medical and funeral expenses.

Author Brenda Stevenson had no way of knowing that her book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and Origins of the L.A. Riots, published this month by Oxford University Press, would be so tragically timely.

Stevenson, a professor at UCLA, usually focuses on 18th and 19th century African American history, particularly life in the slaveholding South.  But she had just moved to Los Angeles when Harlins was murdered and Rodney King was beaten.  Those crimes, and the protests and riot that followed, compelled the historian to spend more than a decade researching this book about the events that shook Los Angeles in 1991 and 1992.

The circumstances are eerily similar to the Trayvon Martin case.  Former Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner, whose office tried the Harlins murder case, said after the verdict,  “Every single person in the black community understood, or at least they believed they understood, what justice was in our courts when they saw a young black child being shot in the back of the head and the person being let off with a $500 fine and reimbursement to the family for the price of the funeral.”  A summation equally appropriate to the mood of the country after the George Zimmerman verdict.

But Stevenson also highlights the distinctions.  While news stories about violence generally focus on men and often on a black/white construct, Latasha Harlins’ story defies those categories.   The three principals are women, from very different ethnic backgrounds.

“Stereotypes embedded in race, class, culture, age and gender become problematically intertwined and intersected in this case,” Stevenson writes.   And she undertakes something very bold in scope to examine these intersections and make them understandable.

Stevenson leads us on a journey far from the street corner in South Central LA where the fates of these three women tragically intersected, carefully avoiding both stereotyping and determinism.

She takes us to the Jim Crow south where black women were raped, beaten and lynched – and their perpetrators never punished.  She writes of  the Harlins family journey from Alabama to St. Louis to Los Angeles, describing the “migratory trend of African Americans that extended generations back,” to escape the violence, degradation and poverty of the rural south.  And though Latasha was raised by her grandmother and aunt in a loving home, Los Angeles was not a nurturing terrain for African American children in the 1980s, beset by “urban blight, social dysfunction, police brutality, gang violence and a seductive and deadly new menace – crack.” Latasha Harlins was described by those who knew her as an honor student at Bret Harte Middle School, a good friend, a member of the drill team with a beautiful smile. But her family life was marred by drugs and domestic violence; her mother had been gunned down in a bar when Latasha was only nine.

Stevenson also traces the paths of the first Korean immigrants who came to work in the sugar plantations in Hawaii at the turn of the century, replacing Chinese workers who were denied entry because of the Exclusion Act.  Quotas on immigrants from Asia meant that Korean immigrant men outnumbered women by five to one.  After the Korean War, many of those who migrated– like Soon Ja Du and her husband – were college educated, but lacking language skills they found it hard to find jobs outside of factory labor.  As the Korean population grew, there was a great influx of Korean-owned businesses in African American neighborhoods.  By the time of the murder, fully 2/3 of the businesses in South Central were Korean-owned, and there was often tension between the storeowners and the community they served.  Du claimed that she thought Latasha was a gang member, based on her clothing and her attitude, and that she feared for her safety.

And, examining the ancestral history of Judge Karlin, Stevenson takes us to the terror that Jews faced in Tsarist Russia, where soldiers and mobs invaded Jewish homes, ransacked them, murdered women and children and set villages ablaze in state-sanctioned pogroms. Judge Karlin’s great-grandparents endured such oppression, which led them to immigrate to America, along with millions of other Jews from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.  Though facing anti-Semitism, Jews found a much warmer welcome in Los Angeles than African Americans or Koreans, and within two generations, Karlin’s family had become wealthy and prominent in the movie industry.

As Stevenson delves into the deep background of each of the women and their communities, she looks at the legal, social, economic and cultural trajectories that led to their paths crossing in tragedy.  In doing so, she reveals the unjust racial hierarchy – white (Jewish), Asian American, African American – of the three communities, but also acknowledges that all of them are bound together by a history of oppression.

In focusing on women, Stevenson uncovers some side stories that are fascinating.  She writes, for example, that organized women’s groups in the Black and Jewish communities were “the pioneers who first participated in the cooperative efforts to expand rights for both groups,” forging alliances as early as the 1920s.   She also describes the special court set up for women established by the California legislature in 1914, where female judges heard cases involving women and children.

Stevenson’s deep examination of the history of African Americans, Korean Americans and Jews in Los Angeles gives us a sense of how each of the women perceived the world and their place in it.  Yet the fact remains that a young African American girl was killed, and the judge let her killer go free.   “Justice,” Stevenson concludes, remained for Latasha Harlins’ family, “what it too frequently is for the poor, for blacks, and other people of color, for females and for the young – a frustrating, painful reiteration of the inequalities in American society that touches, and often destroys, so many people’s lives.”

[A different version of this review first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on August, 23, 2013.]

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