America Eats Its Young: The L.A. Riots and the Funk of Rage
"I have a lot of talent and I know that whenever I set my mind on something I am going to accomplish it." --Latasha Harlins
Twenty three years ago, Los Angeles, California, the city that shaped my first breath, went up in flames. We danced. The National Guard stood at the entrance of my high school with guns offering 'safety' and a low-key reminder that bullets had a special place for our rage. The Rodney King beating and the ensuing judicial fuckery that followed was the first of many terrorist attacks by the police to be captured on video by community witnesses. In a sense, this 23rd anniversary of the ‘L.A. Rebellion’ celebrates the use of personal video as a righteous process for the people’s justice system. Whether these folks get convicted or not matters less, we know you, we see you, and you can’t convince us our eyes are lying.
All of us watched the circus of institutional and racialized violence that was the Rodney King case. We saw him punched, kicked and non-resistant. He was bloody, stumbling, drunk with the rage from cops, and other numbing substances. From March 1, 1991 forward we engaged the video as the evidence we knew it would be, not minding how often it was replayed on television for nearly a year. It was almost like a commercial for the hard to identify instances of structural racism that rarely stand up against the dismissive argument of paranoia. Two weeks following the Rodney King beatings, Latasha Harlins was killed March 16, 1991, by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du. The surveillance video that recorded her murder was more proof that a gunshot to the back of the head of a Black girl was not only excessive and driven by fear, but could be done with impunity. Together, for that year, both videos functioned like an operatic story about California’s overstated liberalism and its conservative cowboy history. Ronald Reagan and Daryl Gates we will never forget.
California has contributed to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people unlike any other place in the world. California outpaced all other states in prison population growth in the 1980s, with the number of inmates jumping 263%,” according to Justice Department statistics. The sharp increase reflected a nationwide trend. “But the growth rate of California's inmate population more than doubled the national average of a 113% increase from 1980 to 1989.”
How did the boom in mass incarceration during the 1980s impact the life of Latasha Harlins and what role did Rodney King’s addiction play in the “War on Drugs?”
May 10, 1991, the grand jury refused to indict the 17 officers who stood by at the King beating and did nothing. We knew they were accomplices in a crime and this was a blow to our shared hope, but still, the clear violation of human rights in the video couldn’t be denied and justice would be served. Again, we see y’all, but we’re good. Half a year later we heard news of Latasha’s trial. Her killer was sentenced to ten years in state prison November 15, 1991, but that’s not how it ends. The serving judge Joyce Karlin, a former prosecutor during the “War on Drugs” golden era suspended the sentence and placed Soon Ja Du on five years of probation, on condition that she pay $500 to the restitution fund, reimburse the girl’s family for medical and funeral expenses, and perform 400 hours of community service.
Musically, many Los Angeles youth were listening to NWA’s “Fuck the Police” and Ice Cube’s revolutionary Death Certificate album (produced by Public Enemy’s “Bomb Squad” team). In an earlier piece I wrote about the history of Compton misogynistic ‘conscious’ gangsta rap, I discuss the contentious relationship between Blacks and Koreans and how it was expressed and embodied through Ice Cube’s lyrics.
“So pay respect to the black fist/or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp/and then we’ll see ya/Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into Black Korea.
Nirvana’s ‘Smell Like Teen Spirit’ and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation album were on heavy rotation for me. I was also making up dances after school to X-Clan, Gang Starr and Poor Righteous Teachers, and learning a ‘gang of stuff’ about African centeredness, Jackson pop feminism and Five-Percent Nation mathematics. Cinematically, Spike Lee had just released Malcolm X and Michael Jordan helped the Chicago Bulls win their first ‘three-peat’. During this time, not only were Black people feeling themselves culturally, I was becoming politicized by the growing rage in my city.
What was Latasha Harlins listening to?
Latasha and I were in the tenth grade at the time. She was at Westchester High School and I was at Dorsey High School. I was 16 years old when her life was stolen. In this period I was guilty of ‘nuff’ shoplifting in local corner stores. My life happened to have been spared; not necessarily an indication of its social value. Police found two dollars in Latasha’s hand at the crime scene, the two dollars she intended to pay for the juice with, and the official L.A.P.D. report concluded that there had been “no attempt at shoplifting” — “no crime at all.”
The video (which I refuse to link to this piece and consume again) showed her placing the OJ she was suspected of stealing back on the counter and then showed her walking away with that dignity Black people feel when we know we’ve been wronged and decide (and have the luxury), to take our money elsewhere. The last second of Latasha’s life was an important story of resistance. She died fighting for the respect she deserved. I felt a sense of royalty from her, a young queen (or maybe that was my way of keeping her alive in my mind?). The slap on the wrist Soon Ja Du received for taking Latasha’s life reflects a system that criminalizes Black bodies no matter the age or gender, and grants leniency to those who act like vigilantes helping to ensure public safety.
Latasha’s aunt, Denise Harlins, protested the judge’s decision immediately following the trial and for years to come. She interrupted award ceremonies where Karlin appeared and eventually called for the judge’s removal from the bench. The Latasha Harlins Justice Committee was founded to support this effort. Sadly, because the anger behind Latasha’s case began to wane, the committee was unable to garner enough support/signatures to defeat Karlin. She won a six-year judicial term in 1992 instead. The committee went from a membership of hundreds in 1991, to a membership of a little over 10 by the end of 1992. Karlins eventually ‘retired’ after years of a one-woman protest and hopefully after the ghost of her decision and the spirit of Latasha did some convincing. Let us never dismiss Black magic and the healing power of speculative fiction in social justice.
Each anniversary of Latasha’s death, Denise Harlins protested in front of the home of Soon Ja Du. This, Denise Harlins said “was the only method of protest I had left.” Her goal was to not allow for the memories of what Ja Du had done to the Harlins family fade from Ja Du’s or the public's mind. For years, even if alone, Auntie Denise came through, calling her niece's name.
When I started this piece, I had no intention of delving into Latasha’s personal life. I only wanted to describe the atmosphere leading up to the rebellion and weave in bits of information about Latasha and Rodney, as they were central figures that inspired the riot movement. Surprisingly, after years of knowing the surface details of Latasha’s story, my curiosity was piqued by how Latasha’s aunt became the face of the family. Was Latasha, like me in the L.A. 1980s, living with family members for reasons related to our parent’s involvement in the crack economy, either as dealers or users? Was her family, like many of ours in L.A. full of dysfunction and joy?
In digging through the archives of The Los Angeles Times, I learned that the Harlins family was haunted by violent death. Latasha’s birth mother, Crystal Harlins was shot and killed at a dance club in 1985. Latasha was nine years old. Her father, Vester Acoff Sr., left California shortly following the mother’s death and was out of touch with Latasha for years. Acoff Sr. never even made it to his daughter’s funeral. Curiously, he showed up years later when Latasha’s grandmother, Ruth Harlins, won a settlement for damages from the murder that was awarded to Latasha’s younger brother and sister. The presiding judge over the settlement case ruled against granting Acoff Sr. money from Latasha’s estate. The judge concluded that Acoff had “no right to the settlement money because he could not prove he had financially supported Latasha, or made any attempt to form a close relationship with her.”
Once my line of questions led me to the personal lives of Latasha and Rodney, I discovered paralyzing parallels. Because so much of the protest against police brutality is directed towards the experiences of Black men, often times to the exclusion of Black women, I found far more information on the life of Rodney King. King has three daughters, which immediately inspired reflection on Black fathers and their children. Did he and his daughters, like Latasha and her father have limited contact? Another symbolic twist is learning that Rodney King was arrested and plead guilty to robbing a Korean store in California in 1989. Soon Ja Du falsely told police that Latasha was shot in the process of trying to rob the store. This uncomfortable connection to Latasha’s death, speaks to the complexity of Black life and the ease with which the criminal justice system leans towards the probability of Black criminality.
But the criminal history of Rodney King does not justify his near death brush with the cops that L.A. spring night.
April 29, 1992, the four white LAPD officers responsible for the beating of Rodney King were acquitted. Some of the first businesses targeted in the uprising were Korean owned liquor stores. The verdict represented a blatant disregard for Latasha and Rodney’s life and the rage from injustice fueled the spark of the riots. Liquor stores represented an unwanted parasitical relationship between Korean storeowners and Black consumers. The Los Angeles Times reported that 200 liquor stores were wiped out, in a 51-square-mile swath of the city weighted down with more than 600. Targeting liquor stores was intentional and strategic and these actions contradict the reckless and oversimplified belief that ‘rioters’ are simply destroying their own communities.
Shortly following the verdict, Governor Pete Wilson called for a state of emergency soon after a helicopter captured a vicious beating of ‘innocent’ white bystander Reginald Denny.
I’m guilty of cheering on the four Black men who drug Reginald Denny out of his truck on Florence and Normandie and stomped him until the blood covered our collective hands. That’s what powerlessness does, it gives you a false sense of satisfaction when you exercise your learned (de)humanity. Years later I realized that race in America had me cheering on revenge like a fan of a sports team. I was a spectator in a match between the hood rebels and the you-gone-pay-for-what-white-people-represent team. We were finally winning in a game that was rigged from the start.
As we sit in the spirit of Baltimore’s resistance, I think of the fact that Latasha Harlins will turn 40 years old January 1, 2016. My gut tells me she would have been proud to see Black people fighting for their dignity, refusing to accept the conditions that justify the murdering of our lives—of her life. But we have real work to do on ourselves as individuals and within our families and communities. Painfully we learned in 2010, that Rodney King was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool with high levels of alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, PCP and the lingering violence of white supremacy in his system.