Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin: A Case Study of Multicultural Female Violence and Justice on the Urban Frontier

Article excerpt

    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. …