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Race & Ethnicity

How a $1.79 Bottle of Orange Juice Helped Spark the L.A. Riots

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Wed, Jul 10, 2013 at 8:07 AM

click to enlarge THE 1992 L.A. RIOTS BY TED SOQUI FOR LA WEEKLY.
  • The 1992 L.A. riots by Ted Soqui for LA Weekly.
The L.A. riots of 1992 were about the acquittal of four LAPD officers who pummeled motorist Rodney King in a "use of force" caught on tape.

Or were they? Keen watchers of L.A. news remember that the fatal shooting of 15-year-old South L.A. girl Latasha Harlins by a Korean American convenience store merchant within two weeks of King's beating also put tensions south of the 10 freeway on high:

In fact, a new book from UCLA history professor Brenda Stevenson puts the Latasha Harlins case front-and-center when it comes to sparking the 1992 uprising.

The book, titled "The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the LA Riots," also puts gender at the fore.

It was a middle-aged Korean shopkeeper, Soon Ja Du, versus a teenager from the 'hood, Harlins, who had $2 in her hand, ready to pay up when she was shot.

That, at least, is the popular story line. UCLA says Stevenson digs as deep as anyone has yet into the clash between Du and Harlins, documenting the personal histories not only of the pair, but also of the judge, Joyce Karlin, who gave Du no jail time for the shooting.

She writes that those events ...

... undermined community patriarchies, challenging the vitality and legitimacy of black manhood and the citizenship rights associated with that manhood. How, indeed, could men be men if they could not protect their women and youth?

click to enlarge STEVENSON VIA UCLA
  • Stevenson via UCLA

Last year we talked to John Lee, a Korean American journalist who covered the Harlins case for the Los Angeles Times.

See also: L.A. Riots: LAPD Tried to Displace its Racism Problem And 'Put it On a Korean Merchant.'

He believes that police tried to nail Du to the cross the Monday after the King beating became public via that infamous video in an effort to deflect attention away from its officers' actions and provide a new villain for the black community.

He noted that Harlins stuffed a $1.79 bottle of juice in her backpack and then punched Du in the face two or three times before the shopkeeper pulled the trigger.

Du was in her 50s at the time. Lee says Du's family contended the gun she used had recently been recalibrated, unknown to her, so that it would have a hair trigger.

It will be interesting to see if these details are included in Stevenson's book. We know she got one thing right for sure:

The riots were about much more than just Rodney King.

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow LA Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.

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