Wave Staff Report
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — As a child, Latasha Harlins loved going to the Algin Sutton Recreation Center at 88th and Hoover streets to play.
Tybie O’Bard, a childhood friend of Latasha, said the pair would frequent the park.
“First thing in the morning when she would come to my door, early in the morning, she’s like, ‘You ready to go to the park?’” O’Bard said in March. “This is where we would be.”
Harlins was the 15-year-old South Los Angeles girl who was killed by a Korean store owner during a dispute over a bottle of orange juice in 1991.
Her death, coupled with the beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers 13 days earlier, are considered the sparks that ignited the 1992 civil unrest in South Los Angeles.
In March, City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson held a ceremony at the recreation center on the 30th anniversary of Harlins death and announced the playground would be named in memory of Harlins.
On April 29, Harris-Dawson and other local officials returned to unveil the sign that designates the playground at Sutton Recreation Center as the Latasha Harlins Playground. The unveiling came as the city opened Sutton Recreation Center and others across the city to the public after closing them more than a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m excited we’re opening this playground today,” Harris-Dawson said.
Also on hand was Harlins’ grandmother, Ruth Harlins, Community Build CEO Robert Sausedo and community activists Najee Ali and Kevin Twin Orange.
“Before there was George Floyd, before there was Breonna Taylor, there was Latasha Harlins,” community Ali said back in March and the original ceremony. “Latasha Harlins was a child from our neighborhood, our community, and her murder still is painful 30 years later. It was one of the darkest days in the history of Black Los Angeles.
“But today is not a day of sadness, nor a day of mourning,” he added. “It’s a day of celebration. It’s a day we remember Latasha.”
A mural of Harlins painted on a nearby wall looks down on the playground.
Harlins was a straight A student at Westchester High School with hopes of graduating high school, attending college and becoming a lawyer.
Those hopes were cut short by Soon Ja Du, the owner of Empire Liquor Store near the corner of Figueroa and 91st streets. Du believed that Harlins was trying to steal a $1.79 bottle of orange juice.
An accusation led to a physical altercation. As Harlins walked away, leaving the orange juice on the counter, Du reached for a gun underneath the counter and pulled the trigger, hitting Harlins in the back of the head, killing her instantly. Harlins still had the $2 she was going to use to pay for the orange juice in her hand when she died.
Eight months after the shooting, a jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, an offense that at the time carried a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Du to only five years probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine, saying “no matter what sentence this court imposes, Ms. Du will be punished every day for the rest of her life.”
The sentence was appealed but a state appeals court issued a ruling April 21, 1992, upholding Karlin’s sentence.
A week later, a jury in Simi Valley acquitted the four officers accused of beating King, igniting six days of rioting that left 63 people dead, nearly 2,400 injured, 12,000 arrested and more than $1 billion in proerty damage.
Empire Liquor Store burned to the ground during the riots.
“This is something that’s long overdue,” Harlins’ uncle, David Bryant, said following the March ceremony. “And I think that could be somewhat of a healing to the community.”