Black History Month

Before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, There Was Latasha Harlins

Latasha was a 15 year-old girl shot who was in the back of the head by a shop owner in 1991 in Los Angeles

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Before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there was Latasha Harlins.

Latasha was a 15-year-old girl shot who was in the back of the head by a Korean shop owner in 1991 in Los Angeles.

Her death struck a chord in the Black community, contributing to protests and civil unrest in the 1992 LA riots. Now, decades later, a public mural in tribute of Latasha is finally on display.

"The playground brings back so many memories of Latasha," said Shinese Harlins-Kilgore, Latasha's cousin. "Still hurts."

It's been nearly 30 years since Latasha was killed.

"She just had her whole life ahead of her. She just knew her dreams and her goals. She just knew it. But unfortunately she didn't make it to her dreams," Harlins-Kilgore said.

Harlins-Kilgore was just 14 years old when her cousin was shot and killed by Soon Ja Du, a 51-year-old Korean American convenience store owner. The owner believed the teenager was trying to steal a $1.79 bottle of orange juice from the shop on 91st Street and Figueroa Avenue.

"She wasn't a thief. She died with $2 in her hand," her cousin said.

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Police found no evidence Latasha was shoplifting.

A jury found the store owner guilty of manslaughter, and the judge sentenced her to five years of probation, and no jail time. The community was outraged and after officers in the Rodney King beating were acquitted, tensions boiled over and riots erupted.

"I knew my life changed from that point," Harlins-Kilgore said.

However, history rarely remembers the young 15-year-old girl who was killed.

Many who live in the neighborhood where she died don't even know Latasha's name or that her death was a rallying cry for racial justice in the early 90s.

"Whether it's police brutality, racism, the female aspect of it is forgotten a lot and the male aspect of it dominates the narrative a lot," Victoria Cassinova said.

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Now, a constant reminder is painted on the Algin Sutton Recreation Center on Hoover Street where Latasha and her cousin spent most of their time.

Cassinova, a visual artist, created the first public mural of Latasha using a splash of colors and words from a poem the 15-year-old wrote a month before she died.

"I wanted to showcase who she was as a person not just another Black body being killed," Cassinova said. "She was an individual. She was intelligent. She was wise beyond her years and I wanted to embody that as best I could."

For Harlins-Kilgore, this mural is just the beginning. The Harlins family is working to create a scholarship fund and name this playground after Latasha.

"I do want the young kids to know who she was and what her life meant," Harlins-Kilgore said.

She says it always takes far too long to memorialize victims of racial injustice and brutality, and the delay in Latasha's case is finally being corrected.

I have a lot of talent and I know whatever I set my mind on something I can accomplish it. Show people I care by giving what I have to people who actually need it.

Latasha Lavon Harlins, poem
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