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The Los Angeles Riot of 1992 was one of the most destructive civil disturbances in twentieth century America. Dozens of people died, and the property damage estimate was in the billions of dollars. The most powerful images from the riots remained etched in America's collective memory: Reginald Denny being beaten in South Central, the beating of Rodney King, towering plumes of smoke throughout the city on a crystal-clear day, and Korean shopkeepers perched on rooftops with rifles, defending their property. The not guilty verdict for the LAPD officers charged with beating Rodney King was the immediate trigger, but as Brenda Stevenson shows in this truly novel excavation of the riot's causes, there were many sources of anger that stretched back decades. The King episode was merely the straw that broke the camel's back. In,The Contested Murder of Latasha HarlinsStevenson explores the long-simmering resentment within LA's black community that ultimately erupted in April 1992 by focusing on a preceding event that encapsulated the growing racial and social polarization in the city over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s: the 1991 shooting of a fifteen-year old African American girl, Latasha Harlins, by a Korean grocer who suspected Harlins of shoplifting. The female storeowner, Soon Ja Du, was charged with manslaughter, and the resulting trial presided over by the Jewish judge Joye Karlin was widely publicized. In the end, Ja Du received no jail time. After the riots occurred, many came to realize that the killing of Harlins was an important precursor event. Stevenson not only provides a rich account of the case and its aftermath, but uses the lives of the three protagonists to explore the intertwined histories of three immigrant ethnic groups who arrived in Los Angeles in different erea: blacks, Koreans, and Jews. And, since all of her protagonists were female, she explores the relationship between gender and the law. The result is a kaleidoscopic and rich history of race, class and gender in late twentieth century America that will reshape our understanding of that era.
Brenda Stevenson is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her books include The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke and Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South, selected as an Outstanding Book by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America.