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Latasha Harlins would not live long enough to witness the birth of Twitter or the era of the hashtag. Yet it’s difficult not to summon her name—or her story—amid hashtag memorials for another dead black girl, 19-year-old Renisha McBride, who was shot in the face earlier this month after knocking on a door in suburban Detroit.
Latasha, age 15, was shot in the back of her head by grocery-store owner Soon Ja Du two weeks after the infamous Rodney King beating in 1991. It happened during a dispute at Du’s South-Central Los Angeles store and ended with Latasha lying dead on the ground with a $1.79 bottle of orange juice sitting on the counter and two crumpled dollar bills in her hand. The memory of Latasha’s shooting eerily haunts the present as we confront the recent death of McBride, whose shooter claims self-defense.
As UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson observes in her new book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins : Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots, much about Latasha’s life and death is all too familiar. As Du testified during her murder trial, in Latasha she didn’t see a black girl who loved BBD —the around-the-way girl with the “New Edition Bobby Brown button” on her sleeve that LL Cool J once lovingly observed. Rather, per Du’s teenage son, what she saw instead was a “gang member.”
Latasha’s sartorial choices—described by a friend in Stevenson’s book as “blue dickies, a white T-shirt, and a black hoodie, always the black hoodie”—reflected her desire, no doubt, to simply fit in. As another friend of hers recalled, “Tasha was just very quiet and shy … And she was hard, you could tell. You didn’t mess with her. She was like in her own world.” None of which suggests that she deserved to die on a Saturday morning in a grocery store doubling as a liquor store, in her own neighborhood.
It is conventional wisdom that the dramatic deaths of black women and girls simply don’t inspire the spirit of agitation that many might recall in the invocation of the names “Emmett Till” or “Trayvon Martin.” And to be sure, we’d be hard-pressed to think of a black woman or girl who resonates in our collective psyche the way Emmett and Trayvon do.
Emmett and Trayvon were middle-class boys who we believed would become solid citizens, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Latasha might be forgotten in the shadow of the case in which four L.A. police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King. Yet Latasha became the catalyst for the most sustained example of black rage since the Watts insurrections of 1965.
Stevenson reminds us that when the phrase “No justice, no peace!” became the anthem of the insurrections that set Los Angeles afire in April of 1992, “Rodney King was not the symbol of injustice that catalyzed the protest: Latasha Harlins was. Indeed the uprising’s slogan … was chanted by protesters at the Empire Liquor Market immediately after Latasha was killed, a full year before … ”
How, then, was it that the death of this 15-year-old black girl was able to inspire the level of collective response that she did? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that Latasha’s murder, despite our collective memories about anti-black violence, was a rarity.
Given that the vast majority of homicides occur within a single racial group, and the majority of females are killed by males, Stevenson notes, “Harlins’ death at the hands of Du was quite unusual. Harlins’ shooting challenged the Black-White divide that often accompanies narratives of anti-Black violence. Du was not only Korean born, but also a woman, as was Judge [Joyce] Karlin, who presided over Du’s trial, and eventually sentenced her to ‘no further jail time.’ ”
Equally rare, according to Stevenson, was that at the time, homicides of black girls in Latasha’s age group (14 to 17) represented less than .01 percent of the murder rate in 1991. That we know so well, today, the examples of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Hadiya Pendleton and Renisha McBride—during an era when, overall, black-youth homicides have declined since the late 1980s—speaks volumes about the surreal nature of their deaths as well as our ability to access and share information about such violence.
The 1991 grocery-store shooting of the 15-year-old, which Brenda Stevenson recounts in her new book, haunts the present-day story of Renisha McBride’s tragic death.
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What is the stunning similarity between the Renisha McBride story and that of Miriam Carey? What justifies prosecution in the former and complete silence in the latter? You might be surprised just how obvious this hypocrisy is. And no, it’s not about race.
I would like to start this article by making this point perfectly clear: I believe Theodore Wafer, the man who shot Renisha McBride on his front porch at 4:30am, should be charged with a crime.
Manslaughter? Involuntary manslaughter? Any of those would do if in fact the gun he was holding went off by accident. Murder in the 2nd degree is also a possibility in that it is not premeditated and there is nothing to suggest he was planning on having Renisha show up at his home so he could kill her.
The fact is, Wafer shot her through a closed and locked screen door according to his own statement. Unlike the Trayvon Martin case, Renisha wasn’t assaulting him and there is nothing at this point to indicate she posed a threat to his life.
As far as the reports go to this point, Wafer only attempted to call the police after the shooting. That fact in itself is reason enough to suggest Mr. Wafer handled the situation badly and must therefore answer for the actions that took place afterward resulting in the death of Renisha McBride.
You don’t have a right to take a life simply because someone is drunk and beating on your door at 4 in the morning. You mightwant to, but you don’t get to. We have laws in this country which we “little people” have to abide by.
Had Wafer simply called the cops and waited for them to show up, Renisha would have been arrested for being intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident as well as a DUI … but she would be alive to pick up the pieces of her life and move on. As it turns out, because of the actions of Theodore Wafer, her parents are now faced with that task while Renisha lies covered in a premature grave.
Renisha was only 18 years old.
That said, I don’t really have to wonder for too long why it is that the Renisha McBride story is now plastered all over CNN, theNew York Times, Fox News, the Huffington Post (Black Voices section), ABC news and pretty much everywhere else whilethe story of what happened to Miriam Carey has disappeared down the memory hole.
Miriam Carey was the 35 year-old mother of one who was shot and killed by Capitol Police and the Secret Service after she made a wrong turn into an access road at the White House and immediately turned around to leave. That’s the official story.
She was chased by Secret Service from the scene in broad daylight down Pennsylvania Ave. and she ended up being surrounded and subsequently executed… while unarmed… with her 14 month-old child watching a few feet away.
Miriam was shot multiple times.
The police as well as the Secret Service violated their SOP by firing at her car on a busy city street while she was simply trying to flee the area.
Whenever the MSM have to report on this case (and it is extremely rare at this point) they always make the claim that she tried to “ram the gates” at the White House in order to gain entry.
That simply didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen according to the one eyewitness at that location and it didn’t happen according to the police report and the official story. But that doesn’t stop the press from using that lie to justify the shooting.
According to both the eyewitness and the police report, Miriam was attempting to leave the grounds of the White House when a Secret Service agent placed a barricade, a portable bike-rack, in front of her car. That is an important distinction.
She pushed through that bike-rack with her vehicle and the Secret Service agent jumped up on her hood to stop her. She sped off once clear of the others causing the agent to fall off her vehicle.
The point is, she was only viewed trying to leave the grounds and the “ramming” she did, was an effort to accomplish that goal, not as the the press would have you believe, to gain access to the grounds.
Now let’s go back to the Renisha McBride story.
What if Renisha had knocked on Wafer’s door, realized she was at the wrong house (her house was on a corner as well) and as she tried to leave, Wafer came out, grabbed her, pointed weapons at her and told her she couldn’t?
What if Renisha had “rammed through” his barricade (porch chairs) and made it out onto the street running away as fast as she could and Wafer had opened fire on her multiple times giving chase?
What if Wafer had caught up with Renisha 10 blocks away and gunned her down while she begged for mercy?
Would there be any question as to his guilt? Would there even be a need for a trial? Of course not. That’s murder in the first, by the way.
But essentially, as ridiculous as my hypothetical “what if” story is, that is EXACTLY what happened to Miriam Carey.
Carey wasn’t trying to gain access to the White House, where-as it can be argued that Renisha was doing just that at Theodore Wafer’s residence.
Carey was no longer on the president’s property, where-as Renisha was still on Wafer’s front porch when she was tragically killed.
And though it only pertains to the story by way of estimating their state of mind, Carey was sober as a judge when she died, where-as Renisha had more than double the legal limit of intoxicants in her system (alcohol and pot)
In the case of the Secret Service, they fired at Miriam at multiple locations with the intention to kill her and in the case of Renisha, one shot was fired and it may turn out it was by accident (still doesn’t absolve Wafer from responsibility or prosecution in my opinion)
In Washington, at the White House, the Secret Service reserves the right to use deadly force in order to prevent unwarranted access to the president’s home.
Ultimately that’s the justification given for the execution of Miriam Carey. That she attempted to “ram the gates” at the White House and gain entry to the building. And she died for it, according to the official story.
But of course, none of that is true.
Not a word from the like of Al Sharpton or Jessie Jackson on behalf of Miriam Carey is to be found.
When viewed in these terms, the stories are remarkably similar and yet the end results in terms of moral outrage from the press and the community are vastly different.
Why is it that Renisha has posters and Twitter feeds and marches while Miriam lays unavenged in her premature grave as well?
You have to be the judge of that.
Should Theodore Wafer be prosecuted? Yes, he should.
Should the Secret Service be investigated for the extra-judicial murder of Miriam Carey? Should there be a real, independent investigation into what really happened that afternoon at the White House?
Renisha wasn’t armed and neither was Miriam. There is no indication that either had malice on their minds when they made their respective geographical mistakes.
So why scream outrage over the one while ignoring the other?
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