Why We Must Remember The Life Of Latasha Harlins And #SayHerName

Latasha Harlins. Fifteen years old. Instant death with $2 for a carton of OJ in her hand.
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Ayofemi Kirby

Over a five-day period, which ended last Monday night, and at the recommendation from multiple friends, I finally watched ESPN’s Oscar-winning documentary O.J. Simpson: Made in America. By the final episode, I felt a combination of anger, befuddlement, pride, and disappointment about what I’d just committed ten hours of my life to see.

O.J. Simpson is the quintessential American story. His life, perpetually oscillating between triumphant and tragic, captures the intersectionality of what it means to be defined, refined and confined by all-American standards. O.J.’s story is a messy composite of racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, class, criminal justice and our celebrity-obsessed culture all rolled into one and seamlessly examined through this documentary.

It is the way in which Ezra Edelman allowed this story to tell itself and permitted Americans to tell on ourselves that is most intriguing and satisfying, and is what I believe allowed this documentary to win over the other two most recent, provocative and exceptional examinations of race in America on our screens last year (see I Am Not Your Negro and 13th).

“Before this documentary, I’d never even heard of Latasha Harlins’ name.”

Although the infotainment we’ve seen with this doc and FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson has arguably been among the most brilliant television moments of all time, I’m still shocked at America’s obsession with O.J. and this case more than 20 years later. But enough about him. From what I hear, for better and more likely for worse, O.J. may be back on-air as America’s favorite spectacle real soon. So I’ll move on.

There was something else in this film that struck me with a jarring blow. It happened in the second episode, when camera footage of an African-American teenage girl and a South Korean store owner was replayed multiple times. In the footage, the two of them are tussling back and forth over the store counter. And then, as the young girl turns to walk out of the store, the employee picks up a gun and shoots her in the back of the head. Point-blank range. The girl’s head jerks forward and she falls. End scene.

Latasha Harlins was her name. Fifteen years old. Instant death with $2 for a carton of OJ — the juice, not the man — in her hand.

The employee suspected Harlins had stolen a carton of orange juice. But even then, the video shows how the employee shot Harlins after she placed the carton on the counter.

After seeing this footage a few times, I needed a serious break. My face was hot and my head started to hurt. I was around 10-years-old when the L.A. riots began and when we watched that Bronco fly down the freeway. All I remembered was Rodney King being violently kicked and beaten as a precursor to the riots. Before this documentary, I’d never knew or even heard Latasha Harlins’ name.

““I love being black and I love being a woman and I’ll never forget the feeling I felt when I saw Latasha Harlins die.””

As we see in Made in America, the shop employee was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but served no jail time. The judge, sympathetic to the stress and duress the employee was experiencing, sentenced her to 400 hours of community service and a minimal fine for the blatant murder of a 15-year-old child, caught on tape.

Fuck. I needed a break. My mind needed a full-on pause from what I’d just realized truly lit the flame of L.A. riot fires 13 days after the Rodney King video was released. All I could think about is how Latasha could have easily been or could still be me. Angry is an understatement. I left my apartment and went to get a juice from my regular corner store, but turned around and left when I saw the owners. I couldn’t do it. I truly needed a minute and a break from the reality that had now clouded my head.

Fast forward to today.

Over the past week I’ve seen two videos of store employees violently restraining, kicking, and choking young black women for the suspected theft of items with a likely value of less than $10. The facts of both these situations are blurry, but the majority of stories I’m reading state that neither women actually stole anything at all. Either way, nothing justifies the abusive and violent treatment they have received by beauty-store staff.

As a black woman, I’ve had my share of experiences with situations that I suspect wouldn’t have happened if I was another race or gender. I’ve been called “stupid” among other racist epithets by an Asian laundromat owner for forgetting to get my clothes out of her facility before the closing hour, even as I ran into the laundry out of breath and apologizing for being late. I was most recently told by a white male reporter that he would “bite my finger off” after I turned around and instructed him not to speak to me in an unnecessary and abusive tone, especially because I was doing my best to accommodate all of his requests. I could be wrong, but I believe neither of these scenarios would have happened if I was something other than black and a woman — and probably because I appear young as well.

“Latasha Harlins. #SayHerName.”

Latasha Harlins. Still on my mind.

Why, after all these years, did I not know her name? Why, although I prefer not to see the video again, was this footage, her name and the systemic injustice that took her life not as notorious as Rodney King’s. Not only was Harlins’ voice silenced through this heinous and unnecessary murder, but if not for Edelman’s work, her name and life may have also continued to be overlooked in the circus that this tragedy and trial became.

This is what people fail to understand about the intersection of race and gender. Not only are black women, our experiences and contributions, most often omitted and overlooked, but we are also the ones who are most often forgotten about when those same experiences and contributions push these discussions, the resistance and the fight for equity, equality and justice forward. Yet, we are often the one’s screaming the loudest and fighting the hardest (see the female founders of the Black Lives Matter movement).

This is why I absolutely adored when Janelle Monae and her funky Wondaland squad made all the women at the Women’s March on Washington “say her name,’ or at least hear it if they refused to part their lips.

Latasha Harlins. Say her name.

In all, I love being black and I love being a woman, and I’ll never forget the feeling I felt when I saw Latasha Harlins die. I’ll also now, never forget her name along with those of all the other beautiful, strong, resilient, powerful black women whose contributions, experiences, lives and deaths will never be in vain in this fight to be seen, known, loved, valued, protected, and remembered by a society that too often chooses the alternative.

This post was originally published on Medium.com.

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