Sandy Close, Ethnic Media Services
YREKA, California — Activists outraged over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Asian man in Yreka — a small Northern California town with a history of public lynchings — are invoking the vice and violence the world witnessed in the 2020 police murder of George Floyd to protest the murder.
“Justice needs to be served. This is related and so similar to the George Floyd incident,” said Peter Thao, an activist who has been organizing events to draw public attention to the murder and put pressure on local authorities to investigate it.
On June 28, police officers shot the victim, identified as 35-year-old Soobleej Kaub Hawj, a Hmong man and father of three, in a hail of 40 to 60 bullets, according to activists who say they have heard audio of the incident.
“If the body cam is released and he is the one firing at the law enforcement then law enforcement needs to do whatever needs to be done if they are confronted with someone with arms. They have every right to protect themselves and the community,” Thao continued. “But if the law enforcement is making a wrong judgement in predicting or assuming that this person is armed, this person is dangerous, …. and takes the life of another human being, then this is totally unlawful.”
Over 600 Hmong Americans from across California and as far away as Milwaukee and Minneapolis converged on the Siskiyou County courthouse in Yreka last weekend to demand a federal investigation into the shooting of Hawj.
That protest turned this sparsely populated county nestled in the foothills of Mount Shasta into the newest flashpoint of resistance by Asian Americans against a surge of anti-Asian violence in the state, according to Mai Vang, a Sacramento City Council member who spoke at the July 17 rally.
In this case the targets are Asian Americans of Hmong, Cambodian, Lao and Chinese descent who have settled in growing numbers in the county, many to grow small cannabis plots much as their families cultivated in Laos and Cambodia. The shooting intensified escalating racial tensions between county authorities and cannabis growers. While cannabis is legal in California, outdoor cultivation is forbidden in Siskiyou County. Farmers can grow up to 12 plants indoors.
Police allegedly shot and killed Hawj after he turned the wrong way at a checkpoint on Highway A 12 near Weed during a mandatory evacuation order for the region during the early hours of the Lava fire. His wife and three children were in a second car behind him.
Law enforcement officials say he was turning back towards the evacuation zone when he was stopped, and that he was pointing a semi-automatic handgun.
Community activists dispute that, saying it was too dark to see inside the truck. A photo taken by an eyewitness shows the sides of the truck riddled with 21 bullet holes and both side windows blown out.
The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department did not issue a formal statement but posted a response on its Facebook page. “Officer involved shootings are complex investigations that take time to thoroughly investigate. There are certain details surrounding this incident that have not been made public as the investigation is ongoing; however, in the future, once the investigation is completed, a thorough report of the incident will be made public.”
Zurg Xiong – a 33-year-old local activist who began a hunger strike on July 9 to demand justice for Hawj – took center stage at the July 17 rally.
Restrictive Water Ordinances Allegedly Targeting Asians
In a letter addressed to Siskiyou Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue and the Board of Supervisors of Siskiyou County, which was circulated among the protestors, Zurg reiterated his demands: release of all video camera footage, an official investigation into the shooting, and an end to racial discrimination against the Hmong community, including restrictive water ordinances which activists claim target Hmong farmers.
Surrounded by relatives who keep constant vigil, Zurg told protestors he was prepared to die if there is no justice.
Many older protestors, including veterans from the Vietnam War, expressed a sense of betrayal over Hmong farmers being characterized by county authorities as the “Hmong cartel.”
“Why do they hate Hmong people?” asked Dr. Lee Yao Pang of Sacramento who referenced, like many in the protest, the fusillade of bullets fired at Hawj’s car.
“We served U.S. forces in the secret war in Laos, we rescued American pilots, we lost over 35,000 lives supporting the U.S. Now we’re accused of running a secret drug war here.”
“What would a cartel be doing, asking for dialogue and protesting peacefully like this?” asked Ed Szendrey, former chief investigator for the Butte County District Attorney’s office, who has helped veterans from the secret war since the 1990s and came to the protest from Chico. He said the county’s water ordinances were so restrictive they were starving Hmong farmers out of the county.
“It’s as if they assume every drop of water goes for cannabis farming. But people need water to cook, to bathe, to live. Old couples have to go to the creek to get water now.”
Six Asian Americans filed a lawsuit June 4, 24 days before Hawj was killed, seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Sheriff’s Office from surveilling trucks for water delivery in the Mount Shasta Vista area, where Hmongs make up the majority of residents.
In its response to the lawsuit, the defendants noted that thousands of pounds of illegally-grown marijuana — with a street value of $59 million to $179 million — had been seized in the area.
Szendery and other supporters of the Hmong community are calling for the Justice Department to investigate the shooting of Hawj.
Mary Ly, a wife and mother of two in her 20s, moved to Siskiyou from Denver last year to care for her mom.
“What if this were happening to my mom? I’m afraid to have my mom go to the grocery store.” Ly works in retail and says she sees how clerks disrespect Hmong elders. “I’ve never experienced racism like that before.”
Yreka’s History of Lynchings
Yreka is infamous for two public lynchings in which five men were hanged by mobs in 1895 and 1935. The town was also the site of a secessionist movement led by a young militia in the 1940s.
Nhoua Xiong, a Chico state student who was raised in Milwaukee, felt inspired to join the protest by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call that “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.
We have put aside tribal issues – we have 18 clans – and we are learning after just 50 years of being in the US what it means to be American—to have the right to dissent.”
But the optimism and call for dialogue is tempered by despair over the everyday cruelty Hmong say they experience. Among the demands in Zurg Xiong’s letter to the Sheriff and the Board of Supervisors is that Hawj’s dog Silk, who was also shot, be released immediately to the family. Silk was taken by law enforcement officials the night of the shooting and will be reportedly “adopted out.”
Late on July 23, Zurg Xiong announced he was ending his hunger strike following
meetings that afternoon with officials of the state Attorney General’s office
who have agreed to investigate the fatal shooting. It speaks to the
power of the Hmong community mobilizing to demand justice, and the
many advocates and media journalists who heard our voice, he said.