Hungry for Justice: How the Police-Involved Killing of a Hmong American in Rural California Sparked a Movement and is Redefining What It Means to be Asian American
Byline: Amanda Mei Kim, Social Movements Contributor, and Mai Vang, Sacramento City Councilmember
Photos by: Channing Vang and Chewie Yang.
Additional Reporting by: Sunita Sohrabji, Contributing Editor, Ethnic Media Services. Article posted July 28, 2021
YREKA, CA — On June 28, 2021, while evacuating the Lava wildfire, Soobleej Kaub Hawj, was killed at a roadblock by agents from multiple law enforcement agencies, including Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department, Etna Police Department, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Following behind him in a separate vehicle were his wife and three children, ages 5 to 15 years. According to news reports, witnesses heard 40-60 rounds of ammunition fired. Photos of the vehicle showed 24 bullet holes in the driver side, two shattered driver’s side windows and another dozen bullet holes on the passenger side and front windshield. Hawj died on the scene. The family dog, Silk, was also shot and confiscated by the county.
July 17 protest in Yreka, California. Photo: Channing Vang
Nearly a month after this tragic event, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department has not released the names of the officers involved in Mr. Hawj’s shooting, the status of the dog, or evidence to support Sheriff-Coroner Jeremiah LaRue’s statement that officers fired in self-defense. The name of the victim was released after Hmong American activist Tou Ger Xiong held a live broadcast on July 16 demanding his name on behalf of the Hmong American community.
Hawj’s killing occurred at a time of heightened tension between Asian American cannabis growers and the county government. On May 4, 2021, the Board of Supervisors passed two “urgency” ordinances that banned water trucks on specific county roads where the predominantly Hmong and other Asian American community is located and banned the sharing or transportation of water from one parcel to another without a permit. In the weeks after the ordinances were passed, sheriff personnel started confiscating water trucks. On June 24, a lightning strike near Weed, California, sparked a fire that spread across the northern flank of Mount Shasta. Most of the fire was contained at county highway 97, but a small offshoot headed directly toward the Hmong and Asian American community, which was heavily damaged by the fire. In multiple news reports, Hmong Americans said that they were prevented from bringing water trucks into their community and were left to put out the fire themselves, while Sheriff-Coroner LaRue said that residents prevented emergency responders from entering the community. (Reference: “Sheriff identifies man shot during California wildfire as tensions rise with pot growers” SacBee July 16, 2021)
Hawj’s killing was the last straw for many local Asian Americans who make up 1.6% of the Siskiyou county population. They had experienced months and years of racial profiling, had been referred to as “cartel” members by public officials, were deprived of water and, as a result of advice by LaRue, were treated with suspicion at stores. For over a year, the community had been protesting policies that seemed designed to target them, with little effect until Zurg Xiong, a 33-year old Hmong American decided to follow in the steps of Irish Republican Army activist Bobby Sands and demand change through a hunger strike. “Our community will not suffer in silence,” said Xiong. “We are resilient people and we have always understood the importance of fighting for a cause we believe in.”
Flanked by US veterans, hunger striker Zurg Xiong speaks at July 17 protest in Yreka, California. Photo: Chewie Yang
On July 4, Xiong situated himself in front of the county’s new $59-million courthouse, along with a contingent of protestors who monitored his health, carried signs, and shared their stories with mostly curious and occasionally, hostile members of the public. In the first week of his protest, a deputy told Xiong that the state wanted him to move. Xiong requested documentation, which the deputy did not provide. He stayed and the strike continued.
On Saturday, July 17, over 600 Hmong Americans, Asian Americans, and concerned residents joined a peaceful protest at the Siskiyou County Courthouse to demand an independent investigation into Hawj’s shooting and the pattern of racial discrimination. Among the protestors were dozens of local Hmong veterans who had fought on behalf of the US Government during the Vietnam War in the CIA-led “Secret War” in Laos.
In the days following the protest, the hashtag #ZurgStrong began to trend on social media and 13,500 people signed a petition for an external investigation into Hawj’s murder. In a July 23 press briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services, journalist Helen Zia, who has been tracking anti-Asian American hate crimes for 40 years said, “Asian Americans have long been rendered invisible by our public officials, political leaders, educational system, as well as the criminal justice system, which has made it possible for injustice and racism to take place without any accountability at all.” The veteran activist noted that Hmong Americans and other highly marginalized communities within the Asian American and Pacific Islander designation are especially invisible and therefore, vulnerable to systemic racism.
On July 23, the 19th day of Xiong’s hunger strike, California State Attorney General Rob Bonta’s staff reached out to Xiong and community leaders to assure them that his office would review the many complaints that his office has received. After the discussion, Xiong ended the hunger strike and returned home. He was greeted by over 80 local residents who gathered at the same spot where Hawj was tragically murdered and where his cross-shaped wreath remains today. Many in the crowd said how glad they were not to lose two Hmong brothers.
July 17 protest in Yreka, California. Photo: Channing Vang
Among the unmet demands of the community are the release of video footage of Hawj’s shooting, a formal investigation into the lack of emergency response to the Lava fire in Asian American communities, an investigation into the local government’s pattern of racial discrimination against Asian Americans, and information about the health and location of the family dog.
Community organizers are continuing their efforts to ensure that Hawj’s family gets justice and that discriminatory county policies end. The next protest for equal treatment will take place on August 3, 8:00 AM, at the Old County Courthouse, 311 Fourth Street, Yreka, California.
Amanda Mei Kim writes about health, racism, climate change, history, and culture, in the lives of Californians of color. Her work has appeared in Brick, LitHub, PANK, and Tayo Literary Magazine.
Mai Vang, Sacramento City Councilmember, is the daughter of Hmong refugees from Laos. Vang is a community organizer, ethnic studies educator, and co-founder of Hmong Innovating Politics.
Sunita Sohrabji is a contributing editor for Ethnic Media Services.