George Floyd death: 'The same happened to my son'
Hmong protester supports BLM
Youa Vang Lee was at her home in Minneapolis when her son showed her the video in which George Floyd died under a policeman's knee. Lee, a 59-year-old Laotian immigrant collecting medical supplies in a factory, heard Floyd screaming for his mother. It triggered a deep and familiar pain.
"Fong was probably the same," she said in Hmong, and her eyes filled with tears. "He probably asked about me too."
Scroll to continue with the content
In 2006, Lee's 19-year-old son Fong, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, was shot eight times by Minneapolis police officer Jason Andersen. The officer is still in use today, a fact that the Lees only became aware of from the BBC. The official was fired twice, but has apparently since been reinstated.
Although security footage showed Lee was running away at the time, Andersen claimed the teenager had a gun. A large jury declined to indict him and the police decided the shootout was warranted. The family sued in a civil court and claimed that the weapon found next to Fong's body had been planted. A pure white jury found against them.
Youa hadn't spoken publicly about her son in over a decade, not since the family had reached the end of their legal path and had nothing to show. But after seeing Floyd's death, Lee began to ask if anyone knew of marches to attend.
"I have to be there," she said.
Within the community at the center of the protests
"I'm Asian, so I can never be American."
Police timeline of murders
Although no one directly discouraged her, some members of her community questioned the decision. The twin cities, known as Minneapolis and St. Paul, are home to the largest urban population of Hmong in the United States, many of whom came to the region as refugees in the 1980s and 90s.
The Hmong are an ethnic group from Southeast Asia with their own language, mainly from South China, Vietnam and Laos.
There has been fierce debate within this community about how to respond to the Black Lives Matter and Justice for George Floyd movements, which call for a systematic change in policing.
A sign of support for Black Lives Matter
However, there was no debate for Youa Lee. She wanted to get involved for one reason - when Fong died in 2006, the first people to show up to support her family came from the black activist community.
"They were the loudest voices for us," recalled Shoua Lee, Fong's older sister. "Before we asked other churches for help, they came to us and offered to help."
Short gray display line
Although four officers were charged with murdering George Floyd on May 25, the viral video of the incident captured only two of them - former official Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes, and former official Tou Thao, who stopped the crowd instead of going to the aid of Floyd.
"Don't take drugs, folks," Thao once said to desperate viewers.
Thao, an 11-year-old veteran from the department, was charged with helping with second-degree murder. He is also Hmong.
As soon as Boonmee Yang, a teacher at a fourth grade public school in St. Paul, saw the video, he knew things would get complicated in the Hmong community.
"Often it was always black casualties by white officers. But now that someone else who looked like me was involved, I was very concerned," he said.
As a Hmong activist, Yang said it was not always easy to express solidarity with the black community in public. He said some suffer from what he calls "Protected Asian Syndrome", which means that they rarely interact with others from outside the Hmong community and that their response to knee jerk was to defend Thao's actions.
According to rapper, artist, and activist Tou SaiKo Lee, there is also a history of conflict between the two communities, especially in the early days of the resettlement. Refugee families often ended up in the Frogtown district of St. Paul and East St. Paul, areas where historically a large African-American population lived.
"There were conflicts between young people. Fights between new immigrants, new refugees and those currently living in the neighborhood - I was part of it," he recalled. "There are some who still hold this tension."
Unlike the more general "Asian American" population, the Hmong community in the United States has a much shorter history. Almost half of the Laotian Hmong fled their country in 1975 after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War. For 15 years, the CIA recruited thousands of Hmong soldiers to wage a so-called "secret war" against the North Vietnamese, but after the US withdrew without presenting an evacuation plan for its allies that had worked with the Americans or were perceived to have fled. Some were killed by the Communists, thousands wound up in Thai refugee camps.
"Pandemic of Racism" resulted in the death of George Floyd
Viewpoint: The United States must face its original sin in order to advance
Police against the public - an unpleasant conversation
Tens of thousands were relocated to Minnesota, a predominantly white state with few resources for the new immigrant population. Without the ability to speak the language, many could not find a job. Today, the Hmong population in the United States has a lot in common with the African American population in terms of socio-economic and other quality of life factors.
According to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, one in four Hmong Americans lives below the poverty line. While 50% of the broader category "Asian Americans" graduated from university, only 17% of Hmong Americans have a university degree. And while 72% of white families own a home, less than half of Hmong Americans and African Americans do.
Families like this in a refugee camp in Thailand were relocated to the United States in 2004
The Hmong community has long had to deal with police interactions. At the beginning there was no Hmong representation in its ranks. The officials struggled to understand and serve the new population. In a notorious 1989 case, a police officer shot two sixth-grade Hmong boys in the back as they ran away from a stolen car. The officer was never charged.
Tou SaiKo said he was often racistly profiled as a teenager by the Minneapolis police after spending two nights in prison after an official found a fisherman's knife in his suitcase. He said he had never been charged, but remembering that he had been run over many times and asked, "Which gang do you belong to?"
"I would say I'm a student," he recalled.
However, these joint struggles between the black and Hmong communities did not prevent old tensions from coming to the fore after Floyd's death, especially when looting and property damage hit Asian businesses in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul.
"Tou Thao" is a very common Hmong name, and many who share it with the accused officer have been exposed to online threats and harassment.
And when young Hmong activists - especially women and members of the LGBTQ community - tried to express their support for Black Lives Matter, they were condemned and insulted, even threatened, within their own community.
Hmong protesters support BLM
Annie Moua, a recent high school graduate, saw numerous comments online in her Asian-American political groups, which she described as "anti-black". She said things like "All life is important" and asked, "You never helped us with our protest - why do we have to help them?"
"I lost a lot of friends this week," she said.
During the worst online fight, Yang received a Facebook invitation from a friend to join a group called "Hmong 4 Black Lives". At that time there were only three members. "I was there," he said.
He saw that a large demonstration of the Black Lives Matter was planned in the Minnesota State Capitol the next day and created an event page for the emerging group. By morning there were 300 members of Hmong 4 Black Lives (currently there are over 2,000).
The next afternoon, a group of about 100 Hmong activists gathered in the capital and carried signs saying "I am a Thao and I stand with Black Lives Matter" and "I am Hmong and for the BLM period".
It was her very first protest for 18-year-old Moua, and she was afraid of the riots she had experienced online. "I was very, very nervous," she said. "I didn't know what was going to go down."
Among the demonstrators was a small, elegant woman with a face mask and baseball cap - Fong Lee's mother Youa.
Short gray display line
After Youa and her husband fled their farm in Laos and waited four years in a refugee camp in Thailand, they dreamed of giving their children a better future in the United States.
America should be a refuge. She never thought that her middle son would end up dead by a police officer.
"I think it was a mistake to bring my children here," she said in Hmong, translated by her daughter Shoua. "Now my son is gone."
Youa Vang Lee with daughter Shoua
Fong Lee was 19 when he went cycling on July 22, 2006. He was in the parking lot of Cityview Elementary, a school in North Minneapolis, with a group of his friends when the officer Jason Andersen and a soldier pulled into a patrol car.
The boys ran, Andersen followed Fong. A security camera from the school captured the last moments of the persecution - Fong runs from the parking lot around the corner of the school and Andersen is pointing his gun at Fong right behind. Although blurry, the security material does not clearly show a weapon in Fong's hands, a fact that Andersen confirmed in the process.
In the last picture, Fong lies on his back, bloody and motionless. He was hit in the back four times.
Almost as soon as the news became known, Al Flowers, a longtime Minneapolis activist who had repeatedly charged the police with brutality, turned up to protests - at school, in the courthouse. The Lees saw him and another activist, the late Darryl Robinson of Communities United Against Police Brutality. They didn't ask to show up, said Shoua Lee, they just showed up.
Flowers, in turn, said that after years of fighting for justice in the murder of black men and women, he believed that the official was more likely to be convicted because Fong was Asian.
"We felt like he was treated the way we were always treated," Flowers recalled. "[We thought] he'll get justice. And then he didn't. So we were shocked."
Lee's family attorney at law, Mike Padden, said the loss of the case despite surveillance cameras and the strange history of the guns recovered at the scene had always worried him.
"The environment for the lawsuit against police officers was very different in 2009 than it is today," he said. "It bothers me. It was probably the most disappointing case in my career."
An old Russian-made semi-automatic Baikal .380 pistol was found about a meter from Fong's left hand, free of fingerprints or blood.
In 2004, a man reported that his gun had been stolen in a burglary. He was later told by the police in Minneapolis that his gun had been found in a snow bank and would be in custody pending an investigation. The weapon matched the Baikal .380 caliber serial number that Fong Lee's body had found.
When Padden pointed this out to the court, the police made a statement - the weapon found in the snow bank was not the Baikal .380. There had been a mix-up with ID and documents, and the Baikal had never been in her care.
The Minneapolis police did not answer BBC questions about the case.
Andersen was back on the street two days after Fong's death. The Minneapolis police chief later awarded him the department's "Medal of Bravery" for his actions that day.
Minneapolis police then attempted to fire Andersen twice - once after he was arrested for domestic violence and once after he was charged by federal investigators in the face of a teenage boy being arrested during an arrest. The domestic violence case was closed for lack of evidence, and a jury acquitted Andersen of the attack on the teenager, although other officials reported his actions that day as excessive. The powerful Minneapolis Police Union helped reinstate Andersen.
The union is often cited as the reason that it is so difficult to fire officials with problematic records. After the murder of George Floyd, the city of Minneapolis tries to take over the union by withdrawing from the negotiations.
Andersen is still an employee of the Minneapolis Police Department and acts as a chaplain coordinator. Social media posts show how he distributes donations such as car seats, bed sets, and kitchenware to needy families in Minneapolis.
In a short phone call to the BBC, Andersen confirmed that he was the same officer from the Lee shootout and referred all questions to the department's media spokesman.
"It's something that has been put in the past and I know it was very, very difficult for them because they lost their son," he said of the Lees. "I take great care of the family and they went through something traumatic.
"We both had to go through this. If this is dug up again, it is likely - it is something they will never want to hear from again."
Short gray display line
It was Tou SaiKo Lee who asked Youa if they would like to come to the state capital, march with Hmong 4 Black Lives and talk about their son. It was almost 10 years ago and Tou was also concerned that raising the case again could be too traumatic.
But her answer was immediate, yes.
That day, as they went to the Capitol Steps to join the larger Black Lives Matter group, Youa was in front and went quietly as the younger Hmong participants sang around them.
Youa Vang Lee at the protest
At some point someone gave her the microphone. Though she couldn't speak English, she spoke passionately about the support from George Floyd's family and the movement that was born on his behalf. She promised to do everything for the Floyd family.
"We have to team up with them," she told the crowd. "We come here to ask for justice and justice."
She cried openly and brought tears to many people, even those she could not understand.
"Without Fong Lee's family, it would only be Hmong people arguing back and forth," said Tou SaiKo. "Many people see their own mother in Fong Lee's mother, many Hmong people, and to see her in this emotional state, with those powerful words that call for solidarity, I thought that would be a breath of fresh air."
When Flowers found out that Fong's mother had joined George Floyd's protests, he was delighted.
"I'm proud that she supports out there," he said. "My memory is that she has to go through this and doesn't understand the law, doesn't understand what really happened in the United States - that this could happen.
"We as African-Americans knew what the possibility was and we knew that this could happen. It was sad because we lost another case. It was another case that we lost."
And although not everyone in the crowd for Hmong 4 Black Lives' first march could understand them, said Annie Moua, the person who took the microphone right after Youa, summed it up perfectly.
"You don't have to understand [Hmong] to know what that pain feels like."
Click to receive the most important news as a notification!
These 6 Classic American Restaurant Chains Are Close to Disappearing
Ivanka Trump accused of ‘violating critical ethics law’ eight times in two days by US watchdod
Suri Cruise Is Katie Holmes’s Twin During Latest NYC Outing
Teen Mom 's Cheyenne Floyd Confirms She's Back With Her Ex During Romantic Birthday Celebration
MLB Free Agency: Making the case for Marcell Ozuna as a Red Sox target
Halsey shaved her hair because she 'missed' being bald, and now people are sharing photos of their buzz cuts with the musician