Standing in front of a group of protesters at a Hmong for Black Lives rally, Youa Vang had a simple request from her Asian American community — demand justice for George Floyd.
“We, as Hmong people, must join hands,” Vang said. “We have to remember that there aren’t many of us. This has brought us so much pain and nothing can compare to it. So, let’s join hands with them. Not to mention our children. We don’t want to see this happen to them. We don’t want any one of us to ever meet that same fate.”
Vang can empathize with Floyd’s family: She lost her son, 19-year-old Fong Lee, when he was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer in 2006.
An all-white jury exonerated the white officer in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis. To this day, the Lee family has never believed law enforcement’s version of events. Yet, they remembered how the black community showed up for them, fighting through the emotional turmoil.
“Here’s what I saw with Fong: Black people were with us the whole time, morning or night,” she said in her native Hmong language. “Whenever we needed something they were there. Whether it was day or night, even up until one in the morning.”
In the Floyd case, a video captured by an onlooker shows a white officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes until the 46-year-old black man appears to go limp. But also in the footage is another officer keeping a crowd of bystanders at bay, apparently doing nothing to intervene.
That former officer is Tou Thao, a member of the Twin Cities Hmong American community. Chauvin faces charges of murder and manslaughter, and Thao and the other two officers involved in Floyd’s arrest have been charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. All four officers have been fired.
Many Asian American leaders are condemning Thao’s role in Floyd’s killing, even as they point out a double standard that puts an entire community under scrutiny because of the actions of one person. They’re also imploring their communities to not lose sight of the bigger picture: Holding people accountable and changing racist systems.
They’re urging community members to focus on fighting racist patterns that have resulted in disproportionate police violence against black people.
Bo Thao-Urabe, executive director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, said that whether Thao is Hmong is not the point. Just because a person of color is a part of law enforcement does not mean they can’t be guilty of perpetuating systemic racism, she said.
“If we don’t focus on the system and we have to be responsible for every individual person, then we don’t acknowledge that people can actually be trained to be racist,” said Thao-Urabe, who is also Hmong American. “You are a person of color, it does not mean that you can’t go inside systems and be trained to think a certain way about communities.”
Floyd’s death has Asian Americans reflecting on their own biases and the history of anti-blackness within their own communities. Leaders have been trying to educate and remind community members about how much this also involves their community.
Anjuli Cameron, research director for the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, said Floyd’s death has brought a shift among Asian Americans about their role in the ongoing dialogue for racial justice while also examining their own prejudices.
“This is not a time to demonstrate pride in the Asian community or strength, but admit our insecurities and our faults, because that’s only how real change is going to happen,” said Cameron, who is of Indian descent. “There is a spectrum and we have to acknowledge that and have really open, frank conversations about where a community is at and where need to be for other communities of color to bring justice forward.”
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the API community has been subjected to the anti-Asian sentiments and xenophobia stemming from the virus. Now, some community members have reportedly been targeted for having names associated with one of the officers.
Some have used this as reason to step away from speaking out against racism or think that the issue doesn’t involve them, but leaders like Urabe and Cameron have asked the Asian American community to take a deeper reflection and understand the bigger picture. They said while Asian Americans do experience racism, there is a time and place to share those experiences.
Thao-Urabe said that without focus, divisions will continue to run deep between communities of color and the systemic racism will remain intact.
“I’m asking our community to direct their attention to the right things and to also work with other communities,” she said. “I think these are the moments for us to decide whether we’re going to build solidarity or whether we take our individual pain and create wedges so that we can’t work together.”
That’s the message that Vang, the mother of Fong Lee, had pleaded with her own community to understand.
“We’re very few, but when we come together, we are many,” she said. “We need to help them, and they will help us when we need them.”