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When Snowdon Herr heard earlier this month that St. Paul police had fatally shot Yia Xiong, he searched for an answer to the one question on his mind: “Was the killing justified or not?”
One detail stood out to Herr—Xiong was 65 years old. Herr, 59, said he feared Xiong’s age made him vulnerable, a concern that has been echoed by other Hmong elders after the February 11 police killing.
Herr founded the Justice for Yia Xiong campaign, an effort that has been primarily led by Hmong elders—new voices speaking up about an issue that has occasionally touched Minnesota’s Hmong community throughout the years. Herr said anxious and fearful Hmong elders have approached him with questions about the shooting. Many have also shown up to protest, making and holding up signs, chanting, and passing out fliers.
“They came to this country because they were lucky enough to escape the bullets of the communist regime,” Herr said of elders who fled Laos and Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. “Why do they end up in this country and they end up killed by a bullet too? That is not right.”
Longtime activists against police use-of-force say they’ve advocated for Hmong families in the past, but that Xiong’s killing appears to be shifting how the Hmong community responds to police violence. Black activists have shown up to support Xiong’s family, and Herr said he’s learned lessons from the Black Lives Matter movement that he’ll apply to Justice for Yia Xiong.
“I hope that the Hmong community will really embrace the fact that these police need to be held accountable and recognize that this is impacting the Hmong community as well,” said Monique Cullars-Doty, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter in Minnesota. “If we all don’t stand up, nothing is going to change.”
Justice for Yia Xiong activists are seeking accountability, police reform, and changes to police policies about how to handle similar calls, Herr said.
“As a concerned citizen and a community leader in the Hmong community, I believe that I must start something,” said Herr. “Anything that has to be changed must come inside me, so that’s how it started.”
As Herr dug deeper to answer his initial question, he struggled to understand how Xiong’s death could be justified. The case remains under investigation, and prosecutors have not decided whether the officers’ actions were legally justified, or whether they should face criminal charges.
Herr said he applied for a permit to protest in St. Paul, wrote “No English Don’t Shoot!” on his first protest sign ever, and showed up at St. Paul police headquarters on February 17 to protest Xiong’s shooting. He was the first activist to arrive that day, but others soon joined him as the campaign grew.
Hmong community mobilizes amidst tragedy
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is investigating the shooting, which is common in such circumstances, and shared its account of the incident in a February 15 news release.
According to the bureau: St. Paul police responded to the Winslow Commons Apartments, where Xiong lived, on reports of a man threatening residents with a knife around 5 p.m. on February 11. Officers are shown on police body camera footage asking Xiong to drop a knife as he attempts to enter his apartment.
Xiong entered his apartment, prompting officers to kick the door to prevent it from shutting. The officers also ordered him to come out and backed away from the door. Xiong stepped out into the hallway with a knife in his hand, and officer Noushue Cha deployed his taser while officer Abdirahman Dahir fired his police rifle at Xiong, the bureau said.
Both officers are on administrative leave.
A bureau spokesperson told Sahan Journal that it aims to complete an investigation in 60 days. The bureau will then present its findings to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, which will determine whether the officers’ actions were legally justified.
Herr said body camera footage of the incident released by St. Paul police on February 17 showed a different story. Herr said if the officers were afraid of Xiong, they should have used a taser and handcuffs on him instead of deadly force.
“If Yia Xiong violated any law, he can be punished according to the law,” he said. “Yia Xiong, in particular, did not have to be killed without a reasonable, alternative way to handle this case.”
Videos from officers Cha and Dahir’s body cameras show them running into a building as people plead, “Hurry!” and direct them to Xiong’s location.
The officers yell, “Drop the knife! Stop walking!” and, “Get your hands out of your pockets!”
Xiong walks towards his apartment without following police orders. He sifts through his keys and unlocks the door.
“Drop the knife!” one officer yells. “On the ground now! Don’t let him in.”
Xiong enters the apartment and shuts the door behind him. The officers appear to open the door, and Xiong exits his apartment with a knife, prompting the officers to back up and fire their weapons. Five gunshots are heard.
Xiong’s family members have spoken to other news outlets and said he did not speak English and was hard of hearing. They also said he lost his hearing while fighting in the United States’ “Secret War” in Laos during the Vietnam War. Xiong’s family could not be reached for comment.
According to Justice for Yia Xiong, Xiong’s family is demanding the firing, arrest, and prosecution of Dahir and Cha.
Xiong’s family is also demanding that all other officers involved be held accountable, that an independent investigation be carried out, and that State Attorney General Keith Ellison lead the prosecution of officers Dahir and Cha. They also want the public release of all police body camera footage from the incident, police dispatch transcripts, and the names of all officers at the scene.
Long-time activists express solidarity
Michelle Gross, president of the Twin-Cities-based group Communities United Against Police Brutality, has been working with Hmong families impacted by police violence for years. For three years, she worked on a case against the Minneapolis police officers who fatally shot 19-year-old Fong Lee in 2006. She’s now working with Xiong’s family.
“What happened to this man is utterly unconscionable,” Gross said. “How can you go in somebody’s house, follow them in, speak to them in a language they don’t speak, they can’t hear you—and you blow him away?”
Gross said members of Xiong’s family have joined her advocacy organization’s weekly calls to better understand what kinds of demands they could make.
After Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in 2020, Communities United Against Police Brutality and a coalition of other organizations compiled a list of ways to end police violence. Gross said she’s given that document to Xiong’s family as suggestions for demands, but she said it’s important to give the family space to decide their own agenda.
“It seems like every community that is new to this work, they don’t necessarily know what the possibilities are. So what I try to do is explain some of the work we’ve done before,” Gross said. “At the same time, I’m going to step back and be quiet.”
Gross said Xiong’s family has expressed to her and other advocates that they want more time to think about potential demands.
Cullars-Doty, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter in Minnesota and a member of Gross’s organization, said the activist community has done its best to uplift the names of Hmong victims of police violence, such as Fong Lee, who was fatally shot by Minneapolis police in 2006. Activists created banners with the names of police violence victims and hung them from freeway overpasses between St. Paul and Minneapolis, including one honoring Lee.
Cullars-Doty, whose nephew Marcus Golden was killed by St. Paul police in 2015, said they had trouble connecting with Lee’s mother for years. Then she showed up to a rally at the state Capitol in 2020 protesting the killing of George Floyd. Lee’s mother expressed her solidarity with protesters through a Hmong interpreter, and a video of her speech went viral in the Hmong community, Cullars-Doty said.
Cameron Pajyeeb Yang, 27, works in communications for the Justice For Yia Xiong Campaign, and has previously advocated for people killed by police.
“We’re in a part of history where Hmong folks are realizing that these systems aren’t made for us, and they’re frustrated and they’re angry…They’ve seen this happen so many times,” Yang said. “But they don’t have the tools to help transform, and voice our concerns, about the systems and institutions that exist.”
In addition to Xiong and Lee, other Hmong community members who have been killed by Minnesota police in the last few decades include: Ki Yang, who was killed by St. Paul police in 2002; Chue Xiong, who was killed by St. Paul police in 2012; Yee Vang, who was killed by St. Paul police in 2014; Phu Mee Lee who was killed by St. Paul police in 2017; and Chiasher Vue, who was killed by Minneapolis police in 2019.
A shift in thinking
Toshira Garraway Allen is the founder of Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, an activist group that provides financial and emotional support for families grieving a loved one killed by police. Garraway Allen said she’s been working with Xiong’s wife, children, and niece and also helped organize a memorial for Xiong on February 19.
Garraway Allen said she’s learned over the years that the Hmong community has previously grieved police violence quietly, often avoiding conflict with authorities.
“We all want peace, but if there’s going to be any confusion or any argument, they’d rather just lay their loved ones to rest. That’s why there’s been this quietness,” Garraway Allen said. “But this time, they got to see with their own eyes what a lot of African Americans have been saying the whole time. Sadly and unfortunately, they’re getting a small part of our everyday reality.”
The body camera footage of Xiong’s death has challenged that attitude, Garraway Allen added.
“When Hmong lives or any other lives have been stolen, it’s been the family’s word against the law enforcement’s word,” she said. “Now, when people are able to see an injustice happen—just like George Floyd—right in front of their eyes, that gives a different outrage.”
Gross added that she has observed a generational split in how people in different communities respond to police violence. But she’s noticed that elders in the Hmong community have especially stepped up recently.
“It’s maybe a mix of his age, as well as the fact that he was a war hero, the fact that older people can see that this could, in fact, happen to them,” Gross said. “But I also think it’s just a sign of the times. People are more accepting of the fact that there are some serious issues with policing.”
Herr confirmed that there appears to be a shift in thinking in the Hmong community. Herr said he’s finding a balance between what he’s learning from local Black Lives Matter activists and what members of Justice for Yia Xiong want to prioritize.
“We are taught to be polite, and to be diplomatic in many ways,” Herr said. “But just because we’re nice, doesn’t mean you should take advantage of us. And just because you have a gun, that doesn’t mean you can kill us.”
Events related to the shooting of Yia Xiong:
- What: Community forum with Yia Xiong’s family, community organizers, and Saint Paul City Council members Russel Balenger, Mitra Jalali, and Nelsie Yang.
- Where: East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55106
- When: Friday, February 24, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
- What: Protest of Yia Xiong’s shooting
- Where: St. Paul police Western District office, 389 Hamline Avenue N., St. Paul, Minnesota, 55104
- When: Sunday, February 26, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.