September should have been a banner month for Hmong Cultural Center, located on University Avenue in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul.
The center, launched in 1992 to provide critical services to immigrants and refugees, was in the initial stages of opening a newly expanded museum, featuring educational exhibits on the community’s arrival in the U.S. and contributions to the state of Minnesota.
But then, around 3:40 on Wednesday morning, three people pulled up in front of the center, got out of a car, and sprayed white paint over plywood decorated with pro-Black Lives Matter artwork and poetry from St. Paul poet Tish Jones. On one of the boards, the vandals stenciled, “Life, Liberty, Victory,” a slogan commonly associated with the white nationalist group Patriot Front.
“We were very excited,” said Kang Vang, who leads citizenship classes at the center. “The inside [of the museum] looks fantastic. We’ve already had a handful of visitors, but we came to work that morning and it was a huge mess all over. The paint was still wet when we got there.”
The destruction, which St. Paul Police spokesperson Steve Linders said is being investigated as a hate crime, is another episode in a torrent of anti-Asian acts perpetrated across the country since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
Txong Pao Lee, Hmong Cultural Center’s executive director, said he was “shocked” by the incident. “We’re so disappointed,” he said. “It’s a very frustrating thing that happened here.”
The perpetrators of the vandalism also targeted adjacent businesses, including a Hmong-owned grocery store. Lee first heard about the incident from a coworker by phone. A short time later, a center staffer reported the matter to St. Paul Police, who were able to view security footage from a neighboring tattoo parlor.
The likelihood that the attack might have been racially motivated immediately crossed Kang Vang’s mind. “Part of me felt very angry about, not so much why our building was targeted, but it seems like they were targeting the artwork that was put on our building, the poetry, the words.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the U.S., Patriot Front is an explicitly fascist, anti-immigrant organization that tends toward theatrical displays of “garish patriotism.” The SPLC lists the group as present in Minnesota.
Police spokesperson Linders said he has not heard of Patriot Front and is “not aware of any other incidents involving that group or any other reports mentioning that group.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it a pattern in St. Paul, but we’ve seen isolated incidents of bias and hate crimes in the city,” he said. “It is something that we certainly take seriously and follow up on aggressively. But I haven’t seen anything like this incident.”
A summer of highs and lows: ‘We are not really safe to go anywhere’
Txong Pao Lee said this has been a summer of deep contrasts for St. Paul’s Hmong community, which garnered national attention from gymnast Sunisa Lee’s outstanding performance at the summer Olympics in Tokyo but has also dealt with feelings of insecurity as anti-Asian hate crimes continue.
Lee has dealt with a sense of unease in his day-to-day life. He has told his children and other family members not to travel through St. Paul alone, or late at night. “It’s fearful that these people have a mission that they want to vandalize or hurt people,” he said. “So, for myself, I take extra care where I go.” Lee added, ”We are not really safe to go anywhere.”
Vang, who has taught language and citizenship classes at Hmong Cultural Center for three years, said that while he typically feels safe in the Frogtown neighborhood, he is cognizant of potential violence, especially for older members of the Asian community. He walks his students out of the center to their cars after night classes.
The last year-plus has been difficult to navigate. “Whiplash is a good way of explaining it,” Vang said. “We were still recovering from all the protests and all the rioting and things like that, and then we start to heal, then Suni’s thing at the Olympics, and then this. There is a lot of back and forth. I think that is just life.”
The price of repairs
The immediate cost of the vandalism to the center will be significant. The new sign, which the center was trumpeting on Twitter just days before the attack, will cost $800 to replace. Repainting will cost yet more money and will take weeks of labor.
Lee said the center is also considering security upgrades, such as installing a dedicated security camera and adding metal bars behind the glass windows. The cultural center is fundraising through the platform GiveMN.
All that aside, Lee did see one silver lining in the aftermath of the attack. “We were shocked,” he said. “But I told my staff that it’s good that the vandalism is outside. It’s not a pipe bomb inside. We just need to be extra careful.”
The center’s staff is still looking forward to a potential grand opening, a marquee event in the nearly three-decade-long history of the center. If the event happens soon, Vang said that much of the credit should go to the regular people in Frogtown and beyond who have called the center asking how they can contribute to the clean-up effort.
“I do believe that there is more good in our community than there is bad,” he said.