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Early in the morning on the day after the world watched the video that captured George Floyd struggling to breathe as Minneapolis police officers pinned him to the ground, Hoang Murphy received a text message from one of his black friends.
“What’s going on in your community?” she wrote.
Murphy asked for clarifications.
“The Hmong officer,” she wrote again.
The sender was referring to Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao, who was filmed ordering bystanders to back away from the scene where his white partner, Derek Chauvin, held his knee firmly pressed into the neck of helpless Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, who was already on the ground in handcuffs.
Moments later, paramedics arrived at the scene and transported Floyd to Hennepin County Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Thao, Chauvin and two other officers involved — Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng — were later terminated.
Since reports of the incident first surfaced and demonstrations, both peaceful and violent, have intensified in the Twin Cities. Members of the Hmong community say they’ve been harassed for the actions – or inaction – of one member of the community. Some have reported receiving threats of violence for being Hmong or for sharing name with Thao. More than that, people are lashing out against Asian Americans who are not even Hmong.
Even so, Asian American leaders are urging their community to stand in solidarity with the family of Floyd and to support African American movements for social justice.
Through this effort, the leaders say they intend to accentuate one important goal: Instead of targeting an entire ethnic group for the actions of a few individuals, the focus should be on fighting “racist systems” that allow police officers of any group to kill unarmed black men.
Targeting Asian Americans
For Murphy, a candidate for the District 67A state House seat, the text message from his black friend wasn’t necessarily as serious as the physical and verbal attacks other Asian Americans have reportedly endured at the hand of African Americans.
Nevertheless, he said, he “was hurt by it.” The text for Murphy conveyed a message that Asian Americans are ostensibly complicit in police brutality against black people the same way that many view Thao as being complicit in Floyd’s death.
“I think she was speaking out of her pain,” Murphy said of his friend. “In that moment she forgot that I’m not Hmong.” Murphy is in fact the son of immigrants from Vietnam.
Other Asian American leaders said such assumptions are dangerous. When one assumes that it’s OK to judge an entire ethnic community based on the actions of one, that can lead to violence, said Hlee Lee-Kron, a second-generation Hmong woman who is the founder of the other media group, a local organization that aims to bridge communities through storytelling.
Lee-Kron has already seen what she had suspected might happen when Thao was identified as one of the police officers involved in Floyd’s death. She said that many people she knows of who share the Hmong officer’s name have been subjected to violent threats and harassment, in-person and on social media.
“A lot of the social media attacks have happened to people named Tou Thao,” Lee-Kron said. The name “Tou,” which means “son/boy” in Hmong, is the most common name in the community, and “Thao” is one of the 18 clan names.
Bo Thao-Urabe, the executive and network director of the St. Paul-based Coalition of Asian American Leaders, also said she has heard of people in the community who have been targeted because they shared name with the officer. Others have targeted members of the community because of unconfirmed rumors that Chauvin has an Asian wife.
“People are in pain and anger,” said Thao-Urabe, who is Hmong. “They’re looking for some ways to understand what’s happening.”
Prior to Floyd’s death, Asian Americans nationwide have already been facing racist attacks because of the false belief that the community is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My concern is for my community because already there are really high tensions between Asian Americans and African Americans,” Lee-Kron said. “A lot of the videos that surfaced because of COVID-19 … are Asians being attacked or threatened by black people.”
In the Floyd’s death, she added, people are turning their anger and frustration towards members of the Asian American community who have nothing to do with it, instead of holding accountable the individual perpetrators.
“There are already high tensions [between Asian and African Americans], Lee-Kron said, “and I’m concerned that it’s really going to build a permanent damage between us.”
Lee-Kron suspects that those who are leading violence or harassment campaigns against the Asian American community aren’t necessarily people who care about social justice. “There are people who take advantage of these situations for their own agendas,” she said.
Standing with African Americans
Tensions aside, Thao-Urabe, Lee-Kron and Murphy are quick to say that their support for justice for Floyd and their commitment to stand with African Americans in their struggles for social change is unequivocal.
“What happened to George Floyd is a systemic failure to protect black lives,” Thao-Urabe said. “So, absolutely, Asian Americans should be standing together with George Floyd and his family and the black community. And making sure that we fundamentally change the system to protect black lives.”
Whether Thao is Hmong or not is beside the point, she said. The fact is, she added, that Thao worked for the Minneapolis Police Department and had a role in Floyd’s death. “So we’re not taking about his identity,” she said. “We’re talking about the failure of the Police Department to protect black lives.”
The way Thao-Urabe feels about the case is also how “the majority” of Asian Americans feel about Thao, Lee-Kron said. “He has the opportunity to stop what’s happening, and he doesn’t,” Lee-Kron said of the police officer.
Murphy said it didn’t matter to him whether Thao was Asian American; he was an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department who failed to protect Floyd.
But Murphy’s black friend didn’t see him that way when she sent him the text message that morning. From her question, Murphy said, he sensed that she was counting him as another Hmong siding with a Hmong officer and his white colleagues.
In the text exchange that morning, Murphy wrote to his friend, “Well I’m not Hmong. But I hope folks are having some tough conversations.”
That was the last exchange the two have had. But Murphy felt sorry for people like his friend who are probably upset and blaming all people of Asian descent for the death of George Floyd. “It’s not the individual that matters so much,” he said. “It’s the fact that it’s a white supremacy structure that uses individuals to oppress one another. That’s the real target.”
Correction: A previous version of this said Hoang Murphy was born in the U.S. to immigrants from Vietnam. He was born in Vietnam.