by Sharon H. Chang
In the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism practiced by the Vietnamese, Hoai Le and Dieu Ho are wearing white dress shirts–white being symbolic of death. Over her heart, mother Dieu Ho also wears a small piece of black material showing she is in mourning.
The two parents will grieve for 49 days when they will go to temple every weekend. This is the time it will take for their son, Tommy Le, to be reborn again into a new life.
Last month Tommy Le, 20-year-old Vietnamese American, was fatally shot in Burien by King County deputy Cesar Molina after the deputy mistakenly thought Le was brandishing a knife. The object turned out to be a pen. The young man died June 14 hours before he was set to graduate from a South Seattle College operated alternative high school.
Le’s death was immediately followed by two more fatal police shootings the same month. Charleena Lyles, African American, 30-year-old pregnant mother of four, was shot and killed in front of her children by Seattle Police on June 18 . College student Giovonn Joseph-McDade, 20, also African American, was shot and killed by Kent Police on June 24.
Hundreds gathered last week for a Tommy Le public forum at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) in South Seattle to ask why and demand justice from King County Councilmembers, King County Prosecutor, state legislative officials, and King County Sheriff John Urquhart. In accordance with their religious beliefs, Hoai Le and Dieu Ho would not typically discuss their son publicly while mourning. But the parents made an exception in this case.
“There is no pain like losing my son,” Tommy Le’s father, Hoai Le, said through interpreter. He gestured to his chest as he continued. “There is no pain like losing some piece of my heart. I want to know why, my son had nothing harmed . . . and he was shot.”
“My baby is kind, good,” emphasized Le’s mother, Dieu Ho, also through an interpreter. “He’s never got into a fight before. ” Visibly pained, the mother relayed with frustration, “That night–we don’t know what happened . . . When we got the call we couldn’t believe it.”
Tommy’s oldest brother, Quoc Nguyen, said that weeks prior to the shooting they had just shopped for a suit Tommy could wear at Nguyen’s upcoming wedding. “It’s unfortunate,” Nguyen punctuated, frowning deeply, “that we had to use that suit for his funeral.”
Other family members present included Tommy’s aunt, Uyen Le who cried steadily throughout, and Tommy’s grandmother, Kim Le who became overcome by grief and was taken home.
The details of what happened the evening of Tommy Le’s shooting remain baffling. Initially the King County Sheriff’s office claimed Le was wielding a knife. The department later retracted that claim and stated the item was actually a pen. Now, Urquhart shared at the forum, the Sheriff’s office again believes Le had a knife but that he ran home at some point, grabbed a pen, and returned.
“There’s no video. There’s no audio. Nobody knows what happened except the police. That’s scary,” said Jefferey Vu, one of the forum’s organizers who acted as the Le family liaison.
Tommy Le’s forum was organized by Vietnamese community members with support from the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League), CAPAA (Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs), and ACRS. “As a community we want to provide a forum for people to explore these issues when it comes to police brutality and police accountability,” said Vu. “It’s important to drive the conversation,” added longtime community advocate Joe Nguyen, another one of the forum’s organizers
But in truth it is hard to know how to talk about police violence against non-Black Asian Americans.
There is the difficulty of talking about state violence within Asian American communities. Tommy Le’s parents, and much of his family, are immigrants and Vietnam War refugees. A cultural tradition of not speaking out against authority, respecting elders and deferring to community, can make public protest difficult or very slow. And for refugees, the difficulty is compounded by the trauma of living through war and wanting to blend in, avoid conflict, to survive and move on.
There is also the public’s general inability to see or believe that non-Black Asian Americans experience police violence in the first place. “Today I went to a career fair for work and there was a booth for both Seattle Police as well as King County Police,” illustrated a Muslim woman of color during the forum’s public comment. “I went to both booths . . . No one knew the name of Tommy Le.”
The ignorance is telling when there have been enough local and national incidents to at least raise eyebrows: a Chinese American woman beaten by Chicago police; a Japanese American student struck and killed by a New York police cruiser; an Indian grandfather partially paralyzed by an officer in Alabama; a Cambodian American man shot and killed by California police. And it was only last fall that 41-year-old Michael Taylor, Korean American, was shot and killed by Seattle Police for, again, allegedly brandishing a knife.
“Tragedies like this disproportionately occur not only in Black, Latino and Native American communities,” reminded Diem Ly, ACRS board member, as she addressed the crowd early in the evening. “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are also disproportionately affected all across the country. Yet we are often invisible.”
On the other hand it is critical not to falsely equate the violence non-Black Asian Americans face with the police terror Black and Native folks face on a daily basis. African Americans and Native Americans experience hands down the highest rates of police violence and have long protested police-related killings and inquest unfairness; a legacy continuum upon which the Black Lives Matter Movement was born.
Thankfully all groups brought their collective wisdom to bear at Tommy Le’s forum. The gym was packed with a multiracial show of support, standing room only. Black Lives Matter activist Michael Moynihan and activist/educator Jesse Hagopian were in attendance, as well as mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver who is a veteran anti-racist organizer and voice for criminal justice reform. Gyasi Ross, Blackfeet author, attorney, rapper, speaker and storyteller, was also in the room.
Promises of inquest and investigation by Urquhart and the other officials left many attendees unimpressed, especially people of color and activists who have seen those processes repeatedly fail.
As history has unequivocally shown, inquest rarely results in charges and if officers do face charges they are usually acquitted. Washington State is also one of the most difficult to criminally charge officers involved in shootings because “malice” by an officer must be proven. At the public mic, a Latino activist noted the recent inquest decision not to press charges in the case of Che Taylor. In the case of Tommy Le, he then asked, “how is an inquest process going to get us to a different result if we’re not even able to press charges against the officers that are doing the shootings?”
“We’re living in a city, a county, a country,” admonished one woman of color, “where young people of color are under assault by the state.” “We’re tired of hearing the same thing,” concurred a Black Muslim woman. “We’re tired of being treated as if we’re the ones who are the problem. You are brutalizing us. And we are fed up with it.”
It was then that Vietnamese elder Tuan Nguyen (Uncle Tuan), a former police officer for 14 years in the South Vietnamese army, strode firmly up to the mic. His hands clasped low behind his back, his tone confident; Uncle Tuan delivered the defining moment of the evening. “It’s quite troublesome for me to observe the way that police have been militarized all over the country and disheartening that we are in a state of war with our people,” he said through interpreter. “The community is not a battlefield and [police] are not soldiers.” He turned a steadfast eye on the sheriff and other officials, leveling a finger at them. “Try really, really hard to resist every temptation to shoot and kill. Because it will have repercussions for the rest of your life.”
For a moment it felt like all the legalities and technicalities were exceedingly pithy; all the perplexed distress in the room just melted away; and all of Tommy Le’s significance as a member of Vietnamese family, history, tradition, and community came into single focus. When Uncle Tuan, former officer, soldier, and survivor of war strode away from the mic–the entire room erupted in grateful applause.
A glance at Dieu Ho revealed her using an ACRS-provided headset to listen to a translator working tirelessly in the corner. Tommy Le’s mother and father, in their mourning, stayed the duration.
Change is hard to come by and it is hard to know when it will come. A rash of police shootings in the region will soon face a rash of related inquests, hopefully this time heeding the words of Uncle Tuan and those like him. “It’s very dangerous when we tell a one-sided story especially when the other person isn’t able to tell their story,” said organizer Joe Nguyen. He’s speaking of Tommy Le but the words easily hold broader significance. “This is a person’s life. Let’s at least honor him in death.”
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer and award-winning writer. She is author of the acclaimed book Raising Mixed Race (2016) and is currently working on her second book looking at Asian American women and gendered racism.