by Senator Joe Nguyen
Tommy Le should be alive today. On this fourth anniversary of his death, our thoughts are with the Le family and the countless lives impacted by violence and marginalization in this country.
Four years ago, I read a headline about a police killing in Burien, and a few hours later received a text message saying that it was Tommy Le. Tommy was a young Vietnamese man who was killed the day before his high school graduation. And if not for the reporting of Daniel Person at the Seattle Weekly, who called out that Tommy was holding a pen, not a knife, and the continued coverage by Carolyn Bick with the South Seattle Emerald — we would have only ever had law enforcement’s version of what happened that night, when someone who needed help ended up dead at the hands of a sheriff.
Tommy’s death created a catalyst within the Vietnamese community and beyond. Having fled a war-torn country where dissent against the government could lead to dangerous outcomes, many in the Vietnamese community were raised to keep our heads down and not question authority. But this moment was different. Our silence was no longer acceptable.
In the past four years, we’ve seen Vietnamese members, especially the younger generation, stand up and organize, not just for Tommy, but for police accountability as a whole. We’ve stood with and alongside the Black community who have been impacted by these systemic inequities far longer than we have. We organized, we engaged our elected officials, and we stood in solidarity with the Le family, who only recently was able to get some semblance of closure with a settlement from King County.
It was Tommy’s death that inspired me to personally get involved. I served in King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, advocated for I-940, and eventually became Washington’s first Vietnamese state senator. We have seen a shift in the conversation to address public safety in ways that were not considered in the mainstream before, one that relies less on law enforcement officers with guns and more on addressing basic human needs and investing in our communities. But the work is nowhere near done as deaths by law enforcement continue at the same rate as before the murder of George Floyd.
We promised that Tommy’s death would not be in vain, and that promise requires action.
We’ve only scratched the surface on much needed reform and cannot stop until our law enforcement system is accountable to the people they serve. We can’t afford to go back to the status quo because the status quo isn’t and never will be just.
But despite years of organizing and progress, the fear of incremental change stifling much needed action for our communities continues to worry me. Law enforcement is not the solution for poverty, joblessness, mental illness, addiction, or the housing crisis. Reform will not be enough; we need to rethink how our resources are invested to truly serve the people.
We have leaders who talk a great deal about the need to break from the status quo but are so resistant to real systemic change.
What Tommy’s life meant to me was that we don’t have time to wait for action. The consequences of inaction means lives are at risk. In order to address our most pressing issues, like police accountability or gun violence, the communities that are most impacted by failed policies need to be at the table creating that change.
On this fourth anniversary of Tommy Le’s passing, I want to remember his life, as a bubbly kid with a big smile, and his death, as the moment that brought our community together to fight for change.
Sen. Joe Nguyen represents the 34th Legislative District in the Washington Senate and a candidate for King County Executive.
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