When U.S. gymnast Suni Lee won gold at the Tokyo Olympics last month, she also won rare headlines for her people — the Hmong.
A highland people of the Southeast Asian nation of Laos, the Hmong famously fought in CIA-aided tribal militias against the communist insurgents in the 1960s. When the communists took power in 1975, the Hmong faced persecution, and many came to the United States as refugees. They mostly settled in the Great Lakes states; gold medalist Suni Lee is from Minnesota.
A large community landed in Fresno, Calif. Over the past generation, many have been making their way from Fresno up to rugged and remote Siskiyou County, abutting the Oregon border. With this move, the Hmong are putting their ancestral knowledge as a highland agricultural people to new use: They’re growing cannabis. But Hmong cannabis farmers increasingly find themselves stigmatized and criminalized by the political establishment in Siskiyou. In recent weeks, the situation has approached a boiling point.
Congressman in a Bulldozer
On July 20, social media users were treated to the bizarre spectacle of a congressman at the controls of a bulldozer, destroying unlicensed cannabis plots in Siskiyou. The videos were posted to YouTube by the office of Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA). In a blatant publicity stunt, the videos show LaMalfa behind the wheel of the ‘dozer back in May, joining in with Sheriff’s deputies to demolish an unlicensed greenhouse.
But, as Politico noted, advocates for local growers said the timing of the videos was problematic. The videos surfaced in the immediate wake of the death of Soobleej Kaub Hawj, the 35-year-old Hmong man who was shot dead by police on June 28 during the evacuation of local communities due to the devastating Lava Fire. Barely veiled racism was evident in LaMalfa’s patter to the camera. “I love the smell of diesel power in the afternoon. It smells like victory,” he says in one of the videos, riffing off a quote from Vietnam War movie “Apocalypse Now.”
In a statement released with the four videos, LaMalfa accused the growers of being organized criminals with dirty practices: “Trash, illegally used pesticides, human waste and fuel cover the ground that has been scraped bare of organic matter with nothing but dust left,” he said. “Nothing about the organized criminal grows in Siskiyou County is legal. These grow sites are destroying our environment. Local wildlife is now nonexistent in the area. This level of criminality cannot be tolerated.”
An attorney for the Hmong growers, J. Raza Lawrence, gave a statement to the press in response to LaMalfa’s stunt. He said the congressman’s YouTube proclamation “sounds like a divisive message that’s likely to inflame the tensions instead of making them better.”
Mounting Crackdown on Illicit Cultivation
There is much unlicensed cannabis growing in Siskiyou, where outdoor cultivation is entirely banned by county ordinance. On June 20, just a week and a day before the murder of Hawj, Sheriff’s deputies carried out raids in the Mount Shasta Vista area, uncovering and destroying nearly 8,000 plants, along with 52 pounds of processed marijuana. A firearm was also reportedly confiscated.
Several people were detained, although only two were formally arrested. In the past seven weeks, the Sheriff’s Office said it had eradicated over 30,000 plants. The Sheriff’s Office has also been aggressively enforcing a new county ordinance that prohibits water trucks from delivering to suspected grow sites. Citing the long drought conditions in the region, it additionally places restrictions on use of pumped groundwater in off-parcel plots.
Its passage in May also sparked a protest by local Hmong in Yreka. Demonstrators held signs reading “We need water,” “Stop discriminatory harassment,” and “Asian American lives matter.” Activists said the ordinance specifically targeted Hmong properties — and that it was passed by the Board of Supervisors with racist intent. This is of course denied by Sheriff LaRue.
Hawj was originally from Kansas City and had moved to Siskiyou recently to help his family. It hasn’t yet been determined if he was growing cannabis, and of course it is unknown how many of the county’s some 4,000 Hmong are involved in cannabis cultivation.
Protests in Yreka
Siskiyou’s usually sleepy county seat of Yreka saw a rare protest demonstration, as hundreds of Hmong and their supporters gathered in the streets July 17 to demand justice for Hawj. A new group called Siskiyou Hmong Americans United 4 Justice organized the vigil and march through downtown Yreka.
“We are right now facing racism against our community; myself, I am Hmong, all our people here are Hmong people,” activist Paula Yang told local KOBI-TV. She drove up from Fresno to participate in the rally.
“We don’t even know where our deceased, our loved one, is at. It’s been 20 days,” she added with clear anguish. “Typically, in my culture, we have to bring our deceased home so we can do a proper burial.”
Another Hmong community activist, Zurg Xiong, launched a public hunger strike on the steps of the Yreka courthouse. In a social media statement released about the strike, he says, “I’m giving a voice because we’ve been denied a voice.”
Xiong broke his fast after 19 days on July 23, when California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced he would open an investigation into the killing of Hawj.