Hmong Americans protest at Siskiyou courthouse: what led to the demonstration

Barry Kaye
USA TODAY Network – California
The scene at the Siskiyou County Courthouse in Yreka on July 17, 2021.

When a 35-year-old man was shot dead by law enforcement in front of his wife and three children in the first frantic hours after the Lava Fire exploded in Northern California it laid bare simmering racial tensions between local authorities and Hmong American cannabis growers.

The victim, identified as Soobleej Kaub Hawj of Kansas City, Kansas, allegedly pointed a gun at officers on the evening of June 28 when he turned the wrong way at a checkpoint on Highway A-12 near Weed. His family was following behind in a second vehicle. The area was under a mandatory evacuation order at the time.

Since the shooting the conflict has escalated, sparking everything from a hunger strike in front of the county courthouse to demands that Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue resign.

More:Shooting of Hmong American man during Lava Fire draws nationwide attention

At a protest Saturday in Yreka attended by an estimated 300 people, several speakers called for the release of body cam footage from the fatal shooting. 

A photo taken by an eyewitness shows 21 bullet holes in the driver and cab doors of Hawj’s GMC pickup truck. Both side windows were blown out.

“We are simply seeking justice and a proper investigation,” said Peter Taho, a Hmong American community leader.

In a statement, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office promised a thorough report will be made public, adding that the “suspect may have fired several rounds from the gun at officers during the incident.”

State game wardens, members of the Etna Police Department and county sheriff deputies were all on the scene when Hawj was killed.

More:To curtail illegal cannabis grows, water trucks aren't allowed on these Siskiyou roads

“Officer-involved shootings are complex investigations that take time to thoroughly investigate,” the statement posted on Facebook continued. “There are certain details surrounding this incident that have not been made public as the investigation is ongoing.”

Growing marijuana outdoors is legal in California, but not in Siskiyou County

While cannabis is legal in California local officials are given plenty of leeway to set their own rules.

Outdoor cultivation is not allowed in Siskiyou County. In May, an emergency ordinance banned trucks carrying more than 100 gallons of water on certain roads, including those leading into the Mt. Shasta Vista subdivision near Big Springs where many of the Hmong grows are located.

LaRue said at a public hearing earlier this month that the ordinance has resulted in 25 misdemeanor cases. Each comes with a $100 fine.

More:After having assets frozen, man accused of Shasta Vista pot cultivation is released from jail

“When we pull over a truck in the zone, we seize it as evidence,” he said. “We take it off the road. And it has been effective.”

There is also a concern that drawing down thousands of gallons of water from an underground aquifer in the middle of a historic drought could cause wells to go dry at neighboring cattle ranches in the Shasta Valley.

But Allison Margolin, a Los Angeles-based attorney who is part of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed July 15 on behalf of the Hmong, said withholding water from an entire neighborhood – especially for domestic purposes – is not only illegal but a blatant form of racism. Asian Americans make up just 1.54% of the population in Siskiyou County, according to census data.

“They live here and are entitled to basic human rights,” she said.

More:Lava Fire: Here's how long we can expect to see smoke on Mt. Shasta

Greenhouses went up in smoke in Lava Fire

More than a dozen structures were destroyed in the Mt. Shasta Vista subdivision during the fire and an untold number of greenhouses went up in smoke. Many in the Hmong American community say fire officials not only let their neighborhood burn but also prevented them from bringing in their own water trucks so they could fight the conflagration themselves.

Fire officials said they received a hostile reception upon arrival and had to retreat after having rocks thrown at them. Roads were also blocked, authorities said.

More:Firefighter explains difficulty in fighting Lava Fire over dangerous, hot lava tubes

Russell Mathis, who lives in the subdivision about two miles from the entrance, said Cal Fire arrived at his house at 6:30 am Tuesday morning – shortly after the fire had already burned to the edge of his property.

“Once they were there, they were great,” he said.

Surrounded by his supporters from the Mt. Shasta Vista Subdivision, Zurg Xiong sits in front of the county courthouse for the past week on a hunger strike in protest of the officer involved shooting of a Hmong man.

'I am prepared to die if there is no justice'

Hmong trace their ancestry to Southeast Asia, including the mountainous regions of Northern Laos. Many fought alongside American troops during the Vietnam War.

But since arriving in Siskiyou County, Hmong American community members say they have faced discrimination and harassment, one reason that 33-year-old Zurg Xiong began a hunger strike 12 days ago at the county courthouse in Yreka.

More:Dry wells, angry neighbors: Big Springs residents protest water trucking for illegal marijuana grows

He drinks only water and Pedialyte for fluids and sleeps barefoot in a concrete foyer. Several relatives keep a constant vigil, including his sister, who places a towel over his forehead on a summer’s day. A bottle of hand sanitizer sits nearby. His condition is weakening.

“I am prepared to die if there is no justice,” he said speaking softly. “I will not sit idle while people spread lies.”

Barry Kaye is a regional writer for the USA Today Network.