'I am not going to give up': Zurg Xiong will die if he doesn't begin eating. He says it's a quest for justice.
When he was in sixth grade, Zurg Xiong witnessed a young girl attacked from behind by an older student after an argument. Perhaps it was because his father had just died and he was feeling vulnerable himself. Without thinking, he jumped to her defense.
“For some reason I just got up and tackled him down on the ground,” he said. “When I got up, I had no idea why I just did that.”
Xiong had never considered himself a political activist before another Hmong American man was shot and killed on June 28 by law enforcement at an evacuation checkpoint during the Lava Fire. Now he is in the third week of a hunger strike on the steps of the Siskiyou County courthouse in Yreka.
He has pledged to continue until a state or federal agency launches an independent investigation. The Siskiyou County District Attorney’s Office is also investigating the shooting but Xiong and other activists say they do not trust local authorities.
“They have been demonizing and dehumanizing us for the past year,” he said. “They have elicited a lot of antagonism from our community.”
The first protest Xiong ever attended was a George Floyd rally in Minnesota last year. He was dismayed by the way Floyd died and the rioting that accompanied some protests afterward. But after an estimated 60 rounds were fired at 35-year-old Soobleej Kaub Hawj by multiple law enforcement agencies after he allegedly waved a gun at officers during the early evening hours of June 28, Xiong knew “something had to be done.”
Hawj’s wife and three children following in a car behind witnessed the shooting on Highway A-12 near Weed.
“It’s just like back in the sixth grade,” he said. “I wasn’t there to protect Hawj, but I will be here to get justice.”
He chose a hunger strike “because it shows we are serious about our cause.”
'The voice of a leader'
Xiong has studied other such actions throughout history, including one waged by Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army who successfully ran for a seat in Parliament in the midst of a hunger strike while imprisoned in Northern Ireland. Sands died of starvation in 1981, followed by nine others. The BBC called it a key turning point in the conflict and credited Sands with making the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, a viable force.
Xiong’s makeshift prison today is a concrete foyer on the steps at the entrance to the courthouse where he sits barefoot surrounded by friends and family. Several children play video games on their cellphones. Other supporters discreetly eat dinner in a parking lot across the street. A handmade sign keeps track of his progress — 17 days, as of Thursday.
Tong Xiong, who served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army National Guard, said Zurg is getting weaker by the day and concern is growing. There are 18 surnames in Hmong culture. The fact that Zurg and Tong share the same last name simply means they are from the same original clan in Southeast Asia.
“He has the voice of a leader,” the Army veteran said. “That is what we need him for. He has become the face of a movement.”
For his part, the soft-spoken Xiong remains stoic as he sits on a foam pad in triple-digit heat in the shade. He has an area cordoned off by traffic cones to try and give him a little space from all the people coming and going. He sleeps often, trying to conserve his strength.
“I am not tired of concrete, but I am tired of the same space of concrete,” he said, laughing. “That’s the most tiring part mentally. Just staying in one spot. It is almost like solitary confinement. But it’s a confinement that is self-imposed.”
People who drive by and yell insults about eating a big meal or shout that “everybody hates you” only make him smile and bolster his non-violent resolve. He is familiar with the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
“I know that it comes out of fear and misunderstanding,” he said. “I know that everybody is just waiting me out. I am not going to give up.”
A lifetime of preparation
Although he did not know it at the time, Xiong said he has spent most of his life preparing for this moment. He spoke two languages at home growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He worked as a janitor before moving to Siskiyou County, where he preferred the more rural life.
“My father specifically taught us English because he knew that our battles in the future would be fought in English,” he said. “He knew that the older we got the more appreciative we would become of our ancestral language. But he knew that in order to fight the fights of the future we had to have a mastery of the English language.”
The Hmong are native to China but have been on the run for most of the past century. They have battled the Japanese Imperial Army and the French in Southeast Asia. Many fought alongside U.S. troops in the mountainous regions of Northern Laos in the so-called “Secret War” during the Vietnam conflict. After the war, many fled to refugee camps in Thailand.
According to a 2010 U.S. Census, there were 260,000 Hmong Americans living in this country, primarily in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Many were brought here by church groups who helped with resettlement efforts after the war.
Lo Neng Kiatoukawsy, with the Hmong American Friendship Association based in Milwaukee, said the hunger strike in California has resonated with the Hmong American community nationwide.
“We are keeping really close tabs on the situation,” he said. “It is a very honorable thing to do. Sometimes as a minority it is hard to get attention. I hope no one has to die.”
Quest for justice
Xiong said most of his heroes growing up, including Martin Luther King, the suffragettes who fought for a woman’s right to vote in this country and the author James Baldwin who wrote about complex social issues, all had something in common.
“It is always about justice,” he said. “It is always about equality. It is something I look up to.”
If he is successful at prompting an external investigation into the shooting – the key demand behind his hunger strike — Xiong hopes to one day write children’s books for Asian Americans.
“They very rarely have any kind of representation in stories,” he said.
In the meantime, he drinks only fluids, including Pedialyte, which contains electrolytes to counter the body’s degenerative process without solid food. After approximately one month of fasting, or when more than 18% of body weight is lost, severe medical complications can occur.
He is aware of these issues and worries about how his declining health will affect his family, especially if he has a heart attack or goes into a coma. He already has a difficult time walking. His sister massages his stomach.
But he is not afraid of dying — just no longer being around to help bring a resolution to the current conflict.
“I understand we have a finite life. I understand that every day we get closer to the end,” he said. “Fear for the future is my only concern.”