On June 28th, 2021, a confusing wildfire evacuation situation in Siskiyou County, California tragically resulted in the death of local man, Soobleej Kaub Hawj, at the hands of law enforcement officials.
Hawj, a member of the long-burgeoning Hmong community in the area, was evacuating because of the nearby lava fire in his white pickup truck with his wife and children following in another car. When he came upon law enforcement agents directing traffic, it’s reported by the local authorities that Hawj attempted to go south after being directed toward the north. It’s then reported that Hawj allegedly brandished a firearm, which somehow resulted in the group of officers from various agencies shooting and killing the father of three.
At this stage of the somewhat lacking investigation, conflicting information from the local and national Hmong communities and the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office make it difficult to discern the full truth. A major and disheartening roadblock in the way of getting to that truth, however, is that the officers involved allegedly did not have their body cameras on at the time of the incident. That footage would have shed light on the events that unfolded just over a month ago in Northern California’s cannabis country.
The four officers involved – two from the nearby Etna Police Department, one from the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office, and one from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife – have not been identified and it is unclear at this point which officer or officers shot Hawj. According to the Sacramento Bee, one witness reported hearing nearly 60 shots fired at the time of the incident – an incredibly high number that has contributed to the Hmong community’s outcry that Hawj’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to say, concerning the tensions between the Hmong community in Siskiyou County and the local law enforcement.
The Hmong community in Siskiyou County has been settling and growing in the region for nearly a decade, though Hmong people have much longer lived in other areas of California and the United States. When they first moved into the region, the land was nearly unfarmable after being decimated by wildfires for far too long. But the Hmong people set to work tirelessly rehabilitating the terrain, implementing cannabis growth and sales to legal dispensaries as their main crop and a lucrative source of income. Unfortunately, racial tensions in the 86% white and less than 2% Asian county developed into a misunderstanding of the legality of both the Hmong people’s documentation status and cannabis grow operations.
What many of the White residents in Siskiyou County and in the general U.S. fail to realize or acknowledge is that the Hmong people first came to America seeking refuge after fighting in the Vietnam War alongside U.S. soldiers. The erasure of that history in conjunction with horrifically ever-present (and recently rapidly increasing) prejudice against Asian Americans in the region has resulted in a strained back and forth between Siskiyou County law enforcement and the local Hmong community. In recent years, a number of ordinances that appear to specifically target the Hmong subdivisions of the county, which don’t have the same access to wells as the surrounding communities, have made it illegal to transport large amounts of water into the area or to use groundwater for growing cannabis.
Of course, it’s important to mention the severe droughts and decimating wildfires California as a whole is experiencing, and the general tug-of-war between the state and cannabis operations who need large amounts of water to grow their plants. It seems that recently, state officials have been cracking down on the issue, mainly centering on illegal grow operations stealing valuable water. So while it’s understandable to implement water usage ordinances, the Hmong community would not be making these accusations lightly.
The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s office, headed by Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue, executes a hefty number of search warrants to scope out illegal grow operations and practices each year, many of which seem to target the Hmong subdivisions. While it’s entirely possible that there are illegal operations underway in the region (the county has strict rules about legal growing), the Hmong community feels strongly that the Sheriff’s office and Board of Supervisors, who implemented the water laws, are specifically targeting them as Asian Americans. Hawj’s death at the hands of the very law enforcement agencies that have been, in the Hmong people’s eyes, unfairly over-policing their community specifically catalyzed a massive protesting effort over the past month where many of these concerns have been publicly voiced. One Hmong man even went on a nearly 20-day hunger strike in support of his entire community’s protesting efforts.
While Sheriff LaRue was quoted by Jefferson Public Radio saying that his intentions are to protect the environment from illegal growing practices that may be decimating their land, the Hmong community feels strongly that they are being specifically targeted. LaRue also mentioned that he welcomes an outside investigation into the incident, for which he himself was not present, and that these searches, ordinances, and the tragic killing of Hawj have nothing to do with the ethnicity of the Hmong people.