Pressure rising on Hmong cannabis growers in California's far north

Posted on August 3rd, 2021 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , , , .

CaliforniaA disturbing escalation is reported in California’s far-north Siskiyou County, where Hmong immigrants from Laos have been getting in on the cannabis economy—sparking a xenophobic backlash. Conservative politicians are making hay of the tensions, while the local Hmong are starting to stand up and protest.

When US 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. So 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.

But a large community made their home in Fresno, Calif. Over the past generation, many have been making their way from there up to rugged and remote Siskiyou County, abutting the Oregon border, putting their ancestral knowledge as a highland agricultural people to new use—growing cannabis.

But Hmong cannabis farmers increasingly find themselves stigmatized and criminalized by the old white political establishment in Siskiyou. And in recent weeks, the situation has been approaching a boiling point.

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 Soobleej Kaub Hawj. The 35-year-old Hmong man was shot dead by police on June 28 during the evacuation of local communities due to the devastating Lava Fire. The 25,000-acre wildfire is still ongoing and has devoured much of the county’s forest as well as some 20 homes.

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. “I’m giving a voice because we’ve been denied a voice,” Xiong said in a social media statement upon starting the strike. “We lost a brother.”

The killing of Soobleej Kaub Hawj
The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office has confirmed that officers shot and killed Soobleej Kaub Hawj during evacuation of the Mount Shasta Vista Subdivision, southeast of Yreka—an area increasingly notorious for the proliferation of illicit cannabis grows, and a corresponding crackdown by county authorities.

According to the Sheriff’s statement, officers assisting in the evacuation stopped a pickup truck that was driving east on Shasta Vista Drive, away from the subdivision, and toward the intersection with County Road A-12, where firefighters had established a staging area. At A-12, officers directed the driver to turn north, away from the evacuation zone. According to the statement, the motorist ignored those directions and instead turned southbound.
“While the law enforcement officer was communicating with the driver, the driver raised his hand and pointed a semi-auto handgun at the officers,” the Sheriff's Office said, according to an account on Southern Oregon’s KDRV. The officers opened fire.

“Fire personnel quickly administered medical aid to the driver of the vehicle; however, he did not recover, and was pronounced dead at the scene,” the statement concluded.

Folks at the Yreka protest march contested this version of events. They said that eyewitnesses at the time didn’t report seeing Hawj draw a gun—which, in any case, police have not yet produced. They were especially outraged that 60 rounds were fired into Hawj’s truck, while his wife and three children witnessed the shooting as they evacuated behind him in another vehicle.

Authorities have also seemingly dropped initial claims that Hawj fired first—or even got a shot off at all. “Based upon preliminary information, it appears that there might have been a couple rounds fired from the suspect’s firearm,” Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue initially told the Sacramento Bee—a claim that has not been repeated.

It likewise raised eyebrows that the Sheriff's Office did not actually identify Hawj by name until July 15—more than two weeks after the shooting. And no dash-cam or other footage of incident was released. This led Tou Ger Xiong, a national advocate for Hmong Americans, to say in a social media statement, "There's something suspicious about his death." 

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.

Kirk Andrus, the Siskiyou County District Attorney, told the Daily Beast it is unclear whether Hawj was a part of the “illegal cannabis cultivation industry,” but that the question is irrelevant to his investigation. “The officers will receive no benefit from what he may have done for a living,” Andrus said. “We will follow the evidence wherever it leads without regard to outside factors.”

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 slaying 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.

Hunger striker Zurg Xiong emphasized this crackdown and particularly the water issue in his statements to the press.

Xiong’s principal demand, however, was taking the investigation into Hawj’s shooting out of the hands of local authorities. He broke his fast after 19 days on July 23, when California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced he would open an investigation into the killing.

A congressman in a bulldozer
In the midst of this controversy, social media users were treated to the bizarre spectacle of a Republican congressman at the controls of a bulldozer, destroying unlicensed cannabis plots in Siskiyou. The videos were posted to YouTube on July 20 by the office of Rep. Doug LaMalfa. They showed him joining with Sheriff’s deputies back in May to demolish an unlicensed greenhouse—actually getting behind the wheel of the ‘dozer himself, in a blatant publicity stunt.

But, as Politico noted, advocates for local growers said the timing of the videos, in the immediate wake of the death of Hawj, was problematic. Barely veiled racism was also seen in his patter to the camera. “I love the smell of diesel power in the afternoon. It smells like victory,” LaMalfa says in one of the videos—obviously riffing off the “napalm in the morning” quote from the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now.

His comments invoked “organized crime” as behind the “illegal pot-growing operations.” He said that this spring “a young woman who was a victim of human trafficking was found dead in a shallow grave” in Siskiyou. However, media accounts on the tragic case of 19-year-old Tatiana Dugger said her remains were found on National Forest land near Weed. Nothing in the reportage indicated a link to cannabis cultivation. She was from Oakland, where police are said to suspect she was "groomed" by traffickers—but for sexual exploitation, not the cannabis industry.

In a statement released along with the four videos, LaMalfa accused the growers of 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. 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.”

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

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