By Michelle Kelrikh
On November 5, 2014, Kevin Elberg attacked Sao Lue Vang, a 64-year old Hmong man. Vang had been hunting with his friends on public land in Pepin County, Wisconsin. An hour after he arrived, Elberg, who is Caucasian, confronted him. Elberg began yelling at Vang, accusing him of being on Elberg’s property. With his limited English skills, Vang politely apologized and stated that he would leave the property. He began walking away from Elberg, but Elberg was not placated. Suddenly, he struck Vang with enough force to push him onto the ground, grabbing Vang’s walkie-talkie so he could not call for help. He beat the Purple Heart veteran from the Secret War in Laos (a part of the Vietnam War effort) with his own rifle. Elberg continued kicking and striking Vang, leaving him with a bleeding left hand that required several stitches and several liver lacerations. He then put his hand over Vang’s mouth, so that Vang could not call out for help. Gasping desperately for air, Vang finally felt into unconsciousness.
Eventually, an officer arrived on the scene and transferred Vang to a nearby hospital. He was discharged two days later, but he has been bedridden ever since and has to use a wheelchair to move around. Despite overwhelming evidence against Elberg, including an officer’s report that he smelled of alcohol at the scene, he was not arrested until three days after the attack. Even after being arrested, he was quickly released without bail at the request of Jon Seiffert, the district attorney of Pepin County. Seiffert repeatedly stated that he did not believe that Elberg had committed the crime.
“This was the catalyst for Hmong United for Justice to form. Where was justice in this situation? said Mai Vang, Sao Lue Vang’s daughter. “If he had been white, there would have been no question of a conviction. Now we’re left with uncertainty.” Vang now serves as a spokesperson for the group of community activists, educators, and students that formed in the aftermath of the attack.
“The Hmong community is a large target of racially-based violence in places that are otherwise predominantly white,” agreed Tou Ger Xiong, a Hmong community activist in Minnesota.
Just ten years ago, in a similar altercation, a Hmong hunter named Chai Suoa Vang shot eight people, killing six. (Chai Suoa Vang is no relation to Sao Lue and Mai Vang.) Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager personally prosecuted the case. After the ensuing conviction, anti-Hmong sentiments rose to an all time high. Wisconsin and St. Paul, Minnesota, where another large Hmong community resides, began seeing an influx of cars with bumper stickers that said things like “Save a hunter, Shoot a Hmong.”
Aimee Baldillo, a Hmong attorney, argues that the racism and violence experienced by people like Sao Lue Vang and the Hmong community in general is a “sign of the media attributing killings like Chai Soua Vang’s to a belligerent culture unable to fit in in America.” The Hmong are a Southeast Asian ethnic group predominantly from Vietnam, Laos, and China. After the Vietnam War, thousands of Hmong resettled in the United States with the help of the State Department and various community agencies. Baldillo believes the social problems, along with the language barrier, that the Hmong have faced lead many white Americans to have difficulty understanding Hmong culture.
“They attribute blame to them based on untrue characteristics, and they think they just don’t belong here.”
Lee Pao Xiong, a Hmong professor at Concordia-St. Paul University, and the director of the Center for Hmong Studies, echoed her sentiments. He stated that over the generations, “Hmong people have faced issues with accessing services (ESL, job training, etc) and opportunities, like employment and housing.” Other historic social problems include “high alcoholism rates, high instances of mental illness and PTSD, along with juvenile delinquency due to the fact that parents were working full time during the day and going to school full time at night.’
Baldillo and Xiong believe that these prejudices require time and community awareness to be overcome. “As of now, [I don’t] know of any policy measures being taken to specifically help the Hmong,” Xiong said. Hmong communities are left to band together and empower themselves.
On December 5, 2014, over 800 Hmong and their allies marched arm-in-arm through Pepin County where the assault on Sao Lue Vang occurred. Participants walked for two miles, past the Pepin County Sherrif’s Office and the District Attorney’s office. Demonstrators held signs with slogans such as “Unite Against Hate,” “We Are Watching #Pepin,” and “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” At the rally, Sao Lue Vang’s daughter, Bao Vang, spoke out: “The repercussions of this ordeal have opened our eyes to truly see that an act of violence against one is an act of violence against us all.”
Michelle Kelrikh ‘17 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics major in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Above: Hmong United for Justice demonstrators in Pepin County protest the unjust assault on Sao Lue Vang (courtesy Facebook, Hmong United for Justice).