by Cole Miska
Protests in St. Paul continue more than a month after the killing of a 65-year-old Hmong man, Yia Xiong, by officers from the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD). Over 100 people gathered in the Capitol Rotunda Friday afternoon, March 24, to call for the arrest and charges filed against the two officers involved in the shooting.
Xiong was shot on Feb. 11 in the door of his apartment in Winslow Commons Apartments, a community home for the elderly and disabled, after a 911 call was placed saying a resident threatened others at a party with a knife.
Xiong walked to his apartment after officers arrived, and briefly entered it. Officer Noushue Cha kicked open the apartment door, and when Xiong emerged holding a knife, Officer Abdirahman Dahir fired his rifle, killing Xiong.
Snowdon Herr, chief organizer for the Justice for Yia Xiong organization, said the situation could have been handled differently. He called SPPD’s handling of the incident “irresponsible,” noting that Xiong was hard of hearing and did not speak fluent English.
Herr criticized officer Cha, who is also Hmong, for not attempting to speak with Xiong in Hmong. Herr also says the knife Xiong was carrying was a “cuaj puam,” which is a type of traditional Hmong “Riam” (literally translated as “knife”) that nearly every Hmong family owns. A cuaj puam is commonly used for cutting meat, wood, or plants while gardening.
“The community is really upset and felt terrible and devastated that Yia Xiong was killed so easily,” Herr said. “The elders of the community who are going to be doing their gardening in summer and in the springtime are also afraid that when they use their knife outside their homes or apartments doing their gardening, someone might call and report, and they might get killed just like Yia Xiong.”
Herr says momentum for the protests has been growing, noting that fewer than 10 people came to the first protest in February.
Toshira Garraway Allen, founder of Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence (FSFAPV), was one of the organizers of the protest last month. Garraway Allen has been in contact with Xiong’s family and has been offering support.
“I’ve been with his family as they break down crying,” Garraway Allen said during Friday’s protest. “I was with his brother and his sisters today and his nephew and his wife. And Mr. Xiong had children and it’s hard to see them all crying and just going through what so many of our families have gone through.”
Garraway Allen called the killing “wrong on so many levels.”
“I just feel like the situation could’ve got handled a little differently,” Garraway Allen said. “Not only was he hard of hearing, but he was 65 years old—he was an elderly person. He had disabilities because he lived in a disability building. He was a veteran so I think we should have a little more respect for him.”
Several state representatives and several members of Xiong’s family spoke at the protest on March 24. Paula Yang, Xiong’s niece, called for the Black and Hmong communities to stand together in addressing the slayings of community members by police.
“As we all stand and watch Black lives deteriorate, today we say Black lives matter, because we lost so many brothers and sisters in the system through police brutality,” Yang said. “We need each other; we’re all going to embrace each other like this from now on.”
“I have a sister,” Yang said as she linked arms with Garraway Allen as a symbolic gesture of unity between the Black and Hmong communities.
The nephew of Yia Xiong, Charles Xiong, said his family has been going through “some of the darkest days of our lives” since his uncle’s death.
“My family has been trying to make sense of a loss that should’ve never happened,” Charles said. “It’s a pain that no family should ever have to endure knowing that a loved one was senselessly taken away, that their life was cut short by the very people that swore to protect them.
“These officers arrived on scene with disregard for my uncle’s life and they killed him in a matter of minutes, in less time than my speech today. If they had just taken a little bit of time to assess what was going on they would’ve seen that my uncle Yia was of no harm to anybody.”
Herr says he joined members of Xiong’s family and the Hmong community to meet with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and SPPD Chief Axel Henry after sending them a letter. Herr said the group left unsatisfied.
“They made it clear to us that no specific questions may be answered pending on [Bureau of Criminal Apprehension] investigations,” Herr said. “Nothing was really clarified or answered to our satisfaction.”
Herr and the Justice for Yia Xiong organization continue to call for two demands: that the two police officers involved need to be jailed and prosecuted by Attorney General Keith Ellison, and for reforms to be made at SPPD that improve both de-escalation tactics and cultural awareness of the Hmong community and other minorities.