Zurg Xiong, a 33-year-old Hmong American satyagrahi, ended his 19-day hunger strike on the afternoon of July 23 2021, when California State Attorney General Rob Bonta agreed to look into the death of farmer Soobleej Hawj, who was shot to death as he was trying to escape the Lava fire. 

A weapon of the determined, satyagraha, a policy of passive political resistance advocated by Mahatma Gandhi against British rule in India, is sometimes the only cry for help a community can make. Zurg Xiong threw his life into the ring in a last ditch attempt to be heard by the Siskiyou Sheriff.  “I was prepared to die in front of the American courthouse just to prove the point that this is not justice,” said Xiong. 

35-year-old Hawj was shot to death by Siskiyou County law enforcement officers on June 28, when he allegedly turned the wrong way at a checkpoint on Highway 12 near Weed, during a mandatory fire evacuation order for the region. Officers shot at Hawj at least 21 times. An eyewitness video records the sounds of at least 40-60 bullets being fired. 

Hawj’s wife and three children were in a second car behind him. 

Zurg Xiong says the death of Hawj was inevitable. He had seen the writing on the wall. Someone was going to die.  Tensions, between the Hmong American community and the Sheriff’s office, had been escalating. 

“Xiong life is at risk,” said Manju Kulkarni, co-founder StopAAPI Hate, Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council at a brifeingon July 23, organized by Ethnic Media Services. She called  the killing of farmer Hawj, a father of three, horrific, and added that it fit a pattern of institutional racism that sits atop individual racism and discrimination.

“Not that far from Siskiyou County in 1907, 500 white individuals beat and drove out 200 South Asian American men because they were working in the lumber yard. Law enforcement alongside with white supremacists target communities of color. In just the last year 8-10 million Asians have faced hate in the US,” said Kulkarni.

The shooting happened in an area that is home primarily to Hmong American farmers in the Mount Shasta/Vista area. The farmers are policed for farming marijuana. While cannabis is legal in California, outdoor cultivation is forbidden in Siskiyou County. Farmers can grow up to 12 plants indoors.

The Hmong Americans are accused of running a secret drug cartel. They feel they are specially targeted by the Siskiyou County authorities.

“This all started from LaRue being appointed as Sheriff and saying, look, go after the water. So the tension started when that happened,“ said Zurg Xiong to Georgie Szendrey

Restrictive water ordinances to starve the Hmong farmers out of the county were zealously enforced in the area where the community lives. 

“Tensions have been actively stoked, encouraged and maybe even unofficially directed by the local government,” said Zurg Xiong.

Six Asian Americans filed a lawsuit June 4, 24 days before Hawj was killed, seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Sheriff’s Office from surveilling trucks for water delivery in the Mount Shasta Vista area, where Hmongs make up the majority of residents.

“So the tension started when that happened. And then we had a protest a few months ago. When we went marching, I actually said in my speech. I said they’re going to go after the water. They’re going to burn us out because they’ve been threatening to burn us out. And then one of the police officers is going to shoot us dead because the tensions are so high. And that’s exactly what happened. And that happened at the same time,” said Zurg Xiong.

The Hmong, who bravely fought side by side with U.S. forces during the Vietnam conflict, rescued American pilots, and lost over 35,000 lives supporting the U.S., feel betrayed. From 1959 to 1975, the CIA conducted a secret war in Laos that relied on Hmong soldiers to prevent the threat of communism from spreading deeper into Southeast Asia. Today, according to the 2010 US Census, 260,073 people of Hmong descent reside in the United States.

At the EMS briefing, a starving but defiant Xiong appeared along with Hmong activists Tong Xiong and Tou Ger Xiong. Officials walked past him as he lay on the concrete steps of the Siskiyou County Courthouse in Yreka, California.

Social Justice through Satyagraha has been the goal of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s and James Bevel‘s campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, as well as Nelson Mandela‘s struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  Developed in 1906 by Gandhi over a hundred years ago, it has maintained its relevance and reaffirms faith in the humanity of the oppressor.

Xiong demanded an independent investigation into the killing of Hawj on  June 28, and the release of all video footage of the incident derived from body and vehicle cameras. For this he was willing to give up his life. 

But, before life would have ebbed from Xiong’s body, the California state Attorney General Rob Bonta, on a zoom call, agreed to look into the death of farmer Soobleej Hawj, thereby opening a door of reconciliation to the proud Hmong American community.

The satyagrahi, aided by his sister, finally broke his fast.

Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.

Ritu Marwah is an award-winning author ✍️ and a recognized Bay Area leader in the field of 🏛 art and literature. She won the 2023 Ethnic Media Services award for outstanding international reporting;...