(7 min read)
How does a pen become a knife?
On June 14th, the King’s County Sheriff’s Office received several panicked 911 calls insisting that a man with a knife was threatening people. One resident was so fearful that he fired a “warning shot” from his personal handgun, then retreated into his home. Eyewitnesses would later choose a butterfly knife, confiscated from the home from which Le rented a room, as the weapon in his hand that night. But after Tommy Le was shot and killed — just hours before his high-school graduation — the “knife” in his hand was revealed to be just a pen.
On August 22, 2018, the Sheriff’s Department ruled officer Cesar Molina and officer Tanner Owens not guilty of using excessive force. By doing so, they legalized the murder of 20-year-old Tommy Le, who dared to be an Asian man holding a pen. Even if witnesses and deputies had known it was a pen, and not a knife, that would not have changed the events of that night. The Use of Force Review Board claimed the pen could “cause serious bodily injury if used to stab someone.”
Other details of the incident are obscured, but full of inconsistencies. According to the report, the officers justified using their firearms because they assumed that Le did not respond to being hit with a taser. But the specific taser model used by Owens records when the weapon makes contact, and it did not indicate contact with Le. When attempts were made to recover the taser wires from medics and from Harborview Medical Center, they were unsuccessful. Additionally, the autopsy report shows that Le was shot twice in the back, contrary to the claim that he was approaching the officers. The conflicting narratives released by the Sheriff’s Office make one thing clear: they were obfuscating, omitting, and changing the facts about the case.
When I heard about the unanimous court decision of Tommy Le’s murder, I felt sick. As I started to look for more police brutality incidents against Asian Americans, I discovered a deadly pattern. It was difficult to process. I’m not a very emotional person, but I was overwhelmed and close to tears. And I was full of questions. How are we supposed to trust the justice system? Why are our stories not publicized? And why is no one holding our killers accountable?
No Justice for Asian Men
Ryo Oyamada was killed on February 21, 2013 while crossing the street in a residential area in Queens, New York. A speeding NYPD cruiser driven by Officer Darren Ilardi, slammed into him in the middle of a crosswalk, bashing in his face and twisting his body. An eyewitness noted that no steps were taken to comfort Oyamada. His killer just watched as he took deep, painful breaths, trying to hold on to life.
“They just left him lying in the street. They wasn’t trying to help him or anything. It’s sad. Real sad,” said an eyewitness.
Like King’s County, the NYPD tried to blame Oyamada and make excuses for Ilardi, by claiming the Asian man was crossing illegally, despite the fact that he was struck while using the crosswalk. They stated that Ilardi was responding to an assault call and had his emergency lights on, which surveillance video showed was not true. And when forensic expert Peter Chen demonstrated that the crash was entirely preventable, the court refused to hold the NYPD or the officer accountable. But it doesn’t end there.
Michael Sungman Cho was murdered, too. On December 31, 2007 as he calmly walked through a strip-mall parking lot in La Habra, Orange County. Officer Pete DiPasqua and officer John Jaime shot him at least ten times. Three hours after they killed him, the officers visited Cho’s parent’s home and inquired about the son, conveniently omitting the fact that their son was dead. Ironically, the police were nowhere to be found during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when Korean shop owners were forced to defend their stores alone.
In 2006, Minneapolis police officer Jason Andersen randomly approached 19-year-old Laotian Fong Lee and his friends near an elementary school when Andersen suddenly accused Lee of having a gun. They proceeded to chase him while Lee ran, terrified for his life. Lee’s friend, Nhia Lor, testified that none of his friends had a gun that day, but a gun was planted next to Lee’s body by an officer postmortem. Lee’s body was defiled with eight bullets, and an all-white jury of 8 men and 4 women exonerated his killer. Andersen was shown to have made derogatory remarks about Asians, but they were not ruled admissible in court.
While celebrating his new job at a bar, Kuanchang Kao was faced with racism from other bar patrons. After a brawl ensued, Kao was stabbed in the eye with a dart. Painfully, Kao stumbled in front of his house, crying “Neighbors, please help me!”. Instead, his neighbors called the police on him and officers Mike Lynch and Jack Shields arrived at the home. Because Kao was carrying a stick, officer Lynch immediately assumed that Kao was a martial arts expert, stating he was carrying the stick “in a threatening martial arts fashion” and so attempted to run him over with their cruiser. Kao defended himself by hitting the car with his stick, so fearful for his life that he punctured the radiator. Ayling Wu, Kao’s wife, rushed over to console him and diffuse the situation, but Shields asked her to back away so that he could shoot him in front of her and their 5-year-old daughter. Kuanching Kao was killed within 34 seconds of the officers’ arrival and was refused emergency treatment as he lay dying. His body was left in the family’s driveway until noon. Despite combing the home for evidence of martial arts training or weapons, none were found.
A Pattern of Systemic Violence
All of these cases have the following in common:
- They were murdered by law enforcement through excessive force and each of the officers received no consequences.
- Each of the police departments released statements that omitted and/or changed the facts in their reports and statements to the public.
- The victims were all innocent people who were either holding everyday objects, or doing everyday activities.
- Each of their families stated that they felt hopeless against the justice system and did not believe that there would be any accountability for the officers or police departments involved.
- They were ordinary Asian men living ordinary lives in America.
The systemic and lawful condoning of these killings of innocent Asian Americans by the justice system is the quiet genocide of our community.
It has been legal to murder Asian men since the 1800s. In 1871, the largest mass lynching in American history targeted a group of 17 Chinese men. A total of eight white men were convicted for the crime, but charges were eventually dropped due to a technicality. In People v. Hall (1854), the definition of “black person” was expanded to include the Chinese. This meant that Chinese were not allowed to testify against whites, pardoning George Hall from killing Ling Sing, a Chinese man. It was around this time that the phrase “Not a Chinaman’s chance”, meaning little or no chance at all, was coined, although the exact origin is unclear.
Unchecked, legalized police brutality leads to distrust of law enforcement, which in turn leads to hate crimes going unreported. Lack of certain punishment encourages non-Asians to target Asians. In fact, non-Asians are the biggest perpetrators of crime towards Asians, unlike any other racial group.
“This does nothing more than to reaffirm the fact that we should fear police and members of law enforcement. Because it is saying to us, ‘Watch out, if a cop thinks you pose a threat, you will be killed, you will shot, you will be killed,'” said community activist Tou Her Xiong after Fong Lee’s murder.
Lee’s parents came to the U.S. from Laos in 1988 seeking freedom and safety. Shoua Lee, Fong’s sister, declared, “on July 22, 2006, over 20 years later, that feeling of safety was shattered.”
Ryo’s family issued a statement saying, “There is and has been a lack of political will to hold the NYPD accountable for killing Ryo. Our family feels that there is no way to hold the NYPD accountable through the court system.”
Tommy Le’s aunt, Xuyen Le said, “I have no faith in them,” referring to the county.
Taking into account all of these incidents, and the Asian lives brutally taken, I reached out to Asian Twitter to hear more about how the Asian American community felt about police brutality.
As Albert Hur wrote earlier this week, there is a long-standing history of Asian men being perceived as dangerous and put to death as a result. It is clear that Asian American men are under present threat from law enforcement and often feel hopeless against the system. Look around us. With the FBI now branding Chinese students as foreign adversaries and spies, as well as anti-Asian hate crimes increasing sharply since Trump’s election, this is Yellow Peril reborn in the twenty-first century. Or perhaps it never ended.
We must unite to be visible and have our voices taken seriously. As Asian Americans, we all must fight to win justice for the Les, the Oyamadas, the Chos, the Lees, and the Kaos. We must hold the justice system accountable. Please, call your representatives and ask them how they will prevent the next Asian kid holding a pen from being killed by the police. Ask them why it is a crime to be an Asian man. Write to them, and tell them you are disappointed that they’ve not just excused, but legalized the murder of Tommy Le.
This is how a pen becomes a knife.
Written by Yun
[Edited by J]