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Disproportionate traffic stops of Hmong in rural county may show larger racial problem

By Amanda Bang, AsAmNews Intern

Almost all Hmong Americans pulled over by the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department in California are accused of the same thing, swerving. However, Glenn Katon, a litigation director at the Asian Law Caucus, said that almost none of these people are asked about driving under the influence, a common cause of swerving. Instead, he said they are questioned about what’s in their trunk or their monetary possessions, claiming that the traffic stops are done as a “pretext to target Asian folks.”

This story is not an instance that only affects a few. While Asians make up around 2.6% of the population in Siskiyou County, they made up 27.6% of the identified traffic stops in the county last year, according to traffic records obtained by the ALC and ACLU Southern California. 

Katon told AsAmNews frequent traffic stops are just another way to discriminate against Asians in Siskiyou County after a judge issued an injunction on an ordinance that is believed to target Hmong Americans in Shasta Vista. 

The ordinance limited large water transportation by trucks in certain areas in the county, especially roads towards where Hmong community resided. 

“The transportation of water by trucks was limited according to only certain roads that were the roads that were the main thoroughfares to the two largest concentrations of Hmong communities in the county, coincidentally enough,” Katon said. “That was really causing a humanitarian crisis where people that were cutting back on their water consumption, couldn’t do their own gardening and keeping livestock.”

However, the county framed the ordinance as an effort to stop illegal cannabis grows in the area. Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue said to AsAmNews in July 2021 that the ordinance was intended to “prevent the large-scale wasteful use of groundwater on illegal marijuana. Many people neighboring this particular community had wells going dry due to the over-extraction of groundwater being used for illegal marijuana.” 

LaRue did not respond to requests from AsAmNews for an updated interview about the recent traffic stop numbers.

Siskiyou County responded to the injunction by enforcing the ordinance on all roads, not just those in Hmong neighborhoods. 

This Friday the county will go to court to overturn the injunction despite what Katon describes as clear signs of discrimination.  

“​​[The judge] was very concerned with what the county was doing and the fact that she issued a preliminary injunction shows that,” Katon said. “I don’t know what the judge will do, but I will say that I think the data to that we’ve collected on how the county is discriminating again Asian folks is very compelling, and I think the judge will take that data very seriously.”

With the ongoing feud between the Asian community and Siskiyou County’s law enforcement, Katon believes this is a racial problem that is deeply rooted. He claims that traffic stops are only part of the possible discriminatory actions against Asian people in the community.

Katon gave wrongful property raids as another example of possible racial discrimination from the county. Although the officers are allowed to destroy contraband and plants if they find more than the allowed amount, the Asian community in Siskiyou has reported unnecessary destruction of their property in raids.

“They’re not supposed to just destroy things like farming equipment,” Katon said. “We’ve heard many stories and seen photos of this destruction of property that was not actual contraband.”

Furthermore, the inflammatory language used towards the Hmong community by the county board and the sheriff is evident in the amicus brief provided by the ALC. They cite multiple instances in the Siskiyou County Board supervisor’s meeting where the board members refer to Hmong people as an “illness” or group the Asian community as “drug cartels.”

Going forward, Katon said a step to limit these discriminatory actions he calls “extreme cases,” is to get a remedy from the court.

“From a legal standpoint the only thing that really can be done is to prove to the court that there is intentional discrimination going on and get the court to order a remedy,” he said. “That would look something like a court order that says: you can’d do this is, you need to keep data, and I’m going to monitor how you’re enforcing the law.”

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