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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

November 2, 2009

Written by C.N.

Incidents of Anti-Vietnamese Police Brutality in San Jose

As many news organizations have been reporting, Vietnamese Americans in San Jose, CA are blasting the police department there for several incidents of police brutality, the latest one happening last month in which officers were videoed beating a young Vietnamese American man, Phuong Ho, who appeared to be unarmed and submissive, as shown below:

As the San Jose Mercury News reports, the incident started as a private argument with Ho and one of his roommates and escalated due to language and cultural barriers:

The grainy video depicts the event as Siegel struck Ho, a math major from Vietnam, more than 10 times with a baton in the hallway of the house. Payne shocked Ho with a Taser gun. Ho does not appear to be combative in the video, although it does not record the entire interaction between Ho and the officers. . . .

The incident developed after Ho had argued with a roommate over soap being slopped onto a steak. Ho reportedly picked up a steak knife and told the roommate that in Vietnam, “I would kill you” over that. Ho dropped the knife and was not armed by the time police arrived, according to witnesses.

Officer Siegel had trouble understanding Ho when he asked his name, and attempted to enter Ho’s room to look for identification. He told Ho to wait in the hall, according to police reports. When Ho ignored Siegel’s order and attempted to follow him into the room, Payne pushed him into a wall, setting off the events that another roommate captured on cell phone video, in which the officers are seen striking Ho as they yell at him to turn over onto his back.

As the Mercury News article notes and as Raj Jayadev at New America Media elaborates upon, this particular incident was just the latest in a series of questionable conduct by the San Jose police against the Vietnamese American community and other racial/ethnic minorities in the area, who allege that officers have engaged in police brutality on several occasions and on top of them, the police department and city officials have refused to address such allegations:

The Phuong Ho video has elicited such outrage in San Jose because it comes on the heels of a year-long sequence of various public revelations of police abuse, and a matching series of failures by city leadership to respond to the demands for transparency and accountability that have spanned ethnic communities.

To begin with, last October, the Mercury News released data from the Department of Justice that showed that San Jose had a dramatically higher arrest rate for public intoxication that any other city in California (even those with much larger populations) and were arresting minorities at a disproportionate rate. Latinos in particular were heavily overrepresented in the arrest rates, accounting for nearly 57 percent of all arrests despite only representing 30 percent of the general population.

The news set of a firestorm in San Jose, leading to a raucous City Hall forum, where hundreds of people recounted stories of being arrested without cause, and roughed up in the process. . . .

On Mother’s Day of [2009], Daniel Pham, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man with mental health issues, was shot and killed by police. Police were called after Pham cut his brother with a knife. Pham was dead shortly after they arrived. The San Jose Police Department did not release the police reports and the transcript of the 911 call, despite an overwhelming demand from the Vietnamese community for transparency.

The District Attorney chose to have a closed grand jury for the officer-involved shooting – meaning no one, including Pham’s family members, would be allowed to know what happened inside the courtroom. On Oct.18, 2009, the District Attorney announced the results of the closed grand jury – no indictment. The public still has no answers as to why Pham is dead, and there is a growing sentiment being voiced in the Vietnamese community not to call the police if they need help, lest they risk the fate of being the next Daniel Pham.

And just last week, days before the Phuong Ho video was released and days after the no indictment result of the Pham case, the City Council voted down a set of reforms that would have forced the San Jose Police Department to remove the veil of secrecy surrounding their department, and open up public access to police records. Mind you, these recommendations came from a Sunshine Reform Task Force assembled by the mayor himself, who had now become the most vocal proponent for not disclosing police files.

A number of community groups across ethnic lines – the Asian Law Alliance, NAACP, Vietnamese Association of Northern California, La Raza Lawyers Association, and others – have filed a demand for the immediate release of police reports associated with the Ho case. The city has yet to respond.

There are several aspects of these incidents of brutality and excessive force that are rather troubling. The first is that as the Mercury News article points out, the San Jose police department actually has several Vietnamese American officers and as far as I have heard, has done a relatively good job at recruiting and retaining such officers to supposedly better serve the Vietnamese American community there.

Secondly, much like their neighbors in San Francisco to the north, San Jose generally has a very racially and ethnically diverse population and a reputation as a relatively liberal community. With that in mind, one might presume that relations with their constituents would be better.

Nonetheless, despite the presence of Vietnamese American officers and the city’s liberal reputation, these incidents of police brutality and, just as important, the refusal of city and police officials to be transparent and accountable for such incidents continue to exist.

Why would this be the case? What other reasons might account for this widening rift between city and police officials and the residents they are supposed to “protect and serve?”

Until city and police officials open up and directly address these issues, we can only speculate about what else is going on. As such, I would hypothesize that the officials’ actions (or lack thereof) might be an unconscious form of resistance against the changing demographics and political/cultural makeup of the city.

As I’ve written about before, many (as in a large number, but not all) Whites likely feel threatened by the fact that “their” community, “their” state, and “their” country are increasingly become more culturally diverse and that the U.S.’s position as the dominant and most powerful country in the world is slowly eroding in the 21st century. On top of that, the current recession and the continuing effects of globalization have compounded their financial insecurities and personal anxieties.

Faced with these recent trends, many Whites have sought to adapt and indeed embrace such changes. However, these cultural, economic, and political shifts have led many others to become defensive and have led to a backlash. Others have pointed out that the vehement and racially-tinged opposition to President Obama by the far right is an example of this backlash. Further examples include increased interpersonal and institutional hostility towards immigrants and towards people of color in general, and Asian Americans continuing to be questioned on their loyalties and identity as “real” Americans.

It is within this larger social context that we might see the refusal of San Jose city and police officials to account for their actions and to make the details of police brutality allegations public as further examples of this unconscious White interpersonal and institutional backlash.

Change does not come easily and as sociologists have consistently documented, there is inevitably a stage of competition and conflict before things settle down and the cultural and political landscape stabilizes. Unfortunately, in the meantime, Vietnamese Americans in San Jose and other racial/ethnic minorities and immigrants throughout the country are likely to encounter more examples of these kinds of hostility.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Incidents of Anti-Vietnamese Police Brutality in San Jose" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2009/11/incidents-anti-vietnamese-police-brutality-san-jose/> ().

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