Last year, I blogged about the story of Sao Lue Vang. Vang is a 64-year-old Hmong American man who was out hunting in Pepin County, Wisconsin when he was assaulted and brutally beaten by Kevin Elberg. Elberg, who appeared to have been drinking at the time of the assault, approached Vang to tell him the hunter was trespassing on private property. Vang says that after a verbal exchange occurred, he turned to leave. That’s when Elberg tackled the older man, wrestled him to the ground, and kicked him repeatedly resulting in several internal injuries including a lacerated liver. Elberg then placed his hand over Vang’s mouth, suffocating him and causing him to pass out.
After Vang was unconscious, Elberg disarmed him and dragged him through the woods and up a hill which caused further damage.
Elberg was arrested last December and charged with battery and false imprisonment. The incident spurred community outrage and protests among Hmong Americans in the Minnesota and Wisconsin area, highlighting ongoing xenophobic tensions between local non-Asian American residents and their Hmong American neighbours. Parallels between Vang’s story and that of Hmong American hunter Chai Vang (no relation to Sao Lue Vang) — convicted in 2004 of shooting and killing six in an incident that Vang testified was self-defense — underscored the prevailing Catch-22: it doesn’t matter whether Hmong Americans — or, indeed, any Asian Americans — try to remain pliant or choose to fight back, the result will be the same. Hmong Americans will be blamed for not knowing how things work in America. The legal system will not protect us. We will be the model minority until we are not.
After Elberg’s arrest last December, Elberg faced court deliberations on the prosecution’s charges, wherein he contested the charges. Elberg said he assaulted Sao Lue Vang in self-defense. Elberg denied that race had anything to do with the attack, and he asserted that he beat Vang after the Hmong American hunter pointed his rifle at him.
By Tuesday, however, Elberg accepted a plea bargain on the battery charges. The judge overseeing the case accepted the plea, saying that he did not believe that Vang threatened Elberg’s life with his rifle, nor did the judge believe that Elberg’s attack was racially motivated. Reports WXOW:
Elberg pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge on Tuesday. He was originally facing two felonies. Elberg was sentenced to 10 days in jail and two years probation. He must also serve 72 hours of community service in the Hmong community, and he cannot hunt until his hours are completed.
Shoua Vang, Sao Lue Vang’s daughter, said the family is not pleased with the judge’s decision and how the district attorney handled the case. “We do not feel that this was a just decision and that justice was served today.” Vang said, “I fear there will be more incidents like this to come.
The topic of whether race played a role in the case was discussed. Judge Duvall said, “Some perceive, might perceive unfairness because Mr. Elberg’s a white guy. The D.A’s a white man, and now the judge that is talking is a white man.”
Attorney Loberg said, “The only element of race existent in this case is Mr. Elberg happens to be white and Mr. Elberg happens to be Hmong. The race issue ends there.”
Again, the judge said although it appears everyone involved in the case other than Vang is white, race did not factor into Tuesday’s outcome. Instead, he called it a case involving communication and language barriers.
This outcome highlights the criminal justice system’s ongoing issues with identifying race as an influencing factor in violent crimes. Unless an attacker leaves some clear evidence that they set out to commit a racially motivated hate crime, the courts will often refuse to “see race” in attacks where implicit bias likely played a significant role. When two men murder a Chinese American man after making disparaging remarks about Japanese American car manufacturers, was race a part of the crime? When police are more likely to view unarmed Black men as inhuman and threatening, is race a part of the crime? When an Asian American undercover police officer is shot because he is mistaken as an Asian gang member, is race a part of the crime?
The question is not whether Kevin Elberg declared some anti-Hmong hatred in the moments before accosting Sao Lue Vang, but whether or not Elberg was likely to have brutally beaten a White trespasser at all — let alone, with the same level of savagery?
Meanwhile, what we have learned from this plea deal is that the price of beating a Hmong American man nearly to death is a mere 10 days in jail.
Act Now! Sao Lue Vang’s family has stated that they will be seeking a civil case against Elberg. Supporters are invited to follow the Facebook group Justice for Sao Lue Vang for more updates and details for how to help out, and the crowd-sourced legal fund continues to solicit donations.
Update (5/6/2015): The full text of Sao Lue Vang’s statement on the incident was read into court, and a supporter transcribed to a Facebook status update. It is reproduced here:
Sao Lue Vang’s Statement on May 5, 2015 at Sentencing Hearing of Kevin Elberg. These statements were read in court in both Hmong and English.
My name is Sao Lue Vang and I am 64 years old. I was born in the mountains of Laos. When I was just a teenager, I was recruited by the United States CIA, along with thousands of other young Hmong men, to fight in the Vietnam War, we were known as The Secret Army. My father, all of my brothers, and many of my friends, and I enlisted. At that time, we did not have to take tests to show how well we spoke English or if we could read and write. We just had to prove that we can fire a gun.
For 14 years, from 1961 to 1975, I fought alongside my American friends.
One of my job was to go into enemy territory to rescue American fighter pilots who were shot down in combat. Sometimes we would risk anywhere from ten to twenty Hmong lives just to save one American soldier’s life because they were our friends. That’s how much we value their lives and their friendship.
In 1963, during a battle at Muang Khoun, Laos, I sustained gun shot wounds to my left arm and hand, and was rewarded the Purple Heart. For my service, I also achieved the rank of Lieutenant. In 1975, after our American friends withdrew from the war, we were being hunted and killed by the enemy in revenge for helping the Americans. I personally lost 28 family members, cousins, and close friends in the war. I felt sad and abandoned that my American friends had left me and my countrymen, behind in a war-torn country. Thankfully, because of my service to the United States, my family and I was offered a chance to come and start a new life in America.
Altogether, I have 13 children and 36 grandchildren. All of my children are proud, working, American Citizens. I am also a proud US Citizen and a proud member of the Hmong Menomonie Alliance Church where I volunteer on a weekly basis to do maintenance work.
I love to play with my grandchildren and I enjoy family gatherings and cultural celebrations. I enjoy hunting the outdoors. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I am a pretty good hunter because I used to hunt to feed my family in Laos.
On November 5, 2014, I went hunting with my two friends, just as I have been doing for most of my life. Before we separated, we reminded each
other to watch out for signs and fences because we were not familiar with the area.
After about an hour, I saw a squirrel and shot it. As I was going to retrieve my squirrel, I saw a large man, later identified as Mr. Kevin Elberg, running fast towards me. When he came closer, he started yelling at me. I do not speak English very well but from his tone and body language, I understood that he was angry and accused me of being on his property. I said “Sorry”, but he yelled, “I don’t care”. I radioed to my English speaking friends to see what I can say or do to help calm the situation because Mr. Elberg got more angry by the minute. As I proceeded to walk away, I felt something struck me from behind and I fell to the ground. I realized it was Mr. Elberg who knocked me down. While I was on the ground he forcefully threw his knees to my stomach. He took my walkie talkie and threw it away. I yelled for help and begged him to stop. This man continued to kick me several more times in my stomach. As I continued to yell for help, he put his hands over my mouth. I could not breathe. I thought I was going to die. Then I passed out. When I came to it, I realized that I was now in the middle of the corn fields, about 50 yards away from when I first encounter this man. His boot was on my chest and I still found it difficult to breathe. I can feel sharp pains in my stomach. Again, I cried in pain but he continued to press his weight and boot on my chest. A while later, I heard a vehicle drive up and a lady put me onto the bed of a truck. They drove me out to the road where I saw the rest of my hunting party and law enforcement officers. I was taken to the hospital. I just remember the pain to my hand, the pain to all over my body, especially in my stomach. Every time I took it breathe, it hurts. When I had to use the bathroom, it hurts. When I moved, it hurts. What was most scary what the thought that I might not live to see some of my grand children grow up. And that my wife will have to go on without me and that I will not be there to take care of her. I kept thinking why would this man to this to me?
After a few days, lots of medications and tests, the doctors finally said that I can go home. Due to my injuries, I have to stay in bed. The doctor gave me a wheelchair and a cane to walk around the house. Every day, I tried to live a normal but it has not been the same. I still cannot sleep, eat, or move very well. I was glad that the grand kids came to spend time with me but I was sad. I am not able to hold my grandchildren like I use to because of my injuries. I am sad that I had to miss some very important family gatherings like birthdays and family holidays. And I am especially sad and want to tell my daughter Bo, that I am very sorry I was unable to attend your graduation ceremony from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, due to my injuries.
When I sustained injuries during the Vietnam War, that was understandable because I was a soldier fighting for freedom and we were at war. But, as for the injuries that I received on a hunting trip last November in Pepin County at the hands of Mr. Elberg, this, I do not understand. I risked my life to save many of my American friends during the war. My message to Mr. Elberg and his family, I want to say that I am not your enemy and we are not at war.
I am an old man who went hunting for squirrels. I did not deserve to be treated the way you treated me. Fifty years ago, when the Americans came into my back yard in the mountains of Laos to wage a war against the Communists, I did not hurt the Americans, or beat them up just because they were in my back yard. Instead, I helped them and risked my life to make sure that they got home safely because I knew they were far away from their home. I have always believed in fairness, kindness, and justice for all people. That is why I agreed to fight for the Americans because I strongly believe in the same democratic values that all people are created equal.
Today, I am very confused about this the decision that was decided by the District Attorney, Mr. Jon Seifert and a few people behind closed doors. I do not agree with it because I do not understand how one human being can just beat up another human being and not face any serious consequences. I am disappointed that the justice system decided that the person who did this to me will not face any serious consequences. I had hoped that as a nation of laws, this court system would show the same courtesy and respect because I am a citizen.
I had hoped that the Pepin law enforcement agents and the District Attorney would see me as an equal citizen and do what is right to protect me so that something like this never happens again. I want to see that these virtues of democracy, freedom, and equal protection under the law, the very same ideals that I risked 14 years of my life to fight for, are not just false words made only to look good on paper. I want to feel like a proud American, and not a second class citizen here in Pepin County.
I do not know what to say to my grandchildren when they ask me, “Grandpa, why did this man do this to you?” As a Christian, I can only hope and pray that no other hunter or human being has to go through what I went through. What hurts me even more than these lifelong injuries, is the fact that the justice system fail me and my family. Now, if the person who did this to me is allowed to walk away with no serious consequences, I fear for my life and my family’s lives even more. I decided to move my family from California to Wisconsin in 1993 because I thought Wisconsin would be a better and safer place to raise my kids. But, if today’s resolution has no real consequences for Kevin Elberg, I fear there will be many more incidents like this to come. To your honor, thank you for allowing me to share my story today. I feel that the District Attorney failed me and my family today. I hope that you will do what is just so that something like this never happens again. May God watch over my family and may God bless you all.