‘Doesn’t Mean We Bang’: Reckless Criminalization and Monstrous Peril in the Case of Dylan Yang

Demonstrators seeking justice for Dylan Yang at a protest in Wausau, Wisconsin. Photo Credit: USA Today / TXer
Demonstrators seeking justice for Dylan Yang at a protest in Wausau, Wisconsin. (Photo Credit: USA Today / T’Xer Zhon Kha)

By Guest Contributors: Pao Lee Vue, Bee Vang, and Louisa Schein

Last March, Wausau resident Dylan Yang, 16 – who is Hmong American – was found guilty of “first-degree reckless homicide” for stabbing Isaiah Powell, a black Latino boy, then 13, in an altercation that happened in 2015. The case has raised a litany of issues that beg questions of how ongoing racial dynamics impact the Wisconsin justice system. Why might it matter that an overwhelmingly white collection of authorities – from teachers to school administrators, from counselors to cops, from jurors to judges – managed this case involving the death of a black Latino teen at the hands of a Hmong teen? What lies ahead for Dylan who now faces up to 60 years in prison? What is being done to diminish the uneven implementation of the law exemplified by this case?

Speakers at a mark for Dylan Yang in Wausau, Wisconsin. (Photo Credit: USA Today / T'Xer Zhon Kha)
Speakers at a march for Dylan Yang in Wausau, Wisconsin. (Photo Credit: USA Today / T’Xer Zhon Kha)

Here is what is known to have transpired: After hostile exchanges over Facebook, six or seven teen boys of color, including Isaiah, arrived in front of Dylan’s home, driven by 19-year-old Nia Phillips. Knowing that violence had been threatened online, and seeing Isaiah open fire on Dylan and another boy with what Dylan didn’t know was a BB gun, Dylan, then 15, ran into the house. He eventually returned to the scene with a kitchen knife, and upon seeing Isaiah on top of his friend, stabbed Isaiah twice. Unfortunately, Isaiah died at the hospital from those injuries. Police investigation later found one of the teen boys who had accompanied Isaiah trying to ditch a knife; more than ten knives were found in Nia Phillips’ vehicle.

After the incident, police arrived at Dylan’s home to take him in for an interrogation. His mother requested to accompany him, but the officers refused. It is not clear when they officially placed him under arrest, but they read him his Miranda rights at the station when he was alone. Since no lawyer was at hand, and in the presence of adult officers, he did not seem to perceive the exercise of his right to decline to speak as a viable option. On a tape, later played in full during the trial, Dylan denied several times that he was in a gang before he seemed to say he might have been in one: “sometimes a gang member … and sometimes not.” It is at this moment – given that the trial placed heavy emphasis on these words – that what we believe was a kind of racial profiling of Southeast Asian Americans kicked in.

For the purposes of standing trial, Dylan was designated an adult, which meant that while awaiting trial he would serve a year in de facto solitary confinement to separate him from the adults whose jailhouse he shared. It is also why he would stand to be sentenced to 60 years in adult prison if convicted of the charges against him. Now, months after a jury found Dylan guilty, he still serves alone, waiting for resolution on his actual term of incarceration. A decision will not to be made until September. When a group of hundreds of supportive demonstrators marched outside his prison walls chanting “I am Dylan Yang,” he was prevented from hearing them because the guards had turned the television sound up too loud.

Protesters march for Dylan Yang in Wausau, Wisconsin. (Photo Credit: USA Today / T'Xer Zhon Kha)
Protesters march for Dylan Yang in Wausau, Wisconsin. (Photo Credit: USA Today / T’Xer Zhon Kha)

Despite being the only person in this conflict facing a serious charge in adult court, Dylan was also left without a lawyer: the public defender’s office claimed a conflict of interest since they were representing the other kids involved in the incident. Dylan went a month without an alternate court-appointed attorney. By the time the public defender’s office finally appointed one, his family had already hired Jay Kronenwetter, who was simultaneously running for mayor and preparing for an imminent election. During the gap in legal representation, Dylan’s family had spent a week scrambling in vain to find him any legal counsel. Most attorneys who initially signaled they would take Dylan’s case demanded a prohibitive fee of $20-30K up front, which Dylan’s family did not have.

Meanwhile, what became of the other kids in the confrontation? Despite being the only adult involved in the case, purchasing the BB gun, and knowingly driving the minors to engage in potential violence, Nia Phillips was given three years probation and 300 hours of community service. The boys who accompanied Isaiah were tried in juvenile court and reputedly given slaps on the wrist with no prison time.

Although his trial is over and Dylan’s case is transitioning to the sentencing phase, his family has hired a new attorney, Harry Hertel, to represent him going forward. Hertel hopes to seek a retrial based on the assignment of “ineffective counsel” to his predecessor. The sentencing date was pushed back from July to September, perhaps also out of consideration for the letters that are piling up at the court from people across the country urging leniency. In the Midwest a Hmong-led network called the JUSTICE team has organized rallies and disseminated a call for pleas to the judge. National organizations are beginning to come forward to offer help in constructing Dylan’s defense.

As sentencing looms, constituencies have mobilized, but what preconditions may shape the outcome? Our grave concern is that our society’s chronic over-attribution to youth of color as questing after trouble, and as putatively rushing to arm themselves in the process, is simmering in an already noxious stew. Also bubbling away in this cauldron are racial biases overridden by dominant effacement of racist institutions, the dismissal of accountability of those institutions, and the lurking possibility that smaller players are being scapegoated for larger dysfunctions.

So what to make of the murky ascription of gang membership to Dylan and his supposed “confession”? It’s conceivable that Dylan had indeed been intermittently making this claim at times when he felt threatened and wanted other kids to stop menacing him. By the time he hit ninth grade, school had already been a place of danger and conflict for years.

Apparently what began as a fluid set of conflicts between various individuals — including some newcomers to the social terrain of Dylan’s school — eventually solidified into a feud between fixed groups of kids, which escalated and became increasingly racialized.  As threats of violence intensified, so too did the claiming of group membership; this in turn was framed as gang membership by law enforcement and the District Attorney.

Ironically, if Dylan is met with a harsh sentence, it may signal to Wausau residents that if one has a conflict with another person in town and wants to resolve the matter by going to their house with guns and knives, the justice system will look on it favorably, as long as one can convince a jury that one was provoked. By contrast, Dylan is certainly being singled out to be made an example of in this situation. In the rationale of the criminal justice system, a harsh sentence may be justifiable as general deterrence. But in this era of carceral overkill, is it justifiable for one boy to sit in solitary and while away his decades so that others won’t join gangs?

A more sinister message would be this: If you are a young Hmong male, you will not receive equal protection under the law. Indeed, in effect, the justice system is saying that your life is disposable.

A sign at a demonstration for Dylan Yang in Wausau, Wisconsin. (Photo Credit: USA Today / T'Xer Zhon Kha)
A sign at a demonstration for Dylan Yang in Wausau, Wisconsin. (Photo Credit: USA Today / T’Xer Zhon Kha)

The Dylan Yang case, then, has broader implications that could shape the future of race relations concerning Hmong in the Upper Midwest. Seeking individual retribution, such as a decades-long sentence for a minor, may risk breeding more vindictiveness or even fanning the flames of ongoing friction between African Americans, Latinx Americans and Hmong Americans. Instead, perhaps this is a moment for Wausau residents and wider communities to work on healing and solidarity.

In the meantime, whites seem to continue to elude these extremities of retributive justice  in the Wisconsin system. In another county, 43-year-old Kevin Elberg, 6 feet tall, was charged with felony “aggravated battery with the intention of bodily harm” for having brutally beaten Hmong hunter Sao Lue Vang, age 63 and 5’3” to the point where he sustained internal bleeding and a lacerated liver. But charges were later amended to “misdemeanor battery,” to which Elberg pleaded no contest, garnering a sentence of 10 days in jail, two years of probation, and 72 hours of community service in the Hmong community.

In still another county, 39-year-old, Dan Popp, charged with the more serious crime of “first degree intentional homicide,” for killing a Hmong couple and a Puerto Rican father, had bail set at $150,000. By contrast, Dylan was deemed a flight risk for having out-of-state ties; so his bail was set at a spectacular $1 million, despite him being a minor.

Those Wisconsinites who trust that the justice system is relatively “fair and just” may be persuaded to believe that a Hmong teen is perhaps more malevolent than an adult white male, especially if the teen is tagged as a gangster while the adult is credited as an Air Force veteran.

Still, the mainstream imagination bloats with misbegotten phantasms of the Asian gangbanger. Perhaps informed by just this deep history of panic about Asian gangs in general, and specifically about Southeast Asian young men, Dylan was made into just one more of these marauding monsters.

Meanwhile, canny young Hmong men have begun to speak up about being demonized as criminals. In the wake of Dylan’s conviction, their indignation has swelled. Not resigned to being voiceless weapon-wielding menaces in the eyes of the mainstream, they are offering countermedia that challenges public perceptions. One posted his hip-hop photos on a Dylan Yang support page, cautioning: “Its like judging a book by its cover. Gotta get to know the book more before you can say things. …The way we dress, is the way we like. Doesnt mean we bang. Doesnt mean we’re criminals. Think about it.”

Wielding the hashtag #IAmDylanYang and demanding that the stereotyping cease, another boy taunts: “On the left is a picture of Dylan Yang and his breakdance crew. On the right is a picture of me and my breakdance crew in highschool. Guess how many gangsters there are in these pictures? Here’s a hint: NONE OF THEM ARE GANGSTERS. But the #RacistMedia continually chooses to portray Dylan as a gangster.”  

In a scathing dissent to a recent Supreme Court decision allowing the admission of evidence obtained through illegal police stops, Justice Sonia Sotomayor bemoaned the legalizing of such practices in which police can stop someone, then justify it by searching to see if they have any warrants out for them, even for traffic violations. Citizens’ suspected legal transgressions do not justify police procedural transgressions, she insisted, with the zinger: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” But at base, her protest was precisely about the racially unequal justice that has been implemented across the United States: “It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.” Likewise, we call for attention to the more specific scrutiny that is in play when Southeast Asian boys are made into monstrous gangsters with impunity.

With an epic sentencing worthy of an adult hardened criminal bearing down on Dylan Yang’s vision of his future, we hope that from his harsh isolation he is able to somehow pivot toward the hail of Justice Sotomayor who cautions him, as an American person of color, to be alert to his precarity. The recent Supreme Court decision, she underscores: “implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

For more information, please contact Pao Lee Vue at pvue@sjfc.edu or visit the following webpages set up in support of Dylan Yang:

(Much thanks to Brian Chin for research support)

Pao Lee Vue
Pao Lee Vue

Pao Lee Vue teaches in Sociology and co-directs Women and Gender Studies at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.  He has taught courses on various topics, including criminology, deviance, stratification, race & ethnicity, culture, genders & society, and is author of Assimilation and the Gendered Color Line: Hmong Case Studies of Hip-Hop and Import Racing.  He has worked on projects with colleagues in Hmong Studies on issues of social justice and raising awareness about sexualities in Hmong communities.


Bee Vang
Bee Vang

Bee Vang recently graduated from Brown University with a degree in Geopolitical Epistemologies. With a background in acting on film and on stage, and a commitment to advocacy and social justice causes, he has extensive experience in co-designing and co-facilitating workshops on media and popular culture; and race, gender and sexuality in the U.S. and China. His experience in media, policy and activism includes roles at WhyHunger, Asian Cinevision, Legacies of War, the Rachel Maddow Show at MSNBC and The Economist.

Louisa Schein
Louisa Schein

Louisa Schein teaches Cultural Anthropology as well as Women’s and Gender Studies, Asian American Studies and Critical Sexuality Studies at Rutgers. She has worked with Hmong/Miao in China and the U.S. and is author of Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China’s Cultural Politics. She has collaborated with Bee Vang , Va-Megn Thoj and Pao Lee Vue on activism, workshops, publications and a Youtube video on Asian American masculinity, sexualities and violence. She co-founded the Critical Hmong Studies Collective, and co-directed the documentary  on Hmong Americans, Better Places (2011).

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  • Guest

    Thanks for puttin this up, Jenn. It was a good read.

    Sigh… I hate to say this but Im having a hard time going along with this. Id love to support this cause because we all know that the justice system is corrupt and is not meant for us people of color but Ive researched this incident and I think this kid needs to go to jail.

    “On a tape, later played in full during the trial, Dylan denied several times that he was in a gang before he seemed to say he might have been in one: “sometimes a gang member … and sometimes not.” It is
    at this moment – given that the trial placed heavy emphasis on these words – that what we believe was a kind of racial profiling of Southeast Asian Americans kicked in.”

    No one can be a “sometimes” gangsta. Your in a gang or you arent in one, there is no in-between. If this kid was “false flaggin” (pretending to represent a gang) he’s putting his life in jeopardy because (a) other gangstas are going to test him and (b) the gang that he so-called represents will be upset due to the fact that if he does something in the name of that gang they will also be targeted, despite him not being a true member. Believe me, he or his family will pay the price for such foolishness.

    During the trial Yang admitted to texting one of the perpetrators FIRST: http://www.wsaw.com/content/news/RIGHT-NOW-Dylan-Yang-testifies-in-his-own-defense-372453622.html

    “You were the one that actually involved yourself in what was going
    on that day”, said Pluster while Yang was on the stand. “You texted CJ
    first”. “You told Baeten real G’s use guns and knives.” You could
    have just ignored CJ. There was no reason you had to text him that day,”
    said Pluster.

    “Well yes, but I was upset,” Yang explained.”

    Nia Phillips (driver) testimony: http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/story/news/local/2015/03/04/driver-fatal-stabbing-faces-years/24386323/?from=global&sessionKey=&autologin=

    According to court records filed in the case:

    “While driving to the scene of the fight, Phillips warned the boys that fighting could be
    dangerous and made reference to a friend who had been stabbed in a fight
    at a fair a few years ago. In a phone call one group of boys made to
    the other, BOTH GROUPS THREATENED TO KILL EACH OTHER and Phillips heard
    the threats, witnesses said.” (Capitalization mine)

    Yang basically goaded the perpetrators to confront him. He should have called the police and filled out a report instead. Both the texts and the Facebook exchanges he had with Powell and his friends led up to this fatal mess. This shows that he isnt as innocent as people are led to believe.

    What bothers me most is that this protest mirrors the Liang protest: Is how the protestors hearts are in the right place but are going about it the wrong way. Dylan Yang KILLED someone, as did Peter Liang. Freeing or reducing Yang’s sentence just because white people get slaps on the wrists is not getting justice NOR will it promote healing between the Hmongs and the Black/Latino communities, it’ll make it WORSE (The bail amount Dan Popp got was flat out criminal, as if Mr Popp wouldnt be a flight risk. That I can understand. Thats white privilege for ya).

    What they SHOULD protest is the way media misrepresent both groups because more than likely the Model Minority Myth and the Black/Latino thug trope plays a major role in this. Or I could be wrong and that both group of kids WERE actually part of the actual gangs that are/were in Wausau. If so then Hmong, Black and Latino communities need to protest about the conditions in Wausau that give birth to those gangs.

    Here’s a description of the Hmong gangs that are/were in Wisconsin. Both gangs that the boys are supposedly in with are noted as well near the bottom of the “Wisconsin section”:

    “The most recent Hmong gang news on the media in Wausau involved a young
    15 years old O.T.B gang member (Yang) stabbing and killing a rival black/white
    gang member (Powell) of a Black/Hispanic gang call Young Reckless Squad in 2015.” (I added the names for clarity).

    In conclusion I pray that both families will heal in time and overcome this terrible ordeal together.

  • Pos Lis Vwj

    Thank you for your comment. However, there seems to be some significant omissions in your

    First, as Pao has stated elsewhere (http://newamericamedia.org/2016/06/beyond-the-making-of-monsters-hmong-organize-against-racial-blame.php), there were prior incidents of violence that were not allowed to be included in the trial. Therefore, if you go by what has been available in official news reports online, you are limited to the facts that were presented in court (note what we said above about “ineffective counsel”, which was in part because of what was omitted and in part because of what the lawyer didn’t motion to have excluded). All of this was selectively reported on in the media.

    If you want to do some real research, we’d urge you to go to Wausau and talk to residents. Of course, with just a little bit of extra digging online, you’d be able to find Wausau residents talking about the boys involved in the incident. We’re not referring to general statements about minority groups (run-of-the-mill bigotry), but actual incidents involving the boys involved in the incident. Why does this matter? It contextualizes the volatile situation in Wausau.

    In Pao’s own field research, Hmong boys regularly engaged in what some have referred to as the “cool pose” and even emulated their black urban counterparts in their style of dress and mannerisms. These postures were crucial to surviving their neighborhoods and schools. Young Hmong males described how they were targets of intimidation, and there were violent beat-downs, and outright robberies/muggings on a daily basis until they started performing a hyper-masculine style that in some cases may have closely resembled a local gang. This is similar to what Elijah Anderson discussed in his book, Code of the Streets; even members of “decent families” fronted the appearance of being able to handle themselves, because it was crucial for their children’s daily wellbeing.

    Indeed, as you state, no real gang allows you to “sometimes” be in it. That’s the point. There is no real evidence that Dylan was in a gang but the court seemed to play this up, and subsequently, gang membership was also repeated in the media in this manner. Unlike East Asian groups, Hmong and other Southeast Asian groups throughout the US, but especially in the Midwest, are simultaneously racialized as Asian but stratified closer to blackness – in this case, racialized as actual menacing thugs/gangsters. Some of this reflects broader trends. Various researches on Southeast Asian gangs suggest that boys belonging to such groups often join because they need protection. Unlike other street gangs that form for economic or violent motives, Southeast Asian gangs have also tended to form when institutions that are supposed to protect children fail. Sometimes this is because they lack the proper resources, such as regular programs dedicated to dealing with juvenile problems, and insufficient funds to launch and maintain such programs. But sometimes it’s because people within institutions fail to recognize other social problems (such as thinking that Southeast Asians are as privileged as East Asians).

    What is not well-known to most is that Dylan tried to avoid physical conflicts on multiple occasions, including the series of events leading to the confrontation in front of his house. Although details may be presented in court at a later date, one thing we can share here is that Dylan lied, claiming to not be at home on the day of the incident, in the hopes of avoiding the confrontation. Dylan is far from the bloodthirsty murderous gang member the court made him out to be. If anything, Dylan can be characterized as an internet gangster for all his blustering online. But what do we expect from kids? Kids make stupid decisions some times and they shouldn’t be held to the same degree of accountability as an adult.

    To say that Dylan should be eligible for more equitable treatment is not about asking for privilege, as Liang supporters have been accused of seeking (see for example, http://reappropriate.co/2015/02/why-we-must-support-the-indictment-of-peter-liang/). Liang’s case and Dylan Yang’s case are just not comparable – in facts or in the activism surrounding the cases. Liang, a police officer, shot at an unarmed man in a dark corridor; Dylan stabbed a boy who was on top of his friend (don’t forget Isaiah had shot at Dylan and his friend upon arrival at Dylan’s home). It’s precisely recognizing the injustices in this case that shed light on how Hmong boys are treated similarly to other youth of color. Without a doubt, it’s about institutional racism. Yet, it’s also a call to SEE that this is a real problem that Hmong and other Southeast Asian boys face. People too often lump all Asians together without recognizing the highly divergent experiences within the pan-ethnic umbrella. In fact, it is precisely the race dynamic in this case that allows all of the other boys AND the adult driver to get away with their involvement in the case with nothing more than slaps on the wrist, while Dylan receives adult treatment throughout the entire ordeal (including solitary confinement).

    Because Hmong are Asians and viewed as more privileged than blacks and Latinos, people seem to be having a tougher time wrapping their head around the racial injustice in the case. It’s not against the law to be an internet gangster. Otherwise a lot of kids would be in jail. It is against the law to show up to someone’s house with guns and knives with the intent to cause physical harm. Yet, the entire party who showed up to Dylan’s house are given plea deals that amount to slaps on the wrist in order to convict one Hmong boy. The DA only successfully demonizes him as a monstrous thug – essentially contributing to racialization of Hmong youth in general – because the general public is not mindful about resisting such racialization. Had Dylan been black and Isaiah been white, Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds (even more than there were at the Peace Rally) would perhaps be pouring out into the streets and calling for justice.

    Ultimately, what we take greatest issue with is your conclusion that because someone died at Dylan’s hand “this kid needs to go to jail.” For some of us, the possibility that it was conceived
    in self-defense, and that the death of Isaiah was not Dylan’s intention, is a game changer. But because our society of reckless incarceration looks past all that to the simple solution of eye-for-eye punishment, it is easy for you to go to “Dylan Yang KILLED someone”. But is that where we want to go? Are we discerning citizens swallowing those simple equations of so-called justice when we know how skewed the rates of incarceration are for young men of color? You yourself called what happened a “fatal mess.” Why take a second life away when
    one is already so tragically gone? We, instead, would prefer to follow Justice Sotomayor’s calling out of unequal justice, and ask hard questions about who should be taking the fall when such disasters happen.

  • sternhead

    He left and CAME BACK with a knife. That alone nullifies any self defense argument If you want to “do some real research”, learn the law. For starters, look up the case of Raul Rodriguez, who tried to use a “stand your ground” defense. He left and came back with his six-shooter, then killed his neighbor. He got life, and then lost on appeal.