Shooting pains

Feb 7, 2007 at 12:00 am

After a ceremony last week to honor and remember his teenage son, who was fatally shot last September by four Warren police officers, Pang Blia Xiong rested his head in his hands and tried to answer questions about his family.

Yes, his three other children are back in school. Yes, his family is overwhelmed by the community support. No, they will never return to live in the house where 27 police bullets struck their son in his basement bedroom.

"If somebody kills one of your children, it's not right to go back there," Xiong said through a translator.

The Xiong family is part of the Detroit area's Hmong population, an ethnic group from northern Laos and Vietnam. Some Hmong fought alongside U.S. troops in the Vietnam War or otherwise worked for U.S. interests in the region during the conflict. For that, after the U.S. military left, many of the Hmong landed in Laotian camps in the 1970s and 1980s before coming to the United States as refugees.

The Asian Hmong are a rural people and their arrival in Detroit is often their first urban experience with modern conveniences and institutions. Living primarily on Detroit's northeast side and in Warren, southeast Michigan's Hmong (pronounced "mung") community is known for its insular nature, close family ties and low profile.

But with the shooting death of 18-year-old Chonburi Xiong in September, the family's pending $5 million federal civil rights and gross negligence lawsuit and a growing number of supporters concerned about the shooting's justification, the Hmong community is drawing new attention and raising old questions about police behavior and racial injustice.

Wayne County Commissioner Tim Killeen attended Saturday's event, his first formal interaction with the Hmong community, thought to number a few thousand.

"I'm trying to get a better definition of what some of the issues are," says Killeen, who is in his first term on the commission. "They're part of my district."

The biggest issue for the community right now is the follow-up to the shooting. An internal police investigation and a review by the Macomb County Prosecutor's Office cleared the officers and pronounced the shooting justified, but that hasn't given much satisfaction to Xiong's family and peers.

"There are questions that are unanswered and unexplained," says Chong Lor, a teen who emceed Saturday's ceremony.

Nearly 200 people attended the event at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church on Detroit's east side. The afternoon ceremony included poetry, music, a statement from the Xiong family and information from the civil rights groups, including recommendations for interacting with police and improving understanding of ethnic and racial groups.

"We're all in this together. Any injustice to one is an injustice to all of us. We continually have to stand together to fight and eradicate these kinds of injustices," says Ruthie Stevenson, president of the NAACP Macomb County branch.

27 shots

According to police reports, family members and their attorneys, the Xiong family called Warren police on Saturday, Sept. 16, after the parents denied Chonburi Xiong use of the family car and he fired a gun in the home. He left before officers arrived.

It wasn't the first time Warren cops went to the Xiong house for domestic issues, but both family and police refused to elaborate on details of earlier incidents.

Sometime overnight, the teen returned to the home on Martin Road near Hoover Road. Police on patrol saw the car at the house and stopped there.

From that point, reports vary. Police have said the family allowed them to enter the home. The family disputes that account.

"They entered the house without a search warrant or arrest warrant, snuck down the basement and ambushed him," says Vince Colella, the Southfield attorney representing the Xiong family in the federal suit. It's also claimed that cops entered the home without first receiving permission.

John J. Gillooly, the lead attorney for the city and the officers, describes it differently. When the family allowed the officers to enter the house, he says, they knew to look in the basement for Xiong since they had been there the previous day on reports he had "shot up the house." The officers wanted to retrieve his weapon and when they reached the basement, Xiong pointed it at them.

"To suggest that these officers walked into the home and simply fired their weapons 27 times for absolutely no reason is a disservice, is irresponsible, and is without any merit whatsoever," he says.

All of the officers' shots came within a matter of seconds since their guns are semiautomatic, Gillooly says.

"One thing was certain: This guy pointed a loaded weapon at these police officers. The 27 times means nothing. The only thing the officers needed was the justification to shoot one time. The 27 bullets don't matter," he says. "There's no doubt it was an unfortunate incident."

When the headlines hit about the shooting, Xiong's peers were shaken. A private blog message about it began circulating among teens and adult mentors involved with the Detroit Asian Youth Project, a nonprofit, largely volunteer group. Formed two years ago, the project works with Hmong teens in Detroit to build leadership skills and community awareness.

"We were on it," says Lan Pham, a mentor. "We all thought, 'We've got to do something and gather around it.'"

In the beginning "it was people wanting to get information and see what they could do," Pham says. It evolved into the idea of a memorial. In December, about 10 people attended the first planning meetings. By the evening before the event, 30 organizers gathered. They met in church basements, recruited community leaders, found adults willing to help, a restaurant willing to donate food, a church to host the event and put together Saturday's service. They sent out press releases and posted fliers in Hmong businesses.

"There's tons of youth connecting with the older generation for this," says Stephanie Chang, one of the DAY Project founders.

Throughout the service — held in English and Hmong — speakers wondered why the shooting happened, if justice is served and how the Hmong community will move forward. It makes the incident, in some ways, reminiscent of the Vincent Chin killing 25 years ago.

Chin, who was Chinese, was beaten to death by two white auto workers who mistakenly thought he was Japanese. At the time, resentment was widespread toward Japanese automakers as they gained shares of the Big Three's market and Detroit's economy slumped.

Following the judge's sentence of probation for Chin's attackers, Detroit's Asian community mobilized for the first time and pressed for a federal civil rights suit. Former Metro Times columnist Helen Zia included a chapter about it in her book, Asian American Dreams, and has spoken frequently about it.

"It took a huge community outcry to find out what happened, to get interviews of the eyewitnesses at the scene in the Vincent Chin case," she tells Metro Times. "It may take that kind of outcry here too."

At the time of Chin's death, Detroit's Asian American community was not well-known, similar to the current situation with the more recently arrived Hmong, Zia says. But because of the grassroots community effort then, the Chin case became more high-profile and was used as a rallying cry by Asian-Americans nationally to raise awareness of discrimination and civil rights violations.

"That's something: That out of a tragedy some of the dialogue has moved forward in changing things for all people in a positive way," she says.

For his part, Chonburi Xiong's father, Pang Blia, says the family is grateful for the community's response and believes the incident should inspire everyone to take a stand against injustices.

"As parents, we truly believe our son's death could have been avoided if police had taken the proper measures. We find it hard to believe the shooting was ruled justified. No matter how hard the struggle may be, we will continue to seek justice for our son," he says.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]