As attorneys for both sides discussed the possibility of a civil settlement inside the St. Paul federal court building Monday morning, supporters for Fong Lee marched outside, chanting “We want justice” in the Hmong language. Organizers at the rally in front of the Warren E. Burger Federal Building—including members of Lee’s family—are calling for an independent investigation into Lee’s death almost three years ago after the 19-year-old was shot by a Minneapolis police officer. The settlement hearing is in advance of a trial scheduled next week for the wrongful death lawsuit Lee’s family filed against the officer and the city.
“We demand justice,” Yia Lee told the crowd in Hmong. Aimee Xiong translated for Lee, who said he is an uncle of Fong Lee and a spokesman for the family. Lee called for the resignations of Jason Andersen, the police officer who shot Fong Lee, and Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan. “He didn’t do his job,” Lee said of Dolan. “He should step down.”
Like many of the almost 200 people who came to the rally, Lee wore all black. He tied a red armband around the sleeve of his long, wool coat. Others carried signs saying “Eyes Don’t Lie” and “End Police Brutality”. The crowd included many Hmong residents who came on a school bus that picked up supporters at several locations including a Lao community center.
“We are here to make a stand—to send a message to those upstairs in the courthouse,” that the community demands a closer look at the Fong Lee case, said Tou-Ger Xiong, an organizer with the group, Coalition for Community Relations. “I’m a young Asian male. I like to go to Minneapolis,” he said. “After this incident, I’m scared.”
Fong Lee was shot and killed on the playground of City View Elementary School in Minneapolis as he fled police in July, 2006. Andersen maintains he shot Lee after Lee started to point a gun in the officer’s direction. A state trooper also involved in the foot chase reported he saw Lee with the gun. A gun was found near Lee’s body after he was shot. But family members and others maintain Lee was unarmed and the officers planted the gun after the shooting. They say a brief, grainy videotape recording of the chase from a nearby surveillance camera bolsters their position because Lee’s hands appear empty.
“Based on the evidence we’ve seen, he was unarmed, and we want the city of Minneapolis to be held accountable for that,” said Dai Thao at Monday’s courthouse rally.
“This could have easily been my brother, my nephew, my cousin, “ he said. “It’s sad.
Thao, with the group, TakeAction Minnesota, listed a series of changes supporters are asking for in the wake of the shooting. In addition to an independent investigator appointed by the U.S. Attorney, they want the city to establish a Hmong community ombudsman and they want the police department to revoke the Medal of Valor honoring Andersen’s actions related to the shooting.
The case has also inflamed ongoing distrust between police and many residents of other minority groups who have long complained they are singled out and mistreated by Minneapolis police. Pablo Tapia told those gathered at the rally that Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans and other people of color have become wary of police.
“I’m here to tell you the Latino community knows about Fong Lee,” Tapia said. “We are willing to take on this fight with you.”
One speaker urged participants to use their cell phones to call the office of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. The sudden crush of calls apparently caused the phone line to temporarily shut down.
Minneapolis police contend claims that the gun was planted or that the department is in any way attempting to cover up evidence are false. A grand jury investigation found no cause to take action against the officers involved in the shooting. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson previously dismissed several key elements of the family’s suit.
Other groups backing the rally include Communities United Against Police Brutality, Lao Family, Inc., the Minneapolis NAACP and OutFront Minnesota. While the rally included several activists familiar to demonstrations against police, it also included many older, well-dressed Asian participants. Any settlement between the Lee family and the city of Minneapolis would need approval by a majority of the city council.
Art Hughes is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis.