A deputy's fatal shooting of 20-year-old Tommy Le in June has continued to raise questions about police intervention, immigrant and refugee activism, and what love and justice look like in different communities. In the wake of Tommy’s death, Jessica Boyd reflects on her own Vietnameseness and her responsibility to the Vietnamese community as she navigates how they have responded to Tommy Le's death in their own way, highlighting that the complexities of different communities' experiences should not be examined through one normative lens.

By Jessica Boyd
August 17, 2017

Let’s start by saying his name and reflecting on the fact that Tommy Le, a young man from our community, your community, this community, would now be a recent high school graduate. Let’s start by honoring Tommy’s efforts and the support that he received. Let’s recognize the cultural, racial, and societal barriers that stood in his way, many he managed to overcome, until he was stopped dead in his tracks.

Tommy Le’s death seems to serve as a metaphor for our community’s silence. Tommy Le isn’t here anymore, his voice was erased, but was it ever truly heard to begin with? How can we create space for a generation of immigrants and refugees who grew up fearing the powers that be, to instead feel protected and supported by them? How can we better support our brothers and sisters?

While reactions to Tommy Le’s death started privately behind closed doors, they have begun to emerge. In the past month there have been a number of important, thoughtful stories written about Tommy’s death and society’s messiness as a whole (read more below). For that reason, I’m not going to rehash the heartbreaking details of what did or didn’t happen. I’m going to continue the conversation by writing about generational differences, hope, and how the young, Vietnamese community is translating ideas like social justice, for both themselves and for other generations so that we can celebrate Tommy’s life by ensuring that awful things don’t remain in the dark. Regardless of your community, you have the power to be a beacon of light.

Yenvy Pham, restaurateur, business owner, and activist in Little Saigon, talked about community and love as she ferried hundreds of bánh mì to Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) at the Justice4Tommyle forum on July 19.

“Love has to be the starting point,” she says. “For our families, silence has often equated to love and safety.”

As we listened to contemporary Vietnamese music, embraced by the smell of freshly baked bread, she explained why love is an important starting point for the community’s response.

“Our families show affection in a way that’s different from American social norms. What our parents had to do to get by means that they live in a constant state of survival, scarcity, and fear. They sacrificed their own identity and personal growth to raise this new generation of Vietnamese Americans who now have what they didn’t. Our parents gave us the privilege to reflect. We need to love them more for it rather than using it as an excuse to create a larger void,” she says.

Tommy’s death was a disturbing catalyst, reminding us of the importance of reflection and our duty to act on it. Pham hopes that we as a community will no longer take things at face value, no longer submit and accept, but instead, use our elders’ nostalgia to fuel our questions and ambitions.

Bao Nguyen, former Editor in Chief of Xin Chào Magazine and founder of the Viets Who Give a Shiet group, similarly described his hopes for the younger generation’s action.

“The younger generation of Vietnamese is starting to organize and speak up, shaking off the chains put on us by both the dominant culture and our own parents and grandparents. There’s certainly a long way to go, but this to me feels like a big first step.”

Many journalists and commentators have remarked on Tommy’s weight, saying that his 100-something pound weight posed no threat. But why does his weight matter? Or, more importantly, why is small and Asian deemed non-threatening?

Why does the media not comment on mental health—something often hidden in the Vietnamese community? Why do we not talk about generational trauma, the difficulties of growing up as a kid of color, how it feels when your name is Trúc and classmates ask why you’re named after a truck, about the pressure to confirm to utterly superficial and racist gender stereotypes that paint Asian men as effeminate and inadequate, yet fetishizes Asian women and their bodies—the same bodies that create and birth the Asian men which are often rejected.

Tommy Le

Community members and public officials packed ACRS on July 19 to share their grief and ask difficult questions about community and police intervention. Photo via Jessica Boyd.

We should not hide from the complexities of our communities. They should be embraced and honored by translating social justice, action, and community in a way that makes sense for us. Our version of social justice can be, and is, radical in its own way. Here are a few examples of what it looks like so far:

 

-Young Vietnamese Americans banding together to make the Justice4TommyLe event possible with only a week’s notice.

-A Vietnamese elder in his seventies speaking out at the event, drawing on his 14 years of experience as a police officer for the Southern Vietnamese army, and teaching speakers such as the Sheriff of Seattle about police brutality.

-Serving Vietnamese food at social justice events, because our parents taught us that food is a way to communicate respect and love.

-Having open, honest, and difficult conversations with our families about the realities of the country that we’re living in.

-Honoring the Black Lives Matter movement and learning from our POC brothers and sisters without coopting the work that they have done.

-Young Vietnamese Americans forming the group Viet Who Give a Shiet, because they give a shit and want to do some big things.

-Building bridges within the Vietnamese community to overcome cliques and fragmentation.

-Organizations such as Xin Chào Magazine publishing Vietnamese American stories to better communicate who we are and to connect us, wherever we might be.

-People creating intentional spaces for the Vietnamese community to connect and collaborate, like Yenvy Pham’s soon to open Súp Shop.

 

This list is incomplete, taking shape and expanding on a daily basis. It’s here to serve as a reminder that if we try to understand what is happening through a normative lens, then it won’t make sense because everyone has a different version of normal. While it may not look like the Vietnamese community is responding to Tommy’s death in the ‘normal’ way, rest assured that we’re working together, both behind closed doors and in the light of day, to honor our brother.

Linh Thai, key event organizer and host of the Justice4TommyLe forum, closed the event with a statement that reflects what love and social justice look like in Vietnamese. It is an invitation for all to come and break bread with us.

“Please take a bánh mì before you go. It’s the Vietnamese way of saying thank you and welcoming you into our home.”

Read more:

Do Asian Lives Matter? Contemplating Disparate Coverage of Charleena Lyles’s and Tommy Le’s Deaths

#WhatHappenedtoTommyLe: the Necessity of Vietnamese American Political Activation

For Vietnamese Community, Tommy Le’s Death Could Create a ‘New Paradigm’ of Activism