Youa Vang doesn’t know George Floyd’s family, but she does know their pain.
Both lost loved ones at the hands of Minneapolis police: Vang in 2006 when an officer fatally shot her 19-year-old son, Fong Lee; the Floyds, just last week when a white officer used his knee to pin George Floyd down for almost nine minutes after taking him into custody.
That shared grief has pushed Vang, a refugee from Laos who immigrated to America in 1988, to stand in solidarity with the black community to fight for justice for Floyd — and to encourage Asian Americans, who have been divided in support of movements like Black Lives Matter, to do the same.
“I want the family to know that I'll grieve with them, I sympathize with them, and I'm sending them love,” Vang, 60, said in her native Hmong language, as she sobbed while speaking through an interpreter.
For Vang, video of a handcuffed Floyd lying on the ground, pleading for air and for his mother as the officer remained on Floyd’s neck, summoned a raft of memories of her own son’s death nearly 14 years ago.
During a foot chase, Lee was shot eight times by Minneapolis Officer Jason Andersen, who claimed Lee was armed and had motioned to shoot him, The Pioneer Press reported.
Police said a gun was found next to Lee’s body, but his family questioned whether cops had planted it, saying they believed the teen was unarmed, according to MPR News.
Andersen, who was later fired by the Minneapolis Police Department, was exonerated in 2009 by a jury in a federal wrongful death lawsuit brought by Lee’s family.
Lee’s mother and her supporters were angered by the decision.
“She came to this country escaping a war-torn country,” said Tou Ger Xiong, a community activist who advocated for Lee’s family and who translated for Vang during her interview with NBC Asian America.
“She came with the hopes of living in a democracy where people are treated equally under the law. And to come here and to have that kind of injustice is just devastating.”
Xiong recalled other minority groups — among them blacks and Latinos — marching together with Hmong Americans to demand justice for Lee in 2006.
“They were some of our loudest supporters and they fought the hardest for us,” Xiong said. “Now it is our turn to step up and be a voice for their community because their community is intertwined with ours.”
But not everyone sees it that way.
Xiong acknowledged that some in the Hmong community are ambivalent toward the Black Lives Matter movement, believing that black men dying at the hands of police is not an issue directly affecting Asian Americans.
A similar divide exposed itself during the trial of former New York City police Officer Peter Liang, who fatally shot an unarmed black man by accident while patrolling a Brooklyn housing project in 2014.
A sizable part of the Chinese American community, many of them first-generation immigrants, rushed to Liang’s defense. They believed his prosecution was a consequence of white officers not being indicted in police incidents in which unarmed black men were killed. They felt Liang was being scapegoated.
Just as Chinese Americans were suddenly thrust into the national debate on policing, so, too, members of the Hmong community find themselves in a similar predicament today.
Tou Thao, one of the four officers involved in the Floyd case who were fired the day after Floyd died, is Hmong American.
“Our tax dollars pay you to do your job, to really treat everyone equally under the law,” Vang said when asked about Thao.
For her part, Vang, an assembly line worker who makes medical supplies, has participated in protests, including a recent “Hmong 4 Black Lives” rally in Minnesota, where she spoke.
She said she’ll continue to press on, adding that families across racial and ethnic lines — Hmongs and Asian Americans included — must come together as one “to speak out and to support those voices that have been taken away from us.”
“This fight is a fight for humanity,” Vang said.