Sunday, May 31, 2009
More than 200 rally after jury clears officer
By David Hanners
Updated: 05/30/2009 10:59:25 PM CDT
The Hmong kid was young, perhaps 10 or 12, and the hand-lettered sign he held up as he stood along University Avenue was meant to get motorists' attention.
"Fong Lee = Me," read the sign.
More than 200 people gathered Saturday afternoon for a rally protesting this week's finding by a jury that a Minneapolis police officer didn't use excessive force when he shot Fong Lee eight times and killed him in 2006.
"The verdict said the police officer did nothing wrong. Do you guys believe that?" Fong Lee's cousin, Cha Yia Lee, asked the group.
His question was met with shouts of "No!"
The rally, sponsored by a coalition of community groups, took place in a parking lot at the corner of University Avenue and Marion Street in St. Paul. Many carried signs as they stood along the street, and the air was filled with the sound of car horns as passing motorists honked their support.
A St. Paul Fire Department ladder truck blew its air horn as it went past.
The group was protesting not just the verdict, but what they claimed was an unfair trial that ended Thursday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul. They claimed the judge added insult to injury by reading the verdict without waiting for Fong Lee's parents, siblings or other family members, who had sat throughout the weeklong trial, to return from lunch.
They learned of the verdict from a reporter.
Fong Lee's mother and father, Youa Vang Lee and Nou Kai Lee, were among those at the rally. Youa Vang Lee wore a sandwich sign and stood on the median in the center of University Avenue as cars, trucks and buses whizzed by or stopped at the stoplight.
"If we can't trust cops, who can we trust?" one of her signs read.
Fong Lee, 19, was shot and killed July 22, 2006, by Minneapolis police officer Jason Andersen. The officer had chased the teen on foot and claimed Fong Lee was carrying a gun in his right hand and was starting to raise it in the officer's direction.
Andersen, 32, shot Fong Lee three times while he was running, then shot him five more times after he had fallen to the ground. He testified that the teen had refused his orders to drop the gun, which was later found lying three feet beyond Fong Lee's outstretched left hand.
But lawyers for Fong Lee's family argued the teen was unarmed. Among the evidence they presented were photos from a surveillance video that caught the last seconds of the chase. Even though Andersen is farther away from the camera, his gun is clearly visible, but there is no obvious gun or dark object in Fong Lee's right hand.
The family lawyers contended that the gun — a pistol reported stolen in a 2004 burglary — was planted by police.
But under the law and legal precedents, the all-white jury of eight men and four women didn't have to consider whether Fong Lee was armed or not. It was a matter of what Andersen perceived the threat to be, and Judge Paul Magnuson instructed the jurors that if a "reasonable officer on the scene, without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, would have used such force under similar circumstances," then the force wasn't excessive.
Al Flowers, a longtime community activist and current Minneapolis mayoral candidate, told the rally that members of the family had had a conference with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and asked for a federal inquiry.
Flowers said the Minneapolis Urban League would take public testimony at a couple of hearings in June to provide to Ellison, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 5th Congressional District, which includes Minneapolis.
After the verdict cleared Andersen, Minneapolis Police Chief Timothy Dolan issued a statement calling the allegations of wrongdoing "inflammatory" and said he hoped "that we can all move forward and heal as a community."
But many at the rally said Dolan's comments were insulting and that they believed police had long mistreated minorities, including the Hmong.
"I felt that justice failed us, and I feel there ain't nothing going to happen with it," said Jon Xiong, 28, of St. Paul. "I got little brothers and cousins and nephews, and it could've easily have been them. From my point of view, as a minority, it really ain't no good. That's all I can say. It ain't no good."
David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.