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Racial Tensions Surface In Siskiyou County Ahead Of Vote On Water Restrictions

Members of Siskiyou County's Hmong community protesting a police shooting and water restrictions in Yreka on July 6, 2021.
Erik Neumann/JPR
Members of Siskiyou County's Hmong community protesting a police shooting and water restrictions in Yreka on July 6, 2021.

In recent weeks, protests have roiled Siskiyou County. They’ve focused on an officer-involved shooting of a local Southeast Asian American man and restrictions on water used to grow illegal marijuana. Those water restrictions could be voted into law on August 3rd.

On a recent day in Yreka, outside the county courthouse, Tong Xiong is rallying a crowd of several hundred people. They’re waving hand-written signs to protest an emergency water ordinance. It’s meant to cut off non-potable water for illegal marijuana farms and impound delivery trucks.

Xiong, who grows marijuana, is upset.

“Hottest month of the year and they’re starving us from water,” Xiong says. “Stealing our water trucks.”

Like most people here, Xiong is of Hmong descent. He says this water ordinance is profiling Asian Americans like him.

“Painting us as bad as they can. Make the whole Siskiyou County hate us,” he says.

The other reason for these protests is a recent officer-involved shooting. In late June, as the Lava wildfire burned through communities and prompted evacuations around Mt. Shasta, a man named Soobleej Kaub Hawj tried to enter an evacuation zone that was closed by police and firefighters.

According to law enforcement, Kaub Hawj who was also Hmong, waved a gun at officers, who immediately shot and killed him. His family was behind in another car.

Now, these two issues have boiled over.

Driving along county road A-12, about twenty miles north of Mt. Shasta, the Shasta Vista community appears out of a sagebrush and juniper covered hillside. It’s filled with long, white plastic greenhouses. Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue says marijuana farming has been exploding there in recent years.

“That area now is almost the size of Yreka, the city,” he says. “Somewhere between four and 8,000 Hmong and Chinese live out there now.”

Officials like LaRue point out that it’s illegal to grow more than a dozen marijuana plants in unincorporated areas of Siskiyou County. The Shasta Vista greenhouses are commercial in scale. He estimates there are up to 7,000 of them in the area.

 Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue at the county court house.
Erik Neumann/JPR
Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue at the county court house.

The sheriff says he doesn’t really care about marijuana. The bigger concern, he says, is the environmental damage caused by a community of unpermitted homes and greenhouses with large-scale agriculture.

“When you go out into the field and you see what's going on out in the community with the environmental damage, the chemicals, the pesticides and what not, it wouldn't matter if it was cannabis, soybeans, corn. You name the crop. It really wouldn't matter,” he says. “How it's being used is very alarming for the earth. Flat out. That's the primary thing.”

Between buildings without septic systems and careless chemical waste, LaRue and many other residents, are worried about cumulative contamination of the water table. Several dozen wells have gone dry and some residents blame it on massive water diversions to feed the cannabis farms.

In response, last May the board of supervisors passed a narrowly targeted emergency ordinance to cite any water truck delivering more than 100 gallons of water. It’s deliberately focused on several communities like Shasta Vista. Water truck drivers could be charged with a misdemeanor, fined and have their truck seized.

Steve Her is a Hmong resident of Siskiyou County. He says there is large-scale cannabis being grown in Shasta Vista, but says Hmong residents are selectively stopped by law enforcement.

“They have been bullying us, racially profiling us, targeting us,” Her says.

Sacramento City Councilmember Mai Vang was also at one of the recent Yreka protests. She is also Hmong.

“There’s just a deep mistrust between government officials, sheriff and the Hmong community,” Vang says.

She says it’s important that not everyone in the Hmong community is criminalized if they’re not growing illegal cannabis.

“I recognize that the interaction between local governments and community is complex. But it is on the responsibility of our government to make sure that we are truly engaging all residents,” she says.

Now, the death of Soobleej Kaub Hawj is being investigated by the county’s district attorney. The Siskiyou board of supervisors is being sued by several Hmong residents whose vehicles were impounded while delivering water.

According to an attorney for Siskiyou County, they have refined the emergency water rule to include exemptions for emergency responders and so that anyone who has a legal need for water can get a permit.

Sheriff LaRue says these issues are simply about stopping illegal activity.

“It seems like it's about race. And it is not about race,” he says. “It's just about conforming to the laws.”

The county board of supervisors will meet again on August 3rd. At that meeting they’ll vote on whether to make the emergency ordinance a permanent law.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.