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Asian American residents sue Calif. county, claiming targeted harassment campaign by officials

Though Asians make up only 2.4% of Siskiyou County's adult population, they accounted for over 28% of Sheriff’s Department traffic stops in 2021, the lawsuit said.  

Asian American residents in Northern California say their county and Sheriff’s Department are engaged in a racist campaign to root them out, according to a new lawsuit. 

The class action suit, filed in federal court on Wednesday, names both Siskiyou County and Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue as defendants, and it claims that both parties are engaged in large-scale harassment against Hmong residents. 

“This targeting is designed to drive a disfavored racial minority from the County and has its roots in anti-Asian racism in Siskiyou dating back to the 1800s,” reads the suit, put forward by the American Civil Liberties Union and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

According to residents, this discrimination has taken the form of routine traffic stops, restricted access to water and liens designed to push Asians off their land. Policies enforced by the county have disproportionately impacted Hmong marijuana farmers, whose neighborhoods have been singled out, the complaint also said. 

Though Asians make up only 2.4% of the county’s adult population, they accounted for over 28% of Sheriff’s Department traffic stops in 2021, the suit notes. The county population is close to 45,000, of which approximately 85% is white. 

“County data further shows that the Sheriff’s Department stops Asian Americans during the day, when a driver’s race is more readily visible, at a nearly 60% higher rate than during the night.”

Clashes with the county began when Hmong immigrants began to dominate marijuana farming in the area. Another lawsuit filed last year led to an injunction against the county for allegedly putting water restrictions in place specifically to target them. County officials denied the allegations. 

While growing marijuana is legal in California, the county heavily restricts it. Still, residents suing the county allege farming cannabis was common — until Asians started doing it. 

Harsher policing of marijuana farms has been enacted since the Hmong population began to grow the plant, the lawsuit said, and the new laws are almost exclusively enforced in Asian-dominated areas of the county. 

When the county issued a new ordinance prohibiting the transport of over 100 gallons of water without a permit, they only policed it on the roads around Asian American neighborhoods, according to the lawsuit. 

Though it was intended to target cannabis farmers, the lawsuit alleges racial profiling meant Hmong residents who weren’t growers were also subject to more stops. This has had an impact on the everyday lives of Hmong residents, who say they struggle to access water for their basic needs. 

Asian American residents began more fervently speaking out last summer after a Hmong man was shot and killed in the area by officers at a wildfire evacuation checkpoint. 

While the lower-income Hmong American population has grown in Siskiyou County over the last few years, the suit claims the county and sheriff have been openly hostile to them.  

“Like some of their most vocal constituents, they view Asian Americans as a monolithic group of which every single person is part of a violent drug cartel and blame the County’s widespread cannabis cultivation on Asian Americans in explicitly racialized terms,” the complaint reads. 

Siskiyou County and LaRue did not respond to requests for comment, but in a statement to The Sacramento Bee last year, LaRue said marijuana growers were “hostile” to first responders during fire evacuations.

“It prevented fire[fighters] from going in there, because the firefighters didn’t feel very safe due to some of the comments that were made,” he said. “So it’s kind of a mess.” 

Hmong plaintiffs say they have altogether been treated like outsiders. 

“In one striking example, the Board singled out Hmong attendees at a 2015 public meeting, calling first for a show of hands from ‘the Hmong residents’ on the issues presented, and then calling for a vote of ‘those County residents present,’ as if the Hmong people were outsiders,” the lawsuit reads.