In late November, 2014, Du Na Phuong (Tony) was shot by the Vancouver Police Department at the intersection of Knight Street and East 41st Avenue. Du, age 51, was waving a two-by-four plank of wood on the east side of the street. No people were nearby and nobody reported being threatened, yet police shot Du within one minute of arriving at the scene.
The shooting has sparked resistance and outrage from the Vietnamese community and supporters across Vancouver. In December 2014, a group of Vietnamese youth organized a vigil for Du, where dozens gathered at the site of the shooting, alongside friends and family of Phuong (Tony). Reverberations of the movement were also felt on social media. Event organizers created the twitter hashtag #OneMinuteforPhuong, referring to the one minute of Du’s life between the time police arrived and the time he was shot. During the vigil, a one-minute moment of silence was held in memory of Du.
Phuong was remembered at the vigil as a “gentle soul” by family and friends. He grew up in rural Vietnam before moving to Canada and worked two jobs as a janitor. “Tony was a hard worker,” recalls his family. Phuong’s birthday was on December 8th, when he would have turned 52.
A written statement by Phuong’s family also paid tribute to his late-life struggle with mental illness. “Although he had to quit his job as a janitor that didn’t stop him from cleaning. If you’ve ever been to Tony’s house then you would know that if nothing else the house was going to be spotless. Not many people would have been able to continue to do the things Tony did while battling such a debilitating illness but Tony did and he did so without forgetting who he was as a friend, brother or person.”
Birth of the v*ccj
Since December, the movement for justice in the killing of Du Na Phuong has persisted. Vigil organizers have made a collective decision to continue organizing as a group, and in March the collective decided on a name: viet* collective for community justice (v*ccj).
In an interview with The Mainlander, the v*ccj outlined their reasons for initially organizing the vigil: “We felt that because Mr. Phuong was a racialized disabled man, his unjust death at the hands of the VPD was swept under the rug. We wanted to hold this vigil to honour his life, support his family, and stand in solidarity with black resistance against police brutality in the U.S.” The group added a reflection on the need for organization: “Throughout the process, we realized that there were many issues that were specific to the local Vietnamese community but there were no accessible means to openly address them in a meaningful way, so we continue to organize.”
In addition to fighting against police brutality against Du, the group also spoke to the potential for building radical change within Vancouver’s diverse Vietnamese community. While the group was initially focused on the vigil, “[we] soon realized and decided as a group that we wanted to continue to have meetings and conversations about issues affecting the local Vietnamese community. With new members joining us and with more discussions on which direction we would like the group to go in the future, we are excited to see the group grow into the future.”
Du Na Phuong in context
The shooting of Du Na Phuong is the latest in a series of police shootings in Vancouver. The vigil for Du and the emergence of the v*ccj, in response, represent the latest march forward in the struggle for police accountability and an end to police brutality in Vancouver.
Accountability for police-involved deaths has been a major focus of activists in Vancouver since at least 1998, when protests led to an inquiry into the death of Frank Paul. Since then women and Indigenous communities have organized tirelessly for justice, before, during and after the “failed inquiry” for the murdered and missing women.
More recently, migrant justice and transit activists have organized to stop the heavy policing of public transit, including the widely-criticized collaboration between Translink and CBSA officials. Their work has so far resulted in a partial victory – the Metro Vancouver Transit police ended their agreement with the CBSA.
For Ly, the death of Du is clearly part of a larger issue. “We are deeply disturbed by the circumstances of Mr. Phuong’s death and the actions of the Vancouver Police Department. We also are concerned about many issues within our community, such as violence, mental health, the lack of dialogue, racism, and police brutality.”
V*ccj organizers say that over the past five years, several member of the Vietnamese community have been killed due to violence, including Lam Thanh “David,” Tran Tung Thanh, Nguyen Tam Thi, Nguyen Cong “Danny,” Le Yen Thi, Phan Van Truong La, Nguyen Vinh The, Tran Huong “Andy,” Huyen Diem Chinh, Vu Yen Thuy “Jenny,” and Banh Phong Quai David.
Policing mental health
Activists in Vancouver have also begun to focus on police violence targeting individuals with perceived mental health issues. Last year the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) sounded an alarm bell about the Vancouver Police Department’s “repeated killing of individuals with perceived mental illness in Vancouver.” The Carnegie Community Action (CCAP) project has also focused on the issue, including a CCAP-organized mental health town hall in September late last year.
Other groups have also rallied against police violence over the past year. The Left Front’s Policing Working Group has spoken out on fatal police violence targeting individuals with perceived mental illness. In March 2014 the group passed motions in light of an “alarming number of fatal police shootings of mentally ill people in Vancouver.”
Between 1992 and 2002, police encounters with mentally ill people led to at least eleven deaths. From 2003 to 2010, at least seven more individuals lost their lives to the police. Yet these statistics are based on media reports, and are likely a gross underestimate of actual number of people killed by the police in cases that go unreported in the media.
In addition to the steady number of fatal shootings, mental health arrests in Vancouver climbed to a five-year high this past summer, with 1,470 apprehensions being made by the police in the first half of 2014. That number represents an average of eight apprehensions every day in Vancouver.
Under Section 28 of the BC Mental Health Act, an officer can arrest a person without charge if they are deemed a risk to self or others. In the words of Karen Ward, speaking at the the CCAP Town Hall, an apprehension under the Mental Health Act occurs “when the police decide you have a mental illness.”
The Independent Investigations Office of BC (IIO)
The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) is currently conducting an investigation into the police shooting of Du. The IIO was established in 2011 after decades of pressure from organizers, victims of brutality, and “civil society” groups like Pivot Legal and the BCCLA, in the wake of several high profile police killings in which the police were exonerated without any charges.
The intention of IIO is that it eventually will be civilian led, unlike the current police complaints process, which follows the model of police investigating police. However, according to a recent update to the BC legislature by IIO head Richard Rosenthal, the organization is still comprised of nearly a majority of former police officers.
In their few years in operation, the IIO has already been criticized for appointing RCMP staff as advisors, and has also been criticized for using pro-police experts with close working relationships to the police. However, last year for the first time in decades, a police officer was charged with murder in the shooting of Merhdad Bayrami at the Starlight Casino in 2012.
IIO does not have the power to lay charges, but can only make recommendation to the crown. In its first year of operation (Sept to July 2013), the IIO took on 33 cases, 11 of which have been closed without charges being recommended to Crown prosecutors, according to the Vancouver Sun. Only five cases have been referred to prosecutors, but the prosecutors decided not to press charges in two of them and are “still considering” the others.
Will the system also cover over the shooting of Phuong? Organizers with the viet* collective for community justice are hoping that the IIO investigation can lead to accountability and justice in the unnecessary death of Du Na Phuong.
*Thanks to Chanel Ly, Maria Wallstam, Rider Cooey and the v*ccj for helping in the research and writing of this article