The Story Behind the Murder of Cau Tran
This summer I worked as a teacher, instructing in the areas of race and ethnicity for gifted students of color. As a daily reminder, I would always reiterate to my class how issues of race and identity are always changing – how race affects our environment, and how environment affects who we are. And as I left my classroom one evening, I imagined how society would be in the hands of my students - how different communities would grow and learn from each other - living in peace. And since that mid – July day, I have failed to revisit those thoughts.
On July 13th of this year, Cau Thi Bich Tran, a Vietnamese woman, a mother of two young children, was fatally shot in the chest in her own apartment. Her children were in the next room over, as her husband witnessed the killing in a horrid dismay. Her husband and two children were screaming for help, screaming out of utter shock. But just as strange and as “foreign” as their impoverished home and personal appearances, the words that were screamed were merely indiscernible noises to officer Chad Marshall, the man who put a bullet through Cau Tran’s chest.
The San Jose police department issued a press release – clearly stating that officer Marshall’s shooting was justified – that Cau Tran was clearly holding a deadly “Cleaver” – that she was ready to throw like a dagger. And I can’t help but imagine how this 4 foot 9 inch woman that weighed 90lbs - made officer Marshall feel that his life was in danger. I can’t help but to imagine how officer Marshall possibly thought of movies such “Double Dragon” or “Drunken Monkey” as he centered his aim, shooting to kill Cau Tran without hesitancy. I can’t help but to imagine how my own mother has that the same vegetable peeler that Cau Tran was holding when she was shot through the chest. And for the first time in many years, I am afraid for my own mother. She lives alone in a predominantly white neighborhood – She wears her rice hat to works in her garden, - Her English is broken, and occasionally she uses a Vietnamese Vegetable Peeler. I am afraid for all Vietnamese families.
I am neither an academic nor a professional on race and ethnicity. But I can tell you that Cau Tran would still be alive today if she were white. There is no question that environment influences how much a person would feel threatened. A white person from a middle class neighborhood would be alien to low – income immigrant neighborhoods like Cau Tran’s. For white police officers that only speak English - that “police” those immigrants and citizens “foreign” in every sense of the American lifestyle - their only consolation in these neighborhoods are their side-arms. So I ask you, would it have made a difference if Cau Tran were actually holding a rubber chicken that may have “resembled” a meat “Cleaver?” How many people of color have been killed because they pulled out a cell phone, a pager, or a comb? The important question is - is it really what you are holding – or is it who you are and what neighborhood you come from that makes police officers nervous?
And as the grand jury deliberates this week,,(editor's note: this article was written on October 24, 2003) and as Felicita Ngo fights for a family and a community, I am compelled to re-examine my own privilege; my access to education and my ability to speak English. I am compelled to use those privileges to speak out against Police Brutality and voice my concerns. Why? Because when a police officer murders a Vietnamese woman in front of her family and receives no reprimand, shows all police officers how weak our community is. It becomes an indication of how little our voices matter - how little agency we have as Vietnamese Americans. Some people argue that individually this isn’t their fight. But to an officer’s gander, you and I are just as “Oriental” and as “Foreign” as the next Cau Tran.
It has been months since I have imagined a world of exchange, growth, learning, and understanding. And in the classroom, my young students sense my anger and frustration. I apologized to all of them. And I gave them the only explanation I had: “It is because I have spent my entire life trying to find my own history, my identity - to make myself and my community visible in a white world. And when something like the case of Cau Tran happens, I feel like I have to start all over again.” Please keep the Tran family in your prayers.
Go to www.tranmemorial.com or simply do a “google” search on "Cau Bich Tran in San Jose" for more information. Contact the Asian Law Alliance is San Jose to see what you can do to help.