A Little Saigon video store owner won a court ruling Wednesday that allows him to hang a Communist flag at his business--and then he walked into an escalating community furor that ended hours later with his collapse in a confrontation with protesters.
Hundreds of Vietnamese Americans enraged by Truong Van Tran's plans to put up the flag of Communist Vietnam and a picture of Ho Chi Minh gathered outside the Santa Ana courtroom in the morning. Passions reached a peak when Tran returned to his Westminster store in the afternoon to find a small group of protesters waiting.
"Someone approached [Tran], spit in their hand, and then tried to wipe it on him hard," said Westminster Police Lt. Bill Lewis, describing a showdown that unfolded after Tran arrived outside the store to put up the items. "It didn't look like much of a blow. There was some hesitation and then he fell to the ground."
Several protesters chanted "Let him die! Let the Communist die!" but Tran, 37, did not appear to suffer serious injury, Lewis said. He was taken to Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, where officials only described his condition as stable.
The protests followed a Superior Court judge's decision Wednesday morning to lift her earlier ban on the display of the flag and photo of the legendary Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in Tran's store, saying the owner's 1st Amendment rights must prevail over concerns about symbols that are "indisputably offensive" to the Vietnamese American community.
Judge's Ruling Angers Courthouse Crowd
Store owner Tran is "far from blameless" in sending out letters challenging anti-Communist groups to confront him, said Judge Tam Nomoto Schumann, but the items he displayed in his store constitute political expression, the most protected form of speech.
"Mr. Tran's display is indisputably offensive, and engenders hatred and anger to members of the community, especially those to whom he issued his challenges," Schumann said. "However, these symbols are a form of political speech, which Mr. Tran has a right to express, even if the content of that expression is offensive."
The decision was greeted with stunned silence and anger by an estimated 400 protesters who had gathered in the halls outside the courtroom, many of them refugees and former prisoners of the Communist regime.
"We are very disappointed," said Thang Ngoc Tran, head of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, a nonprofit social-service group. "But the decision doesn't change what's in our hearts. We hate communism and we want everyone to know that."
Protester Ky Ngo said the community felt betrayed by the court's ruling.
"Ho Chi Minh is a murderer," he said. "It's like waving a picture of Pol Pot in front of the Cambodian community or a picture of Hitler in the Jewish community. This is not freedom of speech. This is abuse of freedom of speech."
Later Wednesday afternoon, the community's anger was again in vivid display when Tran drove up to the store in a car with his wife and two young children--only to be surrounded by a small crowd of screaming protesters.
Tran got out of his car, calmly listened and then quietly told a reporter, "I think I have a right to do it." After one protester then wiped his hand on Tran's face, the store owner fell to the ground.
Protester Chau Carey defended the group's anger: "We have the freedom of speech too," she said.
Police said they had repeatedly warned Tran to notify them if he planned to return to his store so they could provide an escort. This marks the second time a confrontation between Tran and protesters turned physical: On Jan. 19, he was struck in the head by a demonstrator as he left his store.
"What we had continually told Mr. Tran was that if the judge ruled in his favor, he was to get in touch with the Westminster police so we could escort him and keep the peace. He did not do that," Lewis said.
Inside the hospital emergency waiting room, Tran's wife, Kim Nguyen, said her husband has undergone two open-heart surgeries and was still very weak.
Nguyen deplored the crowd's violence. "I think it's time for them to use speech instead of the fist," she said.
Protests Could Last Until Flag Is Gone
Wednesday's events marked a new crisis in a controversy that broke out Jan. 18, when protesters gathered outside Tran's Bolsa Avenue store, Hi Tek TV and VCR.
Carrying out promises made in letters to community leaders, Tran said he displayed the flag and photo to express his right of free speech. Although he said he is not a Communist, he believes the current Vietnamese government has improved life in that country.
At the request of Tran's landlord, Schumann on Jan. 21 issued a temporary restraining order that required Tran to remove the flag and photo and required protesters to keep their distance from his store, which has been closed since the trouble began.