Welcome to Our Cities, Unless You're Communist

April 28, 2004|Mai Tran and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

Memories of the Red Menace may be fading in much of America, but they are very much alive in Orange County's Little Saigon.

In a gesture that says a lot about the uncompromising anger that many Vietnamese emigres feel toward the regime they fled, leaders want to declare a no-Communist zone.

Officials in Garden Grove and Westminster, two cities that share the sprawling district that is the hub of the world's largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam, plan to propose today identical city measures that would effectively prohibit visits by trade or government representatives from Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital.

An outgrowth of a successful campaign to recognize the flag of the former nation of South Vietnam in many U.S. cities with large Vietnamese populations, it's the latest salvo in an enduring hatred of communism that rivals that of Miami's Cuban exiles for Fidel Castro.

"We don't accept the communists anywhere," said Garden Grove activist Ky Ngo. "When we fled our homeland, we risked our lives to escape communism.... We want nothing to do with them."

Noting that the mere display of a Vietnamese flag in a video store in 1999 was enough to prompt a months-long demonstration, city officials say they hope to effectively deny sponsors of a Hanoi delegation any city cooperation -- including police protection for visiting dignitaries, which would be necessary in a community where political friction often turns physical.

The ordinance, to be proposed for both cities today by officials who include Garden Grove City Council member Van Tran and Westminster City Councilman Andy Quach, would discourage city employees from initiating or participating in visits. It also would require any government or trade groups to notify the cities of a visit 14 days in advance -- giving opponents plenty of time to raise objections and plan protests.

The proposal comes at an emotional time for the community: Saigon fell 29 years ago Friday.

It also follows by days the State Department's announcement that it was canceling a visit to Little Saigon by Vietnamese leaders after Westminster officials said that they could not guarantee their safety. The trip was planned by the Vietnamese government as a gesture of goodwill.

Proponents of the proposed city measures initially planned to take an even harder line by denying police protection to visiting delegations of communist governments. Such a ban, however, posed potential legal problems, and proponents of the measure redrafted the document with an eye to locking the city gates in a way that would not violate the Constitution or run afoul of state laws.

"We can't prevent the communists from coming to town," Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater said. "I would like to say, 'Hey, don't come.' But we don't have that authority -- so we're going to make it tougher for them."

But even the toned-down measure may be unconstitutional, said USC law professor David B. Cruz. Courts have ruled that governments, for example, cannot charge unpopular speakers higher fees to pay for extra police protection, he said.

"The basic idea is: You can't suppress speech because it's unpopular," Cruz said.

A spokesman for the government of Vietnam urged the cities to reject the measure.

"The government of Vietnam and the majority of the Vietnamese communities in the United States favor more contacts and exchanges," said Chien Ngoc Bach, spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington. "If someone wants to declare Westminster and Garden Grove anticommunist zones, they are making a desperate effort to hinder that trend."

The two primary proponents of the measure are running for higher office this fall. Garden Grove Mayor Broadwater, a Democrat, is in a runoff for a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Garden Grove Councilman Tran is the GOP nominee for 68th District Assembly seat.

Tran has been involved in the anticommunist campaigns of Little Saigon. He recently spearheaded a flag resolution that calls for the display of the South Vietnamese flag at city-sponsored functions.

Broadwater and Tran insist that the measure isn't solely a matter of international politics; they say it's aimed at saving taxpayers' money as well. They say that mass demonstrations drain resources in both cities, and that keeping communists out of town will help keep the peace.

In 1999, the Vietnamese community demonstrated for 53 days after a Westminster video shop owner hung a picture of communist leader Ho Chi Minh and the communist flag. Several Orange County police departments helped control the demonstration, which attracted about 15,000 demonstrators to the streets and parking lots in Little Saigon.

Officers and deputies in riot gear made dozens of arrests after protesters threw bottles. The Orange County Sheriff's Department and the city of Westminster argued over who would pay the $357,000 tab for police overtime. Eventually, Westminster paid halfthe bill.

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