BY CRAIG HONTS
WESTMINSTER, California -Since mid-January the Vietnamese community in Orange County, California, has been the scene of sustained, violent demonstrations by rightist protesters over the display of a poster of Ho Chi Minh and a Vietnamese flag in the store of a Vietnamese video store owner, Truong Van Tran.
Southern California has the largest concentration of Vietnamese in the nation -with an estimated 300,000 people.
Tran had decided to display the flag and poster January 17 on the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, and had sent a letter to local Vietnamese newspapers the week before explaining that he would put up the flag and poster of Ho Chi Minh.
The day Tran first displayed the poster and flag around 50 protesters gathered outside his store. The protest turned violent January 18 when Tran was struck on the back of the head as he closed the store for the day because of the picketing. Around 200 demonstrators turned out the following day. The actions have continued almost daily, with the largest estimated at up to 15,000.
Orange County superior court judge Tam Nomoto Schumann issued a preliminary injunction January 21 requiring Truong Van Tran to remove the poster of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese flag from his video store in his Little Saigon neighborhood in Westminster, California.
The lawyer for Tran's landlord had argued the flag and picture violated a provision of his rental agreement prohibiting displays that create a public nuisance. Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out, "No state official, and that includes the judge, should stop somebody from expressing their right to speak."
A family member who declined to be named for fear of retribution, told the Los Angeles Times that Tran, 37, had left Vietnam in 1980 as one of many "boat people" fleeing Vietnam after the war. Since then, he had returned to Vietnam several times to visit relatives. Tran became an advocate of improved relations between the United States and Vietnam, and sided with Dr. Co Pham, head of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, in a controversy that erupted several years ago after Pham spoke in favor of restoring business ties with Vietnam.
On February 10 Tran won a court ruling that allows him to continue to hang the Vietnamese flag and the poster of Ho Chi Minh in his store. Outside the courtroom 400 protesters objected to the ruling, and later that day, when Tran tried to reopen his store, he was knocked to the ground in full view of TV cameras and other photographers by rightists who chanted "Let the communist die."
Around 300 protesters marched around the mall where Tran's video store is located February 16 and then rallied directly in front of the store. The front of the store was plastered with anticommunist posters of Ho Chi Minh as a vampire and American flags. In spite of a court injunction against blocking entrance to the store, the crowd was pressed right up against the store, making it nearly impossible for anyone to get into it. There were no police to be seen anywhere near the demonstrators.
Tran's landlord moved to evict Tran in late February. In early March, as the protests continued, police raided the store and confiscated more than 17,000 videotapes they claimed might be counterfeits.
Tran's attorney, Nancy Kaufman, told the press March 8 that the police raid, on top of the protests, are forcing him to give up the store. He may pursue a lawsuit against the protesters, the city of Westminster, and the landlord for violating his First Amendment rights, she said.
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