Red Scare in Little Saigon

Le Vu's Viet Weekly newspaper endures OC's latest anti-communist witch-hunt

The white pickup carries two life-sized mannequins suspended from ropes tied around their necks. One has hollow, scratched-out eyes, a wispy beard, and an olive-drab pith helmet and faded green uniform. A yard-long arrow protrudes from his belly. His partner wears a gray business suit and slumps forward on his noose, head lolling forward. American and South Vietnamese flags tied to either side of the pickup's cab prop up the grisly display.

Signs stapled to the red-spattered clothes identify the first dummy as Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary who led his country in wars against colonial France and the United States. The second effigy is of Nguyen Cao Ky, a former South Vietnamese vice president and air force pilot who fought Ho's troops but now plays a key role in America's political rapprochement with Vietnam.

Every five minutes, as the pickup passes by, a roar erupts from several hundred people waving South Vietnamese and American flags. They have come in droves on this tree-lined block of Garden Grove's historic Main Street to surround the shuttered offices of the Viet Weekly, a Vietnamese-language newspaper whose handful of employees have taken the day off. It's just after 2 p.m. on July 21, and the biggest anti-communist demonstration in nearly a decade in OC's Little Saigon, the largest community of Vietnamese exiles in the world, has just begun.

Le Vu (center) and staff take over Main Street. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Le Vu (center) and staff take over Main Street. Photo by John Gilhooley.

Spurred on by a constant barrage of negative press and impassioned denunciations in Little Saigon's myriad newspapers, radio stations and television programs, the protesters want to send a message to Viet Weekly—and particularly its publisher, Le Vu—that the magazine is not welcome in Orange County. They've heard word that editorials printed in the newspaper have praised Ho Chi Minh as a world leader and that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a justifiable response to American imperialist aggression. Some in the crowd suspect Le Vu and his employees are actually communist agents sent by the Vietnamese government to infiltrate Little Saigon. A week earlier, California Assemblyman Van Thai Tran told a crowd of protest organizers at Westmister's Civic Center that the FBI had been investigating the communist inflitration of Little Saigon's media since 2003. Although he didn't mention Viet Weekly by name, that year happens to coincide with the newspaper's inaugural issue.

A megaphone blasts the martial anthem of the defunct government of South Vietnam, then the "Star Spangled Banner." For the next several hours, the crowd mills around on the sidewalk, urged on by a series of angry speakers, many of whom wear camouflage uniforms and combat boots. "Do not slander the 9/11 victims! Get out of here because you support the 9/11 terrorists!" shouts a middle-aged woman, reading her lines from a clipboard. "Viet Weekly: Down!" the crowd roars. "Down! Down! Down!"

At least 500 protesters (according to police estimates) join in the chant. Many of them carry signs: "Boycott Viet Weekly," "Viet Weekly: Don't Betray the American People!" and "Vietnamese and American People United Against Terrorism."

Holding a cell phone to his ear and walking the perimeter of the protest is Trung Nguyen, a Garden Grove school board member who recently lost his bid for Orange County's first supervisorial seat to Garden Grove City Councilwoman Janet Nguyen (no relation). He denies he's a protester, insisting he simply volunteered to serve as a liaison with the police. But he's no fan of Viet Weekly, which he says is "at a minimum, sympathetic to the communist government" of Vietnam. "You have to wonder why [the protesters] are still angry at the communist government," Nguyen says. "All of them have someone who died from the communists. You can say, 'Don't compare it to the Holocaust,' but for these people, it's like the Holocaust."

Phan Nhat Nam, a producer with the Westminster-based Vietnamese-language TV station Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, isn't here to cover the event. A former captain in the South Vietnamese army, he's angry because "Viet Weekly prints many pro-communist articles" and "celebrates" the 9/11 attacks. Nam's station aired public-service announcements that helped draw the crowd.

"We consider them to belong to the terrorism group," Nam says, referring to Viet Weekly, whose office 10 feet away is protected by several Garden Grove police officers. "We express our support to the American community. We maintain the freedom-fighting spirit by hating them [Viet Weekly]."

Another protest organizer is Nguyen Chi Thien, a tall, elderly poet from North Vietnam who says he was "imprisoned without trial by communists for 27 years" and watched "many friends die from hunger, disease and cold."

"The Viet Weekly supports terrorism," Thien says. "They wrote that the American people deserved the 9/11 attacks. . . . The American people helped us in the war. Viet Weeklyglorifies Ho Chi Minh, a criminal! He killed 1 million people."

The protesters notice a camera peeking from between the Venetian blinds of the front window of the newspaper's office. They rush the window, blocking the camera with flags and placards. A woman standing nearby stamps her feet, screaming in Vietnamese. She ends her speech in English, with a Vietnam war-era denunciation of the Viet Cong familiar to most Americans through war movies: "VC No. 10! VC No. 10!"

Across the street, James Du, a Pasadena resident with long, curly hair and big forearms, is the only person carrying a sign defending "Viet Weekly's Right to Free Speech." He's surrounded by cops. People marching to join the protest yell at him in Vietnamese, but Du insists that many Vietnamese motorists who have driven past the corner have honked their horns in support of his sign.

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