Do Asian Lives Matter? Contemplating Disparate Coverage of Charleena Lyles’s and Tommy Le’s Deaths

As the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer echoed from the Ramsey County courthouse on June 16, 2017, Charleena Lyles was shot dead by Seattle police after calling to report a possible burglary.

The outrage that ensued has been important. At least one vigil was held in her honor and covered by local media, hundreds chanted “Say her name!” while marching for her, countless articles have been written about her, and a GoFundMe set up for her children has raised over $100,000.

And to be clear, Charleena Lyles is 100% deserving of every single news story, vigil, march, demonstration, press conference, investigation, and donation she has been receiving — and more. Black Lives Matter.

But a few days after news of Charleena Lyles’s murder made headlines, I learned of an eerily similar shooting that had occurred in the Seattle area the same week.

On June 13th, 2017, five days before Charleena Lyles was killed, King County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a call in Burien regarding a young man behaving erratically and in possession of “some sort of sharp object.” This “sharp object” turned out to be a pen. One of the police officers shot and killed the young man, Tommy Le, the night before his high school graduation. (You can read the original King County press release here, which has not been edited to reflect that the sharp object was a pen, although this fact has been confirmed by the King County Sheriff’s Office via Seattle Weekly.)

Both Charleena’s and Tommy’s situations are examples of police officers responding to people experiencing mental instability, feeling (I assume) mortally threatened, and shooting them dead. Both situations are incredibly similar, and yet they’ve received shockingly disproportionate amounts of coverage, attention, and outrage. (Update: Finally, something—a public forum regarding Tommy Le’s death is scheduled for July 19 in Seattle.)

My first emotional response was anger. The killings are maddening enough in and of themselves, but watching one of the murders receive shockingly little attention makes it all the more painful. (And this is just from my own point of view as a concerned citizen. I can’t imagine what the family and friends of the victims are going through.)

As I started researching each story, I had the sense that I was missing something. What’s going on here? Why are these similar stories receiving such disparate attention? The more I read, the more my feelings of confusion, guilt, and helplessness grew, but there was one factor that I could not ignore:

Charleena Lyles was a Black woman. Tommy Le was a Vietnamese man.

Writing this makes me uncomfortable, but I had to ask myself: Is race really the main differentiating factor here? When it comes to focusing our attention on those who are killed by police officers, do Black lives matter more than Asian lives? Because Black people are disproportionately killed by police in the United States, did that somehow make the national outrage for Charleena Lyles more warranted than the murder of an Asian man? What am I missing? Why did Tommy Le’s death receive such little coverage in its immediate aftermath? Why is it still receiving such little attention?

Like someone pointed out to me on Twitter, people can’t be outraged by something they don’t know about. I consume my news like many people — through news outlets I follow on Facebook and Twitter. I check the news online multiple times a day. Coverage of Tommy Le’s murder has been slow to surface — while I couldn’t avoid hearing about Charleena Lyles’s death merely hours after it occurred, I didn’t come across news of Tommy Le until June 22nd (almost 10 days after his death).

One local news source that has been especially disappointing in this regard is KUOW. They are my favorite news source in Seattle, and I look to them for solid, quality journalism. I have held out hope that KUOW would shed more light on Tommy Le’s story, but there is no story to be found. Search “Tommy Le” on their website and two results appear (as of this publication), none of which has to do with this Tommy Le. Search “Charleena Lyles,” and 145 results appear. On June 29, I submitted a request that KUOW cover Tommy Le’s story, and I have not heard back. (I have also tweeted at KUOW and left comments on their Facebook page, all of which have been ignored.)

As you can guess, I am especially focused on KUOW because I have held them in high regard when it comes to local journalism; I expect more from them. But like the rest of good ol’ liberal Seattle, they are not immune to cherry picking where to focus their concerns regarding race and the justice system. I imagine that various media outlets have to ask themselves a long list of questions when they’re determining what to cover and how much to cover it: What will get people to tune in? What should we tell people to care about today? How can we stay relevant? What hot button topics should we highlight? How many Facebook shares and retweets will this get?

In the absence of proper coverage of Tommy Le’s death and its national context, I did some digging on my own. I felt like I must have some blind spot that I needed to account for. But when I tried to research the number of people of Asian descent killed by police officers, I couldn’t find any data; they seemed to be lumped into the “other” category. And according to an NPR story, the first tracker of hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders wasn’t even launched until January 2017.

The same article states that “crimes targeting Asian-Americans tripled in [Los Angeles County] between 2014 and 2015,” and that “Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders frequently under report hate incidents because they feel intimidated by law enforcement or are afraid of being seen as overly sensitive.” Our country’s racism and systemic oppression of those of Asian descent is nothing new, and it is certainly nothing new in Seattle. It has just largely been overlooked, ignored, or omitted. As the NPR article goes on to say, “Unfortunately, their silence on the issue makes them an even more attractive target for hate crimes.”

It seems that the lack of coverage of Tommy Le’s death is part of a larger problem that goes back hundreds of years in this country. While too many Black lives have been brutally erased by our country’s systemic racism, we cannot forget the oppressed groups of “others” (and by this I mean those quite literally categorized as “other”) in this country. But those of Asian descent may also need to change their ways. In discussing this issue, one person shared with me that Black Lives Matter has done a great job of “pushing the issue.” And to those of Asian descent, I say: We should do the same.

I’m still processing all of this information. I have strongly supported and defended the Black Lives Matter movement. But now I’m wondering: Do Vietnamese lives matter? Do Asian lives matter? Where is the outrage and empathy? Why do hearts break for Charleena Lyles, while Tommy Le doesn’t seem to get a second thought? Is it because people don’t care, or because many people just don’t know? Is Charleena Lyles’s death a better “story”? And for the people who staunchly respond “All Lives Matter” anytime “Black Lives Matter” is mentioned, where are you now? Does “All Lives Matter” really just mean “White Lives Matter,” or “Be Quiet”?

It’s a lot to unpack. I expect my thoughts on this to evolve as I learn more. As someone of Asian descent, I am also trying to separate my personal perspective in all of this as well. But regardless, I am deeply disturbed by the disparate coverage that these two cases are receiving. Tommy Le deserves more.

Seattle, WA