Sheriff investigating reports of discrimination, vandalism, threats against Wausau-area Hmong over COVID-19

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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks says multiple reports of discrimination against the Hmong community in the Wausau area are being investigated currently, including acts of vandalism, threats, and verbal blame for COVID-19.

(MGN Photo)

"We are following up on a number of different information we’ve received and trying to run down other victims and witnesses that we have been notified of," Parks told NewsChannel 7. Some reports included intimidation or blocking the way for southeast Asian members of the Wausau community as they tried to enter stores or businesses while blockers accused them of being part of the reason for the virus.

"We’ve actually seen where some of these persons have elected to spit or cough on the southeast Asian community in order to make their point," Parks said of their ongoing investigations.

Reports began surfacing Saturday when Wausau city council member Mary Thao posted on Facebook that she had heard of a Hmong community member being attacked over the coronavirus. The spread of COVID-19, beginning with an outbreak in the Chinese province of Hubei, has prompted reports of discrimination against Asian populations around the globe, according to multiple news reports and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

While Thao declined to comment on this story, NewsChannel 7 reached out to Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven on Tuesday, who said they had not received any official reports at that time but were actively looking to address the issue with community leaders, and encouraging victims to report.

"This virus doesn’t impact certain people or certain races of people. It impacts everybody equally," Bliven noted. Later in a post on the Wausau Police Facebook page, Bliven warned they would investigate any reports and that hate crimes are a legal modifier that can increase penalties.

By Wednesday evening, Parks posted on Facebook confirming active investigations of multiple reports of discrimination.

"We can’t blame the southeast Asian community for a virus that’s impacting all of us. They’re suffering with the same restrictions that all the rest of us are too. But now they have the added one: that being fear," he told NewsChannel 7 on Thursday.

Yee Leng Xiong with the Hmong American Center in Wausau also confirmed the reports of potential discrimination or attitudes toward Hmong community members regarding COVID-19. He told NewsChannel 7 that after incidents surfaced in the Twin Cities area regarding similar discrimination reports, Wausau community members came forward to Hmong leaders saying they had been targeted in similar ways.

"We need to work together to address this," he said. "And I strongly encourage any individual who has witnessed or experienced anything that could be some sort of discrimination or some of these negative attitudes, for them to really work with local law enforcement to address this issue.”

Across the nation, the issue has arisen frequently enough that the CDC includes clarification on their website that people of Asian descent do not pose a higher risk of spreading the coronavirus than anyone else.

"It is important to remember that people – including those of Asian descent – who do not live in or have not recently been in an area of ongoing spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, or have not been in contact with a person who is a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 are not at greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than other Americans," the CDC states.