In November of 2014, NYPD officers Peter Liang and Shaun Landau were conducting a vertical patrol in a residential apartment stairwell that resulted in the killing of Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man. This past February, Liang, a Chinese American, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and was fired from the New York Police Department. Not long after the conviction, thousands of Asian Americans, the majority of which were Chinese, took to the streets across the U.S. to protest the decision. This has opened a difficult, and long overdue conversation about police accountability and racial relations in the U.S. between Black and Asian communities. The media has spun both sides of the story, pushing for a mobilized Chinese community, finally vocalizing and amplifying an opinion pertaining to race, while also pitting it against a narrative of wanting to be protected by white supremacy and reaping its benefits at the expense of anti-blackness.
Many of the protests believe that Liang became a “scapegoat” to the Black Lives Matter movement. This conviction would potentially ease racial tensions and temporarily shift accountability. However, many have rallied for a broader approach of dismantling extensions of white supremacy, including the police state, and realizing its disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities. The discussion is confusing, messy, and difficult to process.
Looking forward, there are at least 3 key takeaways from the Liang case:
1) The Asian American community can and will be mobilized. The model minority myth has been internalized by many Asian Americans and in turn, many believe they have nothing at stake in these issues. I was personally invited to the protest by a coworker, and first considered going after reading corresponding news reports. It felt exciting to organize and protest with fellow Chinese community members. However, talking about the case with other Asian Americans, I realized there was a wide range and variety of opinions on the matter. More so, I was unclear on what people were organizing around, what were the demands and goals of the protests? Although the views differ, I was relieved that they were finally being shared on a large scale.
It seems the last time a group of Asian Americans showed out in comparable numbers was the 1992 LA Riots where Black and Korean business owners tensions were extremely high. We should still remember lives like Latasha Harlins, who was killed by a Korean store owner back in 1991, which highlights the long history of complex racial tensions and the police state in the United States.
Asian Americans have opinions. Asian Americans are not apolitical. The narrative of the quiet, submissive, and “keeping our heads down” Asian American’ can no longer suffice. Decade after decade, communities of color face huge challenges. These difficult conversations are crucial and necessary to be educated on social justice issues. We must learn, and then we must show up and stand up. It does no good to be a slacktivist. Meetings are being had. Protests are being organized. Organizations and spaces are being created. Get involved.
2) The police state and criminal “justice” system are racist and terrible. The vertical patrolling tactics Landau and Liang used, and are trained to use, led to the death of Akai Gurley and many other victims of police profiling communities of color. Vertical patrols and broken window policing are common methods used to patrol communities of color that are thought to be areas of high crime rates. It was no accident Liang and Landau ended up at a city housing residential area, where crimes are thought to happen the most. These assumptions came at a deadly cost, where Akai Gurley had to pay with his life.
Moreover, Liang neglected his duty as a first responder. He did not administer CPR once realizing his mistake. Instead, he panicked and wasted time arguing with Landau about whether or not to report the shot fired. This is clear negligence. As a cop, he should have been trained to safely handle a gun, to adapt quickly to a stressful situation, and to administer help to civilians. He was not trained properly and therefore failed to perform his job as an officer, which should come with a consequence.
Finally, there is an overall consensus that white cops need to be prosecuted and convicted for their crimes too. The police state needs to be held accountable for its violence towards communities of color. The NYPD has abandoned Liang, while they have previously and continue to stand by their fellow police officers in similar cases. It should also be alarming that this is the first time a NYPD officer has been convicted of a crime of this nature in the past 10 years. Instead of a second-degree manslaughter charge, what if Liang had been tried for a first-degree murder charge? There would have been a higher threshold to prove intent and convict. The legal system is normally reliant on plea bargains with underpaid defense attorneys, strict minimum sentencing laws, and policies written to protect the majority. There is clearly a problem with the so-called justice system in this country.
3) White supremacy is still a problem. The confusion among the Asian American community is not a surprise, especially with the media prioritizing bait clicks to draw in readers without much attention to its problematic content. Stories have been published highlighting both sides of the story shrouded in misinformation and purposeful omissions. With Liang’s case, details were given in the news, such as his status as a rookie cop, or that the situation was an “accident,” potentially disproving intent. Many sources left out Liang and Landau’s failure to respond with proper medical attention. News media outlets have shifted the conversation to focus on Asian American protesters demanding Liang be let free or to consider his conviction as a concession to Black Lives Matters movements. There must be a universal understanding that the media is biased, often times racist, and many times cares more about drawing in readers than providing factual, objective information.
The media, the legal system, and the police state, can all be considered extensions of white supremacy. In the context of the United States, these extensions have impacted Black communities at an alarming rate. Yes, of course, these systems have negatively impacted many communities of color and marginalized groups. From this case, however, we can see how many in the Chinese community choose to embrace their racial identity when it’s convenient and fits their narrative.
Far too often, Asian Americans have use antiblackness as a way to gain closer proximity to whiteness. Chinese Americans, have a deep history of assimilating to whiteness at the expense of black folks. Fast forward to Liang’s case and Chinese protesters are demanding Peter be prosecuted like all other white cops, all at the expense of a Akai’s death. The Asian American community needs to realize that Black folks do not have a net benefit from oppressing other communities of color. However, there have been countless times where Asian Americans have assimilated to white supremacy in order to benefit at the expense of Black people.
There is no such thing as a “scapegoat’ or a political concession when white supremacy is the root of the problem in our country.. If Liang had not been indicted, would there be the same demand for accountability by the Asian American community? There is a clear difference between being angry with police brutality and being fearful of it. The anger non-Black people of color feel is a privilege in itself. It allows for a distancing to occur, where the community only needs to take to the streets if the community they identify with is under attack. Solidarity can never occur if white supremacy is able to successfully pit communities of color, and other marginalized communities, against one another.
Overall, there are varying opinions on the Peter Liang case in the Asian American community. However, there are universal conclusions we can draw. The Gurley family deserves support and justice as they mourn Akai. Moreover, white supremacy and its many ugly heads have negatively impacted communities of color, especially Black communities. This disruption in the Asian American political narrative forces difficult conversations, but should lead to a better understanding of racial politics in the United States. Only through consciousness and commitment, can truly interracial solidarity be achieved.