Over ten thousand protesters swarmed New York City in late February advocating for the release of Peter Liang, a former NYC cop who faces up to fifteen years in prison for the manslaughter of an unarmed man in a Brooklyn apartment stairwell. In late 2014, Liang and his partner Shaun Landau were conducting a vertical patrol in a public housing development in Brooklyn, when Akai Gurley entered the stairwell after leaving his apartment. Startled by the sound, Liang fired his weapon and fatally wounded Gurley with a single shot.
Liang’s conviction was a first for an American police officer in over a decade. Unsurprisingly, countless protesters carried “no scapegoat” signs, alleging that the officer was a sacrifice to forward an image of police accountability while maintaining the record of impunity white officers have had for similar crimes. Organizations such as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, a NYC non-profit focusing on community initiatives and advocacy for lower-income Asian Pacific Islanders, have been targeted as “race traitors” for their support of the conviction.
The vitriol surrounding Liang’s conviction is not an opportunity for validating Asian-Pacific police officers, and it warrants no response other than one of healing and empathy with the Gurley family. The past weekend of protests has made a misplaced argument of victimization at the expense of black lives.
This victimization is the clearest in a New York Post op-ed comparing Liang to Vincent Chin, a Chinese man beaten to death by two American auto workers accusing him of stealing American jobs. Chin’s death was conducted in cold blood by two racists who cared little about Asian Pacific lives. Liang, on the other hand, was himself a perpetrator of police violence. His multiple conduct violations, ranging from having a finger on the trigger in a non-threatening scenario to his failure to provide Gurley basic medical aid, cost a human life. A Medium article by Annie Tan, niece of Vincent Chin, places Liang’s guilt succinctly by comparing Chin to Gurley rather than to Liang.
It isn’t enough to picture ways in which Asian Americans have been mistreated throughout American history; we must consider how we ourselves impose prejudice in our own communities. Gurley was shot in a vertical patrol, an infamous tactic in New York in which police officers patrol multiple floors of low-income housing projects occupied by primarily black and Latino residents. Few Asian Americans encounter police brutality and widespread economic inequities, which black and Latino people face. Few Asian Americans have lost the same level of homeownership due to racism in urban mortgage markets. Liang may be a scapegoat for police accountability, but he surely is not a victim. Advocating for Liang’s acquittal loses sight of larger issues of systemic injustice in American police forces. The same excuses are used time and again to excuse white police officers from the murders of black youth. Gurley is just a name among many — like Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Sean Bell — that represent the thousands of black Americans who never see justice at the hands of the police.
It’s too late for Asian Americans to be excused from violence and discrimination in America. A viral video by Fusion media network shows footage of a Chinese American woman at the Brooklyn rally petitioning for Asian Americans to be left out of the “cycle of systemic injustice.” This argument is centuries too late; the history of Asian Americans in the United States is inseparable from discussions about violence against all people of color. Popular conceptions of Asian Americans as successful and hard-working have inversely portrayed black people as problem populations. The internalized prejudices in Asian American households have manifested themselves in instances from affirmative action opponents decrying black students to the silence in response to a counter-protest demanding respect for Gurley’s family. In a protest that has seen historic levels of turnout for Asian Americans, people must turn toward responses to the actual systemic causes and not just ask to be excluded from the historical context of Gurley’s death.
For me, a 1.5 generation Asian American, this is as important for my identity as it is difficult. There are few real answers on how to respond to Liang’s conviction, but responses must start with a baseline of respect and empathy for those hit the hardest. The past weekend was a sign not of social progress, but rather a need to recenter discussions of social justice by questioning how Asian Americans are implicated.