On November 20, 2014 Peter Liang mishandled his weapon while patrolling in Brooklyn. He approached an unlit stairwell with his gun drawn – a violation of procedure – and it went off. The bullet ricocheted off of a wall and struck Akai Gurley who was walking down the stairs with his girlfriend. Instead of providing emergency first-aid at the scene Liang and his partner argued over who would call it in and Gurley died on the concrete.
Liang was reckless. He was irresponsible. And, unlike countless incidents of police-inflicted fatalities across the country, he was punished. Liang became the first NYPD officer in a decade to face charges for killing an unarmed black civilian. This is a list that is, nationwide, horrifyingly long.
He was charged and convicted of manslaughter in this case. The fact that he has been the only officer to face punishment has not escaped the Asian-American community. The sudden disappearance of the Blue Wall of Silence, and the sudden willingness of the district attorney to indict an officer once that officer happens to be non-white has seemed, to some, an injustice. A sign that white officers are given a degree of systemic protection from consequences while Asian officers become scapegoats or sacrificial lambs.
It has led to protest in the streets of New York City.
Myopically looking at the police punishment alone, these protests make some sense. If Daniel Pantaleo can choke Eric Garner to death on video and not even be indicted how can it make sense that Liang was not only charged, but convicted? What difference could there be, other than race? Asian-Americans are often separated from other communities of color through terms like “model minority” and the lack of protection under Affirmative Action. But this separation serves to gloss over the ways systemic racism holds us back as well and this case is a jarring reminder.
In context, Liang’s punishment is a small slight in the face of a terrifyingly oppressive system of injustice. How can we, as a community that actually is no stranger to unjustified police violence, protest the proper punishment of an officer in yet another example of the over-policing of a community of color?
As activist, writer, and founder of Reappropriate Jenn Fang wrote:
“I worry that too many of those who support Liang are effectively engaged in a self-serving racial tribalism that pays lip service to racial equality while implicitly demanding access to white privilege. We must resist coveting the role of the oppressor.”
The crime here is not that Liang was not afforded the protection of a system that is racially biased. The crime is that this system exists at all.
Is Liang facing punishment because he isn’t white? Probably. Is the selective protection of officers by prosecution suspicious? Yes. But activism from Asian-Americans shouldn’t be calling for Liang’s acquittal. Rather we should be calling for greater accountability across the board. It’s not enough to fight single instances of injustice if that protest reinforces an unjust institution. Any system that allows the killing of John Crawford, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice is not one we should want to be a part of, even if that system would have protected one of us. The struggles of minorities across the country are not separate from our own.
The lack of a defense may have come from bias, but Peter Liang is guilty of manslaughter and needs to be held accountable. The best response from Asian-Americans would be to bring this same level of passion and protest to bear the next time law enforcement fails another community of color, which is a sad and outrageous inevitability. Police oversight should be our cause rather than trying to claim protection from a broken system.
“Justice for Peter Liang” does not mean he goes free. It means all of the officers in the Freddie Gray case are sent to jail, along with Darren Wilson, and Tim Loehmann, and all the others. It means generations of law-abiding citizens don’t have to live in fear of the police. It means that law enforcement across the country includes proper training to restrict the use of force and treat citizens with respect. It means joining with other minority groups to build a structure that works for all of us equally, that protects all of us equally, and that punishes all of us equally.Image Credits: NPR, Brooklyn Paper, MadameNoire , Reappropriate.co