In November 2014, 28-year-old Akai Gurley—a devoted son, doting father, and kind-hearted fiancé—was killed by a bullet fired from the gun of rookie New York Police Department officer Peter Liang. Two weeks ago, Liang was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct for his part in Gurley’s death, and subsequently fired by the NYPD.
Liang’s trial has sharply divided Asian Americans. Following the verdict, fierce debates raged on English and Chinese-language social media between first-generation Chinese Americans and younger, often non-Chinese Asian Americans.
Let’s make one thing clear: Liang’s conviction is one aspect of a crucial corrective to America’s culture of militarized over-policing. The prosecution’s argument is persuasive. Liang acted recklessly and against his own police academy training when he drew his weapon and fired an unprovoked and indiscriminate (if unintentional) shot into the darkened stairwell of a residential apartment building. Liang also failed to provide life-saving measures upon discovering the innocent victim of his gunfire.
In particular, Asian Americans like myself find common cause with Black Lives Matter activists who have spoken out again and again over the past few years. Overaggressive policing leads to the death of a Black person every 28 hours. As Asian Americans, we remember the beatings of Kang Wong, Jessica Klyzek, and Sureshbhai Patel, and the shooting deaths of Fong Lee, Cau Bich Tran, Yong Xin Huang, and Michael Cho—all victims of excessive force by police. This must change. I stand shoulder to shoulder with activists advocating for a criminal justice system that prioritizes the lives of victims of color over the law enforcement badges of their killers.
But Liang’s case has highlighted frustrations within the Asian American community. United under hashtags like #FreePeterLiang and #Justice4Liang, some Chinese Americans have argued that Liang is a victim of “selective justice.” They have labeled him a “scapegoat,” a political concession to Black Lives Matter protesters by prosecutors and police unions. Last Saturday (Feb. 20), thousands participated in rallies held in Liang’s defense across the US.
On social media, protesters compared Liang’s conviction to the treatment of white police officers such as Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, and Timothy Loehmann. They argue that if Wilson, Pantaleo and Loehmann escaped justice for the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice respectively, so too should Liang. In two separate White House petitions and a mass letter-writing campaign, protesters have urged the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and presiding judge, Danny Chun, to drop the charges against Liang. They also have called on the NYPD to reinstate him as a police officer.
This argument is perhaps understandable—but also logically confusing. The racial cronyism that has long protected white police officers who take innocent lives is not more just if Asian Americans also receive license to kill with impunity. Liang should go to jail—and so should Wilson, Pantaleo and Loehmann. Nobody wins in this situation, but we cannot compound tragedy with injustice.
Liang is the sole police officer in recent memory to be convicted for killing an unarmed, innocent black person. Asian Americans, regardless of our politics on Liang’s conviction, share outrage over this fact. Given this perspective, we can either fight for special treatment for Asian Americans along the margins of a racially unjust system, or we can work with other communities of color to dismantle this systemic injustice outright. In the dichotomous black-and-white racial landscape of modern America, we are being called upon to take a stand. But which side will we land on?
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. And Liang’s fate proves that the benefits of “model minority” status are in fact transient—and easily revoked.
It is time for Asian Americans to choose differently. We must fight for a system that protects innocent lives beyond our own. The thousands of Asian Americans who showed up to rally for Liang cannot claim to support equality if they do not also take to the streets in the coming months to demand accountability from police officers charged in the deaths of Freddie Gray, Anthony Hill, and Walter Scott.
It is not enough to show up for racial justice only when an Asian American is involved. A system that undervalues the lives of black Americans and other people of color can never truly value the lives of Asian Americans.