Dear Asian Americans, On Peter Liang
When I first heard about Officer Peter Liang's conviction, I didn't know how to feel or how to think about it. On the one hand, I was glad Akai Gurley was getting the justice he deserved. On the other hand, I couldn't help but sympathize with Liang, who shares a racial identity with me. I doubt that he would have been convicted if he were white, especially since so many white officers before him have committed the same (if not worse) crimes and faced no repercussions. Liang's situation also reminded me of when I had almost stolen $3 in 7th grade and gotten suspended for three weeks to exemplify my school administration's "zero-tolerance for stealing." Basically, even though my situation differed extremely from Liang's, my immediate reaction was to feel sympathy for him.
After lots of mentally-unpacking Liang's case, I realized I needed to stop looking at Liang as an individual, but as a component of an unjust system. I also wonder now how much of my sympathy was actually complicity. As Lanny writes,
"The killing of Akai Gurley is not complicated. There are a lot of components to it, but it is not complicated or gray. He was an unarmed black man who was fatally shot for absolutely no reason. That’s it. That’s the extent of it.
Now, there are a lot of different factors in this incident that contribute to his death. There’s the city of New York Housing Authority that belongs to a system that actively secludes low income people of color into housing projects which they then do not maintain. For example, the stairway in which this man was killed was poorly lit, which the tenants had been complaining about for a long, long time. There’s the NYPD, who has a lot of reform to do when it comes to how they train their police officers. The fact that don’t-have-your-hand-on-your-weapon-unless-in-immediate-danger is not enforced enough that a police officer, even a novice one, would NEVER have their weapon drawn unless under that exact circumstance is pretty indicative of substandard ass training on the NYPD’s part. The fact that they would place two rookie cops together is also noteworthy.
But ultimately, the person who pulled the trigger was Officer Peter Liang. He was the person who spent time arguing over who was going to call the sergeant and report the accidental discharge of his weapon; the person who walked past the bloodied victim and didn’t offer to help him, not once. The person who waited over 5 minutes to call 911 and report that someone had been injured. The person who, at the end of the day, was on the other side of the bullet that killed Akai Gurley. Accidental or not, a man is dead, and the civil servant who is responsible should face the same accountability, if not MORE, that anyone else would.
Luckily, he is being held accountable for his role in the death of Akai Gurley. Peter Liang was found guilty of 2 of the 5 charges that he faced: second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct."
Following Liang's conviction, over 10,000 people (predominantly Chinese Americans) gathered in Brooklyn to protest in defense of Officer Liang. There were signs stating that Peter Liang was a scapegoat and others that read "One tragedy, two victims." Unpacking this protest, I think, is where the conversation gets tricky, especially because I feel like there isn't enough vocabulary to describe how Asian Americans fit into the racial hierarchy of America.
Liang definitely would not have been convicted should he have been a white officer -- his sentence is evidence against the idea that Asian Americans "are treated like white people" -- but I also think that many of the protestors on Saturday were not protesting for the right reason. We should not be arguing for a more lenient sentence for Officer Liang; that is, we should not be arguing for his access to white privilege. We should argue that all police officers who kill under similar circumstances should be sent to prison alongside Officer Liang. The fact that he ended a life with his reckless actions cannot be overlooked.
I also believe that painting a narrative of "one tragedy, two victims" in the cases of Liang and Gurley is fundamentally flawed, obscuring the fact that Gurley is a victim because of Liang's actions and equating their two fates. Perhaps Liang's police institution did not train him properly, but he still is complicit within and chose to partake in that system (even if he was unaware of how it targets Black people.) Moreover, Liang may have been "victimized" in that he was not treated like white officers, but to compare that to the unjustifiable death of Akai Gurley is downright disrespectful.
I have heard the argument that the people defending Liang were protesting not his conviction, but the "unfair process" in which he was convicted. The problem with protesting this process is that it implies the process did something wrong, it implies that Liang was condemned to something he was not accountable for. And at the end of the day, Liang's gun didn't just fire itself: he pulled the trigger, he didn't provide immediate medical attention; he killed Akai Gurley. People who argue that Liang should not have been sentenced are essentially arguing that he should have gotten away with his crime; they are rallying around the "right" to gun down a Black man; they are fighting for Asian people to have white privilege rather than the abolition of white privilege itself.
In other words, Lanny writes, "Nobody should be demanding that Liang receive the same treatment as white cops who do the same thing, because that treatment is applause. That treatment is complacency in the killing of innocent people. That treatment is what perpetuates racist policing day in and day out... Even though Liang is not the only cop to have ever been responsible for the shooting death of an unarmed black person, he is the only NYPD cop in over ten years to be convicted. THIS is the problem. Not that he’s being convicted, but rather the fact that the other cops who have done similar or worse things have NOT been."
While some highlight the protest in defense of Liang as the unification of an Asian American community, it is important to recognize that this protest has also divided us from other people of color. And this is how white supremacy functions: pitting communities of color against each other, shifting blame away from the real problem that is white supremacy. That's why news coverage of this protest creates a narrative of "Black vs. Asian" and provides no exposure of the Asian protestors who actually demanded justice for Akai Gurley. I'm glad Asian America came together politically, but we should be doing so in solidarity with other people of color, because the fact is that our bodies will never really matter until all POC bodies do too.
written in collaboration with my friend and co-conspirator, Lanny Anais. check out her full piece on Peter Liang here.