Earlier this month, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office announced it would indict NYPD Officer Peter Liang for the killing of Akai Gurley, with the most serious charge leveled against him being second degree manslaughter.
This indictment comes after the non-indictments of Officers Dan Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner and Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, and has touched off a firestorm of outrage, with many in the Chinese American community saying that Officer Liang is being unfairly scapegoated for being Asian. Let’s put this indictment in some perspective: During the past 15 years, NYPD officers have killed at least 179 people, and only three officers before Liang was indicted.
For those who aren’t familiar with the events leading up to the indictment, here’s a brief synopsis: On the evening of November 20, 2014, Officer Liang and his partner were doing their regular rounds at the Pink Houses, a public housing development in East New York. They were performing what’s known as a vertical patrol (a practice that has come under criticism for its harassment of residents of public housing and their guests). As they entered the darkened stairwell on the 8th floor, unlit due to malfunctioning lights, Liang took out his gun, finger on the trigger. Startled by the sound of Akai Gurley and his girlfriend entering the landing below, Liang fired one shot, which ricocheted off the wall and into Gurley, killing him. It hardly bears mentioning that Gurley was unarmed. He was simply there to visit his girlfriend.
And yet this is how upset people are that Officer Liang was indicted: In the span of only a week, almost 120,000 people—who I suspect are mostly Chinese American—have signed a petition directed at the White House, demanding that the Brooklyn District Attorney withdraw the indictment.
In the language of the petition, Liang was indicted only for “political gain” and the killing of Akai Gurley was merely an unintentional, unfortunate accident.
“Nonetheless,” the petition reads, “the circumstances surrounding Mr. Gurley’s death lead to a manslaughter indictment this week, whereas police officers in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner case were never charged. Criminal charges appeared more likely in the later two cases, but these two non-Asian Police Officers were never charged.”
The argument basically boils down to this: If these white officers got off, so should Peter Liang.
I understand the sentiment. I look at Peter Liang, and I see someone who looks like my brothers. I can imagine what it must be like for his parents—a garment worker and restaurant worker—to face the terrifying prospect of their only son going to prison. And I get why, when the vast majority of mostly white officers aren’t indicted when they shoot to kill, one might be upset that an Asian cop is the one who is.
But at its heart, this argument is deeply flawed. Rather than calling for accountability for all police officers who kill, regardless of their race, this sentiment is rooted in the belief that no officers should be held accountable for their actions.
I’m going to call it what it is—hypocrisy (not to mention a reminder of the limitations of identity politics and activism that’s based solely on a shared racial or ethnic background).
The story of another Chinese American, Peter from New York, helps us better understand why. Peter Yew was a 27-year-old engineer who, in 1975, was brutally beaten by police officers in Manhattan’s Chinatown, when he attempted to intervene after he saw them beating a 15-year-old kid whom they’d stopped for a traffic violation.
This prompted one of the largest anti-police violence demonstrations in New York City’s history, when as many as 20,000 New Yorkers, a majority of whom were Asian, took to the streets in protest. According to accounts from the time, virtually every store and factory in Chinatown closed on May 19 that year, the day of the largest demonstration, with signs saying “Closed to Protest Police Brutality” lining doors and windows in streets throughout the neighborhood.
Here’s another, more recent example: the outcry when Kang Wong, an elderly Chinese immigrant man, was roughed up by NYPD officers and arrested for jaywalking early last year. People started online petitions, called for protests, and rightly denounced the officers involved.
As a community, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t call for justice when an Asian person is harassed, targeted or killed by the police and then act to protect an Asian police officer when they’re the ones who’ve killed.
This myopic vision only serves to hurt us at the end of the day. If we care when our own community members are targeted by the police and are moved to call for an end to police violence, then we need to widen the breadth of our outrage, compassion and empathy to include all those who are targeted, harassed and murdered by the police. And in this country, this means we need to speak out when black men, women and trans people are killed with impunity by police officers in cities around the country.
To not do so—to distance ourselves from this fact—means that we will inevitably fail to address the root causes of this violence, the criminalization of black communities in our country.
This is what I hope will happen: that more of us ground ourselves in the reality that a young man was killed by an officer in a police force that routinely targets and harasses black and Latino New Yorkers, an officer who kept his finger on the trigger, who admitted to being scared as he was on patrol, and whose reckless act ended the life of another human being. I hope we remember that a young girl named Akaila no longer has a father, that a mother no longer has a son, and that this is a painful truth that is all too common in our country for Black families. And I hope we can develop the capacity to feel that pain as acutely as if Akai were our own brother.
Esther Wang is a writer and community organizer based in New York City. She’s also on the board of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. Follow her on twitter @estherxlwang.