NEW YORK–The mood of the crowd protesting at the manslaughter conviction of Chinese American policeman Peter Liang changed when his mother took to the stage this weekend.
An estimated 10,000 people — in one of the greatest shows of Asian American force New York has ever seen — had been chanting angry slogans. Among them: “No scapegoat!” “No justice, no peace!” and “We got the power!”
By the time Fenny Liang spoke, Saturday, police were blocking further protesters from joining the rally as Cadman Plaza Park filled to overflowing. The symbolically chosen location was in the shadows of the Brooklyn courthouse where Liang was convicted on Feb. 11 in a case involving a ricocheting bullet shot into a dark stairwell.
Shooter cop, victim same age
Ms. Liang did not shout into the microphone as others had done. Diminutive, she stepped forward, pale and wearing dark sunglasses. In a low voice, she read a short statement offering her condolences to the family of the man her son shot in a Brooklyn public housing project, Akai Gurley, an African American father of two. At the time of the November 2014 shooting, he was the same age as Liang is today, 28.
Then the mother of the former officer, now facing up to 15 years in prison for what attendees say was an accident, thanked her son’s supporters and dissolved into sobs.
An elderly woman who stood, supported by a cane throughout more than two hours of some 20 speeches, wiped away tears of her own.
Like most at the gathering, it seemed, Shirley Wong was born in China.
“I want him [Liang] to get out from the jail,” said Wong, who now lives in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. “He is innocent.”
Wong echoed one of the most widely held signs protesters carried: “one accident, two victims.”
Crowd swelled to 10,000
The Coalition of Asian-Americans for Civil Rights (CAACR) organized Saturday’s response to the perceived transgression of justice. Its General Director John Chan said early in the rally that police had confirmed 5,000 people were there, but by the end of the event, both organizers and off-duty policemen were estimating the numbers at 10,000 or more.
A spokesperson for the New York Police Department (NYPD) said it won’t release crowd numbers until next week.
The protest in New York was one of more than 30 that took place around the country.
Some of the demonstrations evoked the black-lives-matter protests that have swept the US recently in response to a spate of fatal police shootings of unarmed black men. “All lives matter,” they read.
The relative rarity of police being charged in such cases, let alone convicted, has been highlighted by the mainstream media in the US, including The New York Times.
John Liu, former NYC Comptroller and the son of Taiwanese immigrants, provided contrasting examples, such a death resulting from a policeman using “an illegal chokehold caught on video and no charges were brought.”
“For over 150 years [when Chinese immigrants first entered the US] there is a common phrase here,” he said, “not a Chinaman’s chance. It means that if you are Chinese there is no hope for you.”
Scores of speakers from local political offices and the Chinese community reiterated the same themes: that there is a history of racism towards Asian Americans; that Liang was scapegoated in the current climate of “anti-police sentiment”; and that Asian Americans will continue to suffer abuses unless they make their presence felt, including by voting.
Asian Americans are said to be the least likely to vote among the US’ major ethnic groups. One speaker even brought a box of voter registration forms to the podium.
Liang sentencing in April
Attendees were also encouraged to sign a petition — which one volunteer, Reggie Huang, estimated 10,000 people had signed at the rally. The New York Supreme Court is being petitioned to consider an appeal of the jury trial.
Sentencing is set for mid-April. Nancy Tong, Brooklyn Democratic Party Leader, told the crowd, “We demand the appeal be granted so that new evidence can be presented.”
Liang’s defense attorney Robert Brown (who was booed when he took to the stage) said “literally thousands of letters” have already been sent to the judge.
The defense argued that Liang was a frightened rookie whose gun accidentally discharged when he was in a dangerous situation with another officer, new to the police force. Both have been dismissed since the court hearing.
Speakers on Saturday noted that the night before the rally two policemen were shot on a similar tour of duty in an NYC housing project.
Several stressed that the government is to blame for ill-experienced policemen working literally in the dark in badly maintained city buildings.
Those who called for a conviction said Liang showed more concern for his career than his victim, debating whether to call his supervisor rather than calling for an ambulance or attempting to administer CPR.
Police unions absent from rally
Although two former policemen, including one who said that Liang had been “thrown to the wolves,” addressed the gathering, representatives from the police unions were conspicuously absent.
Liang’s verdict was condemned at the time by the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, while Ed Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said the police commissioner needs to re-evaluate patrolling policy.
Many attendees at the rally carried US flags and wore blue ribbons to show allegiance to the NYPD. They included some from NYPD’s Asian Jade Society, representing almost 3,000 Asian officers on the force.
Gilbert Lee whose third-generation Chinese American son Kevin was killed in the line of duty in 2006, said, “It’s hard to say when it’s an accident and when it’s a shooting.” He believes Liang’s finger slipped to the trigger by accident because he was frightened. “When a door closes in a hallway it can sound almost like a gun.”
In a sea of Asian American protesters, there were reportedly a couple of counter protestors, including Soraya Sui Free, 44, a nurse from the Bronx, whose sign read “Jail Killer Cops.”
However, Priscilla Gore, an African-American social worker from Brooklyn Heights expressed support for Liang. “This was wrong, too,” she said. “I knew he was going down because the police department wasn’t even supporting him.”
Chancing upon the protest, Gore told organizers, “If I had known about this, I would have brought people.”
Orla O’Sullivan is a New York-based journalist whose work has been widely published in business journals and consumer titles on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Irish Independent and The New York Times.