On April 19, 2016, New York police officer Peter Liang was sentenced to five years probation and 800 hours of community service—without any jail time—for shooting and killing Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man.
Earlier in February of this year, when Liang was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and faced 15 years of jail time, thousands of Asian Americans gathered to protest on the streets of cities including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington. According to The New York Times, several thousand people showed up to protest in New York on Feb. 20.
For the first time in recent American history, Asian-Americans broke the silence, but not in the way I had hoped. According to Claire Jean Kim from The New York Times, many protesters argued that Liang’s conviction was proof of “selective prosecution” and “racial scape-goating;” if Liang were not Chinese or a person of color, he wouldn’t have been convicted. But how can we advocate for Asian-American justice while stepping on the dead body of an African-American?
Last November, exactly five days before a grand jury decided not to sentence Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, 27-year-old rookie police officer Peter Liang fired a shot that ricocheted off a wall and struck Gurley, who stood a floor below, in his East New York residence.
“The Sentiment in the Asian community is: It’s easy to hang an Asian, because Asians, they don’t speak up,” John C. Liu told The New York Times. This might be true, because America has many precedents of white cops who killed African-Americans without any punishment, such as the death of Eric Garner.
On July 17, 2014, when New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo attempted to arrest Eric Garner for illegally selling cigarettes, Garner was put in a choke hold, which partly contributed to his death. In fact, the New York Police Department prohibited officers to use the choke hold more than 20 years ago. However, the grand jury decided not to bring any criminal charges to Officer Pantaleo.
The New York Times compiled a feature, “Fatal Police Encounters in New York City,” which includes notable deaths since 1990 involving New York Police Department officers. “Most did not lead to criminal charges; even fewer resulted in convictions,” concluded the report. Liang was the first New York City officer to be convicted in a shooting in the line of duty in more than a decade.
But when Asians and Asian-Americans confront the question of why Liang in particular received a sentence, we are requesting white privilege. Here, I do not mean all Asian-Americans are indifferent towards Gurley’s death, but please be mindful of what message we are sending out to the society when we protest for Liang. We are further alienating ourselves from other minority groups.
Asians have long been labeled as the “model minority” and have been almost absent in recent social-justice movements. It is good news that Asian-American voices are finally heard in society. But, as an Asian, I am embarrassed that the first nation-wide protest in years was to defend a police officer who killed an innocent black man.
American society can never achieve true racial equality through our requests for white privilege, but only through our dedication to removing white privilege. Once certain groups of people have privileges, the rest will be automatically oppressed. Currently, “the rest” in the US refers to all minority groups.
Liang is both a police officer, whose career has been consistently reported as violent in the media, and a Chinese-American, whose identity has been oppressed as a minority. During a time of a nation-wide “Black Lives Matter” movement, Liang might be a scapegoat to appease the ongoing public anger towards police violence. Nevertheless, he is guilty of shooting and killing Gurley. Liang was the officer who worried about how to report to his supervisor rather than provide immediate medical aid or call the ambulance when Gurley lay on the ground in a pool of his own blood.
The jury should operate independent of racial biases. I believe that true justice would imply that any police officer, regardless of race, should have jail time if he or she killed anyone under similar circumstances as Liang.
In addition, the jury should also be independent of public opinion. The change of Liang’s sentence from too heavy to too light makes me question whether this objectivity exists. Did the nation-wide Asian-American protest lead to the light sentence that does not even address the issue of police misconduct?
Americans are calling for greater accountability for police officers, but police officers will never be held accountable if probation and community service are the only punishment for killing innocent people. Furthermore, they will never be held accountable if minority officers are the only ones who may face consequences for such actions.
I don’t know how to fix messy racial and police-community relations in the US, but giving a light sentence to Liang’s case is definitely not a solution. If Asian-American protests end at Liang’s case, American society will never have true racial equality for Asian-Americans or African-Americans, for both are victims of white supremacy.
True justice can only be achieved when all minority groups are united in solidarity in opposition to systematical racism. It does not come through the perpetuation of the current racial hierarchy.