Two years ago, in November 2014, a bullet from the gun of New York Police Department officer Peter Liang killed Akai Gurley.
Gurley was walking down a staircase with his girlfriend. He was 28, unarmed and Black.
Two weeks ago, the officer, Liang was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter and faces up to 15 years in prison. He will be sentenced April 14.
The verdict has been divisive for the Asian American community, illustrating tensions within and across race and ethnicity.
There are those of us who want justice for Peter Liang. In my own Bay Area city of San Francisco hundreds of people protested last Saturday against his conviction along with thousands across the country.
Fueled in part by the hashtags #Justice4Liang and #FreePeterLiang, these folks are claiming Liang’s conviction is evidence of the racism Asian Americans have suffered for generations.
In my community of activists, organizers, students and teachers, we are struggling with the arguments that claim Liang was a victim of a racist American judicial system pitted against Asians and thus we should side with him, not the slain Akai Gurley.
Some of the claims resonate with me. I agree with folks that Liang probably got convicted because he’s Asian American. I also agree that his conviction can be seen as questionable since the bullet from his gun wasn’t intended to kill Akai Gurley.
The thing is, the vast majority of these claims don’t fly because at the end of the day, a Black man is a dead and a police officer is responsible.
So while there are many things I don’t know, there is one thing of which I am certain: we as Asian Americans must stand with Akai Gurley, his family, and the community that mourns him.
Freeing Peter Liang is not the solution. It is, actually, quite the opposite.
In calling for the charges against Liang to be dropped, we are asking for our inclusion in an already unjust system. We’re asking for the unfair judicial system to work in our favor for once.
That is not justice.
That is advocating for a deepening of the rules of white supremacy.
If we’re asking for Liang to walk away unpunished, then we are asking for him to follow the path of murderers who killed and were set free.
I am aware that many of my elders and community members disagree. I ask for your patience in the following explanations why.
1. Two (Racist) Wrongs Don’t Make A Right
Notably, Liang is the only police officer in recent history who has been convicted for killing a Black man. And let us make no mistake, his identity as Chinese American is a testament to how racism operates in this country.
I believe Liang probably wouldn’t have been convicted had he not been of Chinese descent because Jonahennes Meserle wasn’t convicted for killing Oscar Grant.
Because Daniel Patanelo wasn’t convicted for being one of the police officers who killed Eric Garner. And because Darren Wilson wasn’t convicted for killing Michael Brown.
Grand juries themselves have historically been problematic at best, outright racist at worst.
They are secretive, selective and their proceedings are unclear if not downright secret. They are slanted toward white defendants, and in this case white police officers.
And while the Liang verdict was not the result of grand jury verdict, the officer in question is conspicuously of Chinese American descent.
For those of us who are Asian American, it’s easy to see how the same country which refuses to prosecute white men for the deaths of Black people would choose to convict a Chinese man as a sign of justice — we, like other people of color and folks with recognized immigrant heritages, have a legacy of being scapegoated for the pain and distress that happens in country.
However, that does not mean Liang should walk away from the shooting of an unarmed Black man with impunity.
Asking for the same racism that protected Meserle, Patanelo and Wilson to now work in Liang’s favor is not only misguided, it’s unjust. We cannot be a community that asks to play by the same unfair rules as white police officers.
The fact of the matter is this, police office Peter Liang killed Akai Gurly. And for that, he and the racist policing system of which he is a part, must be held accountable.
Our community of Asian Americans must be committed to creating social justice for ourselves and for those who are oppressed like us. Therefore we must put the system, indeed the institution of policing itself, on trial.
It is not just the actions of Peter Liang as a lone actor which must be addressed, but the greater machine of policing more generally.
2. We Benefit From Anti-Blackness
No one, and certainly not me, is saying Asian Americans didn’t work hard for what we have. Many of us have come from very little to achieve a tremendous amount in American society, but there is a cold hard fact we must confront:
Asian Americans benefit from anti-Black racism.
Socially, Black communities serve as an example of what we cannot, or do not want, to be. We use Black community to illustrate that we have climbed the ladder of success — because it’s clear they haven’t.
However, it’s not that they haven’t and do not try to at every interval. It’s that this system won’t allow them to. And our success has not only been dependent on that, it’s been exploitative of that at times.
In more concrete ways, the organizing models we use: the sit-ins, direct actions and forms of protest we’re now ironically utilizing to defend Liang, were cultivated in this country by Black Americans during the 1960’s.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 that enables our participation in electoral politics was made possible by Black folks.
In our shared communities, many Asian Americans benefit from Black customers, consumers and clients. Almost 90% of the nail salon workers in the state of California are Vietnamese. Countless numbers of their customers are Black.
We have socially, politically and economically made our communities more sustainable at the expense of anti-Black racism.
So when I say it’s time to be in solidarity with Black folks, I’m not kidding.
While we have historically and continue to endure racism as Asians and Asian Americans, that doesn’t absolve us from being complicit with the oppression of Black communities. We need to show up.
We need to be a part of fighting the pillar of anti-Black racism that holds this country hostage.
3. Peter Liang Should Not Be Our Symbol To Rally Asian Americans Around Racial Justice
What does it mean to make Peter Liang our symbol of Asian American struggles for civil rights?
On August 9th, 2014 Darren Wilson shot and killed 19 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. While he was not indicted by a grand jury, he accrued legal fees. Numerous fundraisers were held on his behalf by supporters and the Daily Mail reports Wilson potentially resigned from the police force with nearly $1 million dollars in his pocket.
If we make Peter Liang our mascot, we are saying we want to get similar treatment from the racist institutions that work in favor of white police officers like Wilson.
We are saying that we also want to kill without consequence and we want to be excused from being brought to justice because we are also victims of racism.
We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than this.
We must seek to address not the unfairness of one case, but the imbalance of an entire system pitted against us.
Vincent Chin’s niece has advocated on behalf of the Gurley family, saying that her uncle was a victim and a symbol of anti-Asian racism in America. Importantly she has also said Liang is decidedly not a victim.
He didn’t call for an ambulance to help Akai Gurley, he didn’t do the CPR that the police academy failed to train him in. He called his supervisor.
I want a better symbol of my humanity and ability to fight for social justice. I know stereotypes of Asian Americans as passive, weak and timid prevent us from taking our deserved place as activists, but I need better than Liang.
I want to rally behind Nguyen Quoc Quan, a recently freed Vietnamese political prisoner. I want to stand behind Zin Mar Aung.
I want a symbol who stands for something other than police violence against Black folks.
4. We Must Move Forward As A United Community For Racial Justice
This country was built on the wealth accumulated from the enslavement of Black people and the land acquired from Native genocide. Asian Americans may be refugees, forced migrants and coolies, but to deny either of the above facts is to move toward an incomplete vision of American equality.
Freedom cannot be partial.
We are victims of racist immigration laws, sex trafficking and imperialism. We see small and large examples of racism perpetrated against us everyday.
But we are also culpable of anti-Black racism because we benefit from it socially and institutionally everyday.
Let this not become another moment in which we advocate for it to our own detriment.
Now is the time to resolve our internal conflict. People are dying. Wars are waging.
I write this as a petition circulates from the members of Caaav: Organizing Asian Communities who are currently receiving hostility for their support of the Gurley family, for being on the side of racial justice.
I write this as generations within the same families argue intensely over what we should do with Peter Liang and where we should go as Asian Americans.
I implore those of you in my beloved community who support Peter Liang to rethink where and how we want to be in the movement for liberation from racism.
And I leave you with Jenn Fang’s wise words: “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.”
We have never been a community that shrinks back from the long hard struggle for freedom. I ask that we not begin now.
Kim Tran is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s also a collective member of Third Woman Press: Queer and Feminist of Color publishing. Her academic and activist commitments are to laborers, refugee and queer communities. She facilitates workshops on uprooting anti-black racism in Asian American communities. She is finishing her Ph.D in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley where writes on race, gender and economics. Her work has been featured on Black Girl Dangerous, Nation of Change and the Feminist Wire. She can be found in any of these capacities at www.kimthientran.com.
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