Civilian protesting has a long history in this country. From early European ethnic minorities in the meat factories and steel mills, to Japanese blue-collar workers fighting back against internment, to current actions to preserve and fund Black futures, public demonstrations against oppressive institutions have been a sign of solidarity with minoritized groups around the world for generations. But, then, there are other times where protests are held to marginalize already oppressed groups or to diminish the quality of life for those whose civil rights are often ignored and undermined. These past few weeks, we have seen just that happen with protests by mostly Asian Americans who demand “justice for Peter Liang,” the ex-officer who was convicted of manslaughter for killing a young Black man named Akai Gurley in November 2014.
Twenty-eight-year-old Chinese American Officer Liang was a rookie cop — having only been on the force for 18 months — when he was assigned to patrol the projects in Brooklyn, New York called the Pink Houses. He was conducting the patrol with his gun raised. At some point, Liang became startled. He accidentally discharged his weapon, shooting into the dark stairwell. Initially, Liang and his partner believed no one was shot. But, the bullet had ricocheted and hit Gurley, 28, who was on another floor. Witnesses have said that Liang didn’t do enough to save Gurley. He delayed calling in the incident and didn’t administer CPR to Gurley. Instead, Gurley’s girlfriend attempted to administer the procedure herself.
Many who have heard this story understand that Liang’s ineptitude was a direct cause of Gurley’s death. It fits the legal definition of second-degree manslaughter. But, as thousands of people around the country have proven with their public outcries, this conviction isn’t the “justice” they want.
In cities like New York, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and many others, concerned Asian American citizens and their supporters have been pushing back against Liang’s Feb. 11 conviction calling it “selective justice.” Many have claimed that the ex-officer has been made out to be a “scapegoat” for a broken criminal justice system which frequently results in young Black people being gunned down by predominantly White officers with no punishment. In essence, they are rallying for a type of justice which would have allowed Liang to go free after recklessly killing Gurley. This, to many of them, is what justice looks like.
What is particularly concerning about this demonstration of public protest is that some have called these actions a way for the Chinese American community, a social group which is usually quiet on many political issues, to unite around a central cause. Specifically, they are calling this event something that “glues people together.” While the fact that this conviction is bringing together is admirable, this sentiment overlooks how these people’s intentions are rooted in anti-Black racism.
That so many (more than 50,000 people around the country) have become a united front on the side of a Black man’s convicted murderer underscores how much anti-Black racism can be a mobilizing force for even other racial minorities.
What these protesters are asking for is that Liang be allowed to kill Gurley without recourse because, if he were White, he would likely have been able to do so. Rather than raging against the institutional racism that created the very system in which both Liang and Gurley found themselves entangled, Asian American demonstrators and their allies have fixated on the system of injustice and normalized its outcomes rather than demanded justice for Gurley and the many others who have been murdered by officers who were never held responsible. Therefore, their priority isn’t the preservation of Black lives. It is, rather, the preservation of White Supremacy.
The justice which these protesters are seeking lies at the intersection of power and whiteness. While they seem to believe that Gurley’s murder, whether accidental or not, was unfair, they have struggled to see that Liang’s actions during and after Gurley’s shooting made him complicit in the same system with which they are concerned. His lack of urgency to save Gurley and intentional ignoring of protocol in calling in the incident were mechanisms of a system which devalues Black life. He is not a victim here. He is a tool of a system of White Supremacy that allows police authorities to oppress Black and Brown people while occupying “high crime” neighborhoods like the very one Liang found himself in that day.
In the end, the actions of these protesters are not just anti-Black, they are evidence that the public’s conception of “justice” has been influenced by the many cases we have seen over recent years where juries fail time and time again to convict officers who kill Black people. While I don’t believe that these protesters care equally about Gurley’s stolen life as they do for Liang’s freedom, I do believe that their willingness to demonstrate for Liang on such a massive scale is intimately tied to a long standing commitment to anti-Black racism in the United States which permeates literally every facet of the criminal justice system.
Organizing is meant to advocate for the least among us. It is supposed to be a formal process of disruption which draws attention to the injustices faced by the few and powerless at the hands of many and powerful. This protest doesn’t do any of that. But, it does confirm that those of us in the Movement for Black Lives have so much more work to do even with those who see themselves as potential allies.
(Photo credit: Justice4Liang Twitter)