Over the weekend, around 10,000 people in New York rallied in support of Peter Liang, the NYPD officer who fatally shot unarmed black man Akai Gurley two years ago. In November 2014, Liang was conducting a routine patrol of a Brooklyn public housing complex with another cop when Gurley entered the stairwell below, startling him. Liang's gun then went off in what appeared to be an accidental discharge, and struck Gurley, 28, in the chest.
Earlier this month, Liang, 28, was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter, a ruling that his supporters—most of whom are Asian-American—found too harsh. In light of the repeated exoneration of white cops who’ve killed unarmed black people in far less ambiguous cases, they argue that Liang was used as a scapegoat to quell growing discontent over police brutality.
Protesters supporting Liang have two main grievances: First, they believe he should get a lesser punishment, or shouldn’t be punished at all, for something accidental. But the simple fact is that Liang killed an unarmed man, and was charged accordingly with second-degree manslaughter—a conviction someone can also get for accidentally killing another person while hunting. A second-degree manslaughter charge doesn’t require intent to kill; it only requires reckless behavior. In Liang’s case, he had his finger on the trigger of his gun, despite being trained to avoid doing so unless ready to shoot.
Second, Liang's supporters believe his conviction is blatantly inconsistent with the way white cops have been treated in more clear-cut cases. They’re correct to point out that there’s another layer of injustice, here, beyond the ultimate injustice of Gurley’s death. But it isn’t that Liang is being charged—he should be. It’s that a system founded on white supremacy wants to avoid taking responsibility for its failings by hiding behind an Asian scapegoat.
a system founded on white supremacy wants to avoid taking responsibility for its failings by hiding behind an Asian scapegoat.
In a recent blog post, University of California law professor Frank Wu wrote, “How strange, how wrong, it is, that the face picked to represent police brutality towards blacks is yellow.”
I question what it means for the face of guilt during a culminating moment in America’s fight against police brutality to not be white. What does it mean that it’s yellow, belonging to Liang, the first NYPD officer convicted in an on-duty shooting in more than 10 years? What does it mean that it’s brown, belonging to Peter Peraza, a Hispanic sheriff's deputy who was the first officer in Broward County, Florida, to be indicted in a fatal on-duty shooting in 35 years for killing Jermaine McBean, a black man carrying a BB gun? What does it mean that it’s black, belonging to William G. Porter, Alicia D. White, and Caesar R. Goodson Jr., three of the six Baltimore police officers (the remaining cops are white) indicted on homicide and assault charges in the death of unarmed black man Freddie Gray?
It means the criminal justice system is willing to let people of color take the blame for institutional violence that was birthed from white supremacy. White supremacy made projects like the Pink Houses, where Gurley died. White supremacy tasked Liang with sweeping through the Pink Houses to search for suspicious activity. White supremacy put Gurley in the Pink Houses and dictated that he, as a young black man, was nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police.
Liang is guilty, but he’s also a scapegoat—one who takes attention away from the NYPD’s wrongdoing and the fact that an overwhelming majority of police who kill unarmed black people don’t look like him. Instead, they look like Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner in New York; and Joseph Weekley, who shot 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones during a raid on her home in Detroit. All of these white police officers—and many others like them—walked free.
Yes, we as Asian-Americans are hurt by white supremacy. A criminal justice system that refuses to punish white people is more than happy to use Asian and other non-white cops as shields when people start to question it. What’s more, the same criminal justice system doesn’t bother protecting us (remember when two white men beat Chinese-American Vincent Chin to death in a hate crime in Detroit, and walked away with a slap on the wrist?)
But if Asian-Americans want to fight white supremacy—as Liang's supporters claim they do—it isn’t enough to only think of the ways in which we’re victimized. We must also think of the ways in which we perpetuate white supremacy, and thereby victimize others. We should look beyond Liang and the fact that he was scapegoated. We can't condone a system that treats black lives as an afterthought—a system of which Liang was a part.
if Asian-Americans want to fight white supremacy ... it isn’t enough to only think of the ways in which we’re victimized.
As Asian-Americans, we perpetuate white supremacy when we accept our place as “model minorities” on a racial hierarchy that puts black people at the bottom. We do so when we assume “cops are good” and “black people are dangerous” without understanding that black people are born into violent projects because of a long history of racial segregation and slavery, as well as a mortgage market that continues to prey on them. We do so when we call Liang a victim in the same breath that we call Gurley a victim. We do so when we call Gurley’s death a “tragedy,” rather than seeing it as the product of racist policing. We do so when we show up en masse to support an Asian-American cop, but are glaringly absent from Black Lives Matter protests.
We do so when we steer the conversation away from the fact that, at the end of the day, black people like Akai Gurley need to stop dying.