Why I Think the Plea for “Justice for Peter Liang” is an Oxymoron
On Saturday, Feb. 20th, forty major US cities saw ten of thousands of Chinese-Americans rally together to stand in solidarity with Akai Gurley but mainly to express outrage at the recent court case of Peter Liang. If you hadn’t been keeping up with recent news, Peter Liang (a former NYPD police officer) misfired a gun and killed Akai Gurley and was charged guilty for 2nd degree Manslaughter. The protesters on Saturday demanded Justice for Peter and a fair trial. An article written by (Peter Liang sympathizer) Byron Shen frames the incident, where “[the system] may have played justice for politics and politics for justice.”
This demonstration caused me to stand at a very strange crossroads in my life. Being a Chinese American, it resonates with my identity and my standing in the American Justice System. But on the other hand, I’ve also been vigilant trying to listen and understand the weight of the issues and systemic injustices presented to the brown and black communities (being the very reason I feel so compelled to write this article today.)
Saturday night, after I got home from work, we gathered around the living room when my mother spoke quite casually about the demonstration pointing it out to me on her Facebook timeline. Apparently we both had friends in our network who publicly expressed support for Peter Liang. It wasn’t until I challenged this notion with my personal opinion (that the sentencing was likely just) when she retorted with something much deeper than this case at hand. This is where I think much of the tension herein lies. I will do my best to explain what I think she, along with the majority of the Peter Liang sympathizers share in sentiment.
There is a sense of duty that compels the Chinese American communities when ‘one of ours’ gets caught up in the racial tensions against police officers that have been mounting since Trayvon Martin’s murder and the non-indictment of Andrew Zimmerman. In the height of #BlackLivesMatter movement, there were voices emerging that were shining a sobering light on police brutality and the grave dangers of being victim to racial profiling. Asian Americans have known all along the injustices and racist undertones of a system that have historically worked against us, with citations from the Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 1800s, FDR’s decision to profile and displace Japanese Americans during ww2, Joseph McCarthy, Post-Cold War Era, to even the idiom “Chinaman’s chance” equating to the helpless nature of a given situation. These are all great examples when U.S. historic or cultural norms failed various Asian-American communities. However, Saturday, when my mother retaliated with her side, she did not mention Trayvon, nor Akai, nor Mike Brown, Laquan Mcdonald, nor Freddie Gray, nor Sandra Bland, nor the student abused at Spring Valley whose classmate’s video went viral. She instead pulled on this chord that ran throughout all of these above cited injustices. To my mother, it was rooted in self-preservation, and self-preservation in this case begged some hard questions we are left to wrestle with:
a) What about all the preceding white officers who got off the hook when those shooting was clearly purposeful and with full intentionality?
b) Did Peter Liang’s minority status have anything to do with why he was tried to the 2nd degree of an ‘accidental’ crime due to a ricocheted stray bullet?
c) Is Peter really just a victimized scapegoat to the politically and racially tense climate?
I now come to why this is such a crossroad of sorts. And it is at this crossroad where I have to fundamentally disagree.
I first would like to say to those who want justice for Peter Liang, to see that justice being served looks like no one being an exemplary or exception to the law. If those who truly support law enforcement reforms and extra precautions during (like body cams and dash cams so that we wouldn’t even be having this disagreement in the first place), they should acknowledge that perhaps justice looks exactly like a 2nd degree manslaughter charged.
Most of the Peter Liang sympathizer are putting meticulous time and energy rationalizing what he felt at the time of the mis-firing. They claim that he was nervous, anxious, overreactive, paranoid even, and that his inexperience in addition to adrenaline caused him to make a mistake. There is so much talk about the what ifs which leave little room to talk about the fact that Akai Gurley’s life matters. Those voices who speak for “justice” don’t spend that amount of time giving the same amount of attention to Akai’s family, and that he was a son, a father figure, a lover, a friend. To them, 15 years probably seems inadequate of a sentence. To a community who has first-hand lived the profiling and oppression, vying to have their voices heard, such a sentencing is a victory — a relief even. It leaves no room to sympathize with Akai when the majority of the emphasis is on Liang’s state of mind in the event of the shooting. Those who truly believe that it was a tragedy on both ends, I hope you see that in such a situation, only one man had a gun, full legal authority, and an oath to protect. The other man was unarmed.
Another problem I have here is probably most controversial in this whole article. It is the one that keeps me from wanting to post this publicly as I feel like this will receive a bit of backlash. It is that the Chinese American communities around me haven’t exactly been active voices of proclaiming justice. It’s just not something I often discussed growing up with my parents or my Chinese-American friends, family, authority figures, church members, coworkers, etc. I can’t help but to wonder where the 15,000+ Chinese American demonstrators were when past victims of police brutality warranted your presence against racial injustice. In my own city of Atlanta, where were the Chinese American communities rallying to celebrate when (white) Officer Olsen was indicted on all 6 accounts of the murder of (black) Anthony Hill? This leads me to believe that there is something problematic with the way we only play the victim when it affects us. There’s nothing like jumping on a bandwagon, or using the justice vernacular at the last minute when you realize one of your own needs the get-out-of-jail card.
Worst of all, the picket signs that quote MLK (in this particular case) appropriate his words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I would challenge and even argue that your plea for Peter to receive a lighter sentence on the account of “white officers have had it easy in the past” is not grounds enough for justice. It’s like a kid whose been caught red-handed saying, “But everyone else is doing it!” I have to say this might be a case where amnesty is uncalled for and if granted, consequentially threatens justice everywhere.
If you don’t read anything else I wrote, please know this. I believe there is a large redeemable aspect which I haven’t yet expressed. It is that this court case controversy becomes a multi-faced element in a much larger picture. The size of this particular demonstration on Saturday shows a large group consensus among Chinese Americans who still feel strongly and are willing to stand. This amount of civic engagement and community represented by this massive protest reveals their ability to firmly declare a unified message. I think the beauty lies in the controversy, the unpacking of discomfort on racial and social discourse, and that this specific case itself is raising awareness and finally challenging verdicts we have in our own hearts. This question opens up a can of worms for our minority communities to discuss, some to outsiders, often sound like communities shouting “WE ARE MORE OPPRESSED THAN YOU!” But as a minority, we acknowledge that our individual and unique struggles we present tell of a larger oppression. It says that, as we as colored people, still have a story to tell. We still have lives to defend and that we are still making a way in the wilderness for such voices and stories to matter. What we ask for isn’t justice if we only make exceptions for our own. Justice is a two edged sword that doesn’t only divide across but also within. It is an external collective battle, as well as an inner awakening to grasp the reality that race issues are still prevalent, both front-facing and systemic in the cogs of our well-oiled government and institutions. Racism, is more insidious than meets the eye, and I hope that these recent demonstrations do more than divide us up, but instead open up for meaningful dialogue that infiltrates our daily comfortable bubbles.
I hope we find the courage to fight that battle, arming ourselves with a fuller acknowledgement of the past, and an ever greater hope for reconciliation in the future. Silence is a luxury afforded by the privileged (Thanks Macklemore), and we really cannot be silent anymore.