Peter Liang Was Justly Convicted- He’s Not A Victim, Says This Niece of Vincent Chin
When I first heard about Akai Gurley’s killing, that a Chinese American police officer, Peter Liang, had shot Gurley to his death, I knew to be prepared for tough conversations around police brutality, Black lives, and the Asian American community. I knew there would be strong emotions surrounding Officer Liang, especially after Officer Liang received a resounding “guilty” verdict on the count of second degree manslaughter of Akai Gurley.
Still, I did not expect more than 10,000 people, predominantly Chinese Americans, rallying in Brooklyn and around the nation on Saturday in defense of Officer Liang. I was more surprised that some of my cousins attended the rally in Brooklyn.
I understand people’s instinct to stand by others in their community, but the anger and protests in support of Officer Peter Liang are misplaced.
The only time I‘d ever seen such a large rally of Asian Americans was in footage of the Vincent Chin case. At the height of Detroit’s auto-industry crisis in 1982, Vincent, a Chinese American man, was having his bachelor party, when a group of white laid-off autoworkers called Vincent a “motherfucker,” mistaking Vincent as Japanese, and blaming Vincent for taking their jobs. Two auto-workers, Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, chased Vincent down and beat him to death with a baseball bat.
Unlike Peter Liang, the two men, Ebens and Nitz, walked away from the case.
Eben and Nitz never served time for killing my uncle Vincent.
When those two assailants never served a day in jail, different Asian American groups coalesced nationwide by the thousands to protest Vincent’s death, its surrounding injustices, and for rights for Asian Americans.
Lily Chin, Vincent’s heartbroken mother, fought for years to get justice. My maternal grandmother and my great-aunt, Lily’s sisters, flew across the Pacific to support Lily, eventually bringing my parents to the United States. Lily mourned until she passed in 2002.
I bring Vincent up because a freelance writer, Shirley Ng, referenced Vincent today in a NY Post op-ed comparing Officer Liang to Vincent and Private Danny Chen, a Chinese American who committed suicide after constant racial harassment from fellow soldiers. Ng claimed Asian Americans have never had justice, citing Vincent and Danny’s cases as why we should support Officer Liang. She further stated Asian Americans were “united” behind Officer Liang.
Her article was insulting and wrong. Vincent Chin has far more in common with Akai Gurley than with Peter Liang.
Like Akai Gurley, my uncle Vincent was killed because he was a person of color.
Like Akai Gurley’s family, my family continues to mourn the death of a son.
Ng does not speak for me, nor does she speak for the entire Asian American community.
Injustice is injustice. We should all agree that 1. People should not be killed, and 2. People who kill other people should be held accountable and face the consequences of their actions.
That night, Officer Liang pulled his gun from his holster. Unlike what Ng stated, the gun didn’t just go off- Officer Liang pulled the trigger. Officer Liang didn’t provide medical attention or call for an ambulance- instead, he bickered with his partner over who would call this in. Officer Liang may have not intentionally killed Akai, but he did, with his reckless actions.
Akai Gurley died because of Peter Liang’s actions, accidental or not. That’s second degree manslaughter.
The signs “One tragedy, two victims” held up by protesters do not apply here. Officer Liang may have been shortchanged by a police institution that did not train him properly and then abandoned him, but he is not a victim. His actions directly and unjustifiably caused the death of another.
The situation Officer Liang created is vastly different from the situations of Asian Americans who are harassed, trafficked, robbed, deported, or killed for being Asian or Asian American. Jessica Klyzek, a woman who was handcuffed, struck by police, and threatened with deportation at her place of work, is just one recent example of many.
Vincent Chin and Danny Chen never killed anyone. They are victims, and can no longer speak up for themselves.
When those defending Officer Liang argue “he never meant to kill anyone,” they spout the same reasoning Eben and Nitz used to avoid prison for my uncle Vincent’s murder. That’s unacceptable.
It’s hard to put ourselves, Asian Americans, in Akai Gurley’s shoes. Truly, I cannot imagine police officers conducting vertical patrols or pulling guns out in the stairwells of Chinatown apartment buildings without reasonable suspicion. I feel no danger in being shot in my own apartment complex as an Asian American.
What we can do is try to empathize with Akai’s family after the death of their son.
Ng proclaims herself a Manhattan Chinatown native, and I am as well. I grew up near Danny Chen in Manhattan’s Chinatown, and attended his middle school a few years before him. Danny could have been any of my friends. Vincent is my family. Our families and our communities, mourned and fought for them.
While I understand the knee-jerk reaction that the Chinese American community has to protect a Chinese American officer, we, as a community among others, must hold Officer Liang accountable for his actions.
Do these protesters want Officer Liang exonerated? To get a more lenient sentence? Or is the support a distorted way of saying, “Why do we treat Chinese cops like this and not white cops?” I share Twitter user @bomani_jones’s confusion: “it’s hard to tell if the peter liang (sic) supporters are upset he got convicted, or upset that other cops don’t get convicted *but* he did.”
I do believe Officer Liang received different treatment than other non-Asian police officers who have committed similar, or worse, acts of violence. But instead of arguing Officer Liang deserved an acquittal or a lenient sentence, I believe police officers, regardless of race, who kill anyone under similar circumstances, should be convicted of unlawful homicide and go to prison too, alongside Officer Liang. Officer Liang is awaiting sentencing, but, as with any defendant convicted of manslaughter by a firearm, Officer Liang should serve prison time.
The New York Police Department employed Peter Liang to protect the public trust. Officer Liang failed that night. He may have been unaware he was complicit in a system of injustice that preys on Black lives, yet he voluntarily operated in that system. Let’s analyze the facts, prosecute those who commit crimes, and continue to fight for victims and their families.
If we are to move forward from this, we all need to stand against the systems that brought Peter Liang into the stairwell where Akai Gurley stood. It was no accident that Officer Liang was in a public housing stairwell and not one in a private housing complex. Decades of “broken windows” and “stop and frisk” policing, housing and income segregation, prison-industrial complex, and flat-out anti-Black racism led Officer Liang’s superiors to place him there. We must re-imagine what policing looks like in our communities so that such tragedies are avoided in the first place.
When the Asian American community fought for Vincent Chin, and then for Danny Chen, we built power from within. More importantly, we built power across and coalitions between many communities. We fought for accountability, federal hate crime legislation and protections of military personnel. While the Saturday rally might have united some in the Chinese American community, it certainly has divided us from others who have been harmed and continue to be harmed by this system of injustice. I urge my Chinese American and Asian American communities to think long and hard about which side of history we are on and what it means to support Officer Liang. We must fight for the justice Akai Gurley and his family deserve, just as we fight for the justice Vincent Chin and Danny Chen deserve.
Belle Yan contributed to writing this piece.