Earlier this year, Liang’s conviction drew fierce backlash from New York’s Chinese-American community. The protests largely centered around two claims. First, that the death of Mr. Gurley was not intentional; this argument, given the facts, is nonsense. Even if we assume that Liang had unintentionally shot Gurley due to a misfire, his subsequent failure to get medical help for him is still unacceptable.
But there is a second, stronger argument: Liang was a victim of selective prosecution and racial scapegoating.
And this argument is irrefutable. In the past decade, 121 unarmed civilians were killed by NYPD officers. And out of all of those killer cops, guess how many got convicted?
Among those not convicted is Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who was caught on video killing Eric Garner, who posed no physical threat, by placing him in a clearly illegal chokehold for 19 seconds – during which Garner stated that he couldn’t breathe 11 times. This happened in 2014, the same year Gurley died, but Pantaleo wasn’t even indicted, let alone convicted, despite a clearly stronger case and more outrageous wrongdoing.
So, when Liang was convicted, it was a watershed for Asian Americans. I remember when I first heard the news, and spewed out this article in an angry, despondent word vomit. And back then, it made sense. Police brutality is wrong – it’s unconscionable – but I also knew that to selectively prosecute a single Asian American cop would neither make up for ten years of injustice nor advance justice in the years ahead.
But that moment has passed. And now, instead of the hurried adrenaline of the fight against injustice, I find myself reconciling with the fact that for the past two months, I was defending a killer cop – someone who brutalizes people of color, and enforces the twisted, racialized instrument of oppression we call a justice system.
So, what now?
In all honesty, I was blown away by the response the Chinese-American community fielded in defense of Peter Liang. Forget the cliched myths and stereotypes about how Asian Americans are politically apathetic or don’t vote – the overwhelming protests, marches and political pressure the community exerted downright frightened me with just its sheer scale. It’s a truly monumental and unprecedented show of force, demonstrating a level of organization and mobilization that neither I nor anyone else thought the community was capable of achieving – and man, it was a breathtakingly powerful force to behold.
But what exactly are we, as Asian Americans, supposed to do with this power?
Unfortunately, in the case of Peter Liang, this power was poorly used indeed. Many of the protesters were pro-police, anti-Black Lives Matter and dismissive of Mr. Gurley’s death – basically co-opting the language of white supremacists. It was frustrating to the utmost extent, which is why I never even came near to one of those protests. Granted, there were some cooler heads in the mix, but those more race-conscious protesters were few and far in between.
Amidst all this, it becomes easy to assign Asian Americans to a position of privilege – after all, aren’t we the “model minority?”
Yes, it is undeniable that Asian Americans are generally in a significantly better socioeconomic position than other minority groups in this country. And, as the article points out, “Asian Americans, … like whites, … enjoy a priceless set of structural privileges and immunities.” And there is no denying that.
And indeed, at times, it can seem like that Asian Americans are so privileged and well-integrated into the institutions of power in this country that the community feels compelled to defend it, as the pro-Liang protesters defended the NYPD. But, this defense is paradoxical, because while Asian Americans are included in the power structure, they are never equal partners – when something goes south, as it did in this case, the Asian American is the first to be blamed. Even though Peter Liang will not end up serving jail time, the initial facts of this case have not changed; his conviction still stands, and so he remains the only NYPD officer to be convicted of killing an unarmed civilian in a decade, while 120 of his colleagues who did the exact same walk free.
It’s a paradoxical existence. I can’t help but bring in a quote from “The Great Gatsby,” where Nick Carraway describes his role at a party:
“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
And Asian Americans are like Nick in a way. We are invited to the party, but never quite made to feel belong.
A friend of mine (who is Asian American) once told me a story from when he was a kid: He and five other friends (all of whom were white) went to one of the friends’ house and was told by the friend’s dad that there was only room for five: “It’s a special kind of loneliness … when suddenly you realize why, when that kid’s dad said there was only room for five, everyone else knew he was talking to you.”
Contact Terence Zhao at terencezhao ‘at’ stanford.edu