When I write my blogs, I am typically reflective, rational and logical. But I want to have none of it this time. For once, let me be irrational, let me be illogical and let me be politically incorrect, because today my raw emotions are running high.
Last Monday was Chinese Lunar New Year when we Chinese gather together to celebrate families. It is a happy time, a time when we express gratitude towards our parents, our sisters and brothers for sticking with each other. But for one Chinese family that happiness has turned into gut-wrenching heartbreak. Late last week the former New York City rookie cop Peter Liang was convicted of “second-degree manslaughter” for his “reckless” killing of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black young man, in a Brooklyn housing project on November 20th, 2014. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
To say that I was shocked at the verdict is an understatement of my current sentiment. I was actually sad, frustrated, disgusted and angry. It’s not that I don’t feel for the deceased. Trust me. I do. As a mother, it pains me greatly to see two young girls who will grow up without a father. It saddens me beyond words. But this blog is not about Gurley and the family he left behind, but about Liang’s family and the Chinese community as a whole.
From the get go I have paid closer attention to this case than any other ones, not only because Liang is one of us who share similar lineage and family values, but also because this case has its complicated racial and sociopolitical dynamics involving two families who are both immigrants and minorities and whose American dreams are no smaller than yours and mine. It is a tragedy on so many levels, and my heart aches for both families.
I watched the short speech Liang’s mother gave during his post conviction press conference. It was gut-wrenching. Their story is one of many about a hard-working immigrant family coming to and settling in America. His parents, a cook and a garment worker, moved from Hong Kong to the US when he was a child. Speaking very little English, they have lived in Bensonhurst, a working-class neighborhood that has become Brooklyn’s second Chinatown. When Peter was about 6 years old, his mother was robbed of a gold chain. He was so mad that he swore one day he would become a cop to protect his mom and his family. So he did. He had worked for TSA briefly before graduating from the Police Academy and joining the New York City police department. But barely two years into his dream job was he convicted in the line of duty. How ironic and tragic!
I am no legal expert, nor do I understand many of the legal jargons associated with this case. But from what I have read so far, all I can say is this was a tragic accident—an accident resulted from Liang’s inexperience, poor training and fear for his life. There was not a single ounce of “deliberate shooting” where Liang pointed his gun at the victim, an inaccurate but inflammatory statement made by the DA in his closing argument to the jury. I kept putting myself in Liang’s shoes and imagining what I would have done if I were in a similar situation: in a pitch dark hallway of a housing project where safety was not stellar to say the least, I would have been scared out of my mind and my intuition would have told me to take the gun out and prepare for the worst. Admittedly, I am not a police officer nor do I have the same mental strength to face such a dire situation. But yet human beings are not robots and mistakes are made by all, professional or not.
Is Liang responsible for the death of an innocent black young man? Yes, I think he is. Is Liang’s accidental shooting malicious enough to warrant him up to 15 years in prison? No, I truly don’t believe so. In my opinion, our system failed Gurley and it failed Liang. It pitted the unjust death of an innocent black young man against the unjust scapegoating of an Asian young police officer who was frightened, poorly trained, and who committed a terrible accident. In essence, this case was not about Chinese against Blacks, it was not about Chinese against Whites, it was about minorities against a broken system where racial injustice and prejudice have been committed time again against many ethnic communities throughout the US history. It was a case about “justice for all.”
Remember the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit? A pair of white father-son auto workers whose anger towards their jobs being lost to Japan turned into bludgeoning death of a completely innocent Chinese young man. Yet this brutal hate crime only garnered 3 years in probation, $3,000 in fines and $780 in court costs for the 2 murderers, and they were allowed to continue to live their lives as free men, a far far cry from justice. To add insult to injury, in a response letter to protests from American Citizens for Justice, the judge in Chin’s case Charles Kaufman declared, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail… You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.” Outraged? You bet I am. I am beyond outrage!
Remember the 2004 shooting death of Timothy Stansbury Jr. by a white police officer, Richard S. Neri which bears eerie similarity to Peter Liang’s case? A grand jury declined to indict Officer Neri on charges of criminally negligent homicide, declaring the event an accident, after he gave testimony that he had unintentionally fired; he was startled, he said, when Mr. Stansbury pushed open a rooftop door in a place where drug dealing was rampant. Why was there no indictment? The answer was simple: the accused was white.
Then there was the 2014 shooting death of an unarmed black young man Michael Brown by the white police officer Darren Wilson and the subsequent non-indictment of Wilson, which later prompted the movement of “Black Lives Matter”. All lives matter. Don’t you think?
The most ridiculous case has to be the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Gartner. As with many deaths involving white police officers and minority victims, a grand jury refused to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo whose chokehold caused Gartner’s death. However, earlier this year Sgt. Kizzy Adonis was charged with failure to supervise, an internal indictment brought by NYPD. What was the difference this time? The police officer was a black female.
My stomach is literally churning when I think of all the cases which involve deaths of minority victims and acquittal of white police officers of any crimes or wrongdoings. Yes, the racial injustice cannot be traced simply to individuals – there are also larger, systemic issues that need to be addressed, issues that persist even after someone is scapegoated and fired. So without some kind of systemic solution – an organization-wide training, a large-scale discussion about race and power and privilege – the problem will not go away; it will simply pop up elsewhere. It’s no better than a dermatologist can slice off a malignant mole and assume that all of the cancer has been removed. After all, none of us can live in a vacuum, we’re all part of larger systems, and we’re all susceptible to systemic pressures outside of ourselves. We’re all capable of being bad apples. Until the path to justice is to hold all police officers accountable, regardless of their skin colors, should we stop fighting for “justice for all” because ultimately, as Martin Luther King Jr summed it up well: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
For my Chinese American community, I hope Liang’s case will provide a good opportunity to stand up and let our voices be heard. For decades we have been model citizens without a voice. We are hard working and conscientious: we pay taxes, we follow instructions, we do not complain nor do we challenge authorities. We attend good schools, we hold steady jobs, we drive nice cars, and we buy big houses. We send our kids to private prep schools, and to Ivy Leagues. But to some, Chinese are a bunch of privileged ethnic group, whiter than white. And to some others, Chinese are merely a “Chink in the Armor,” an offensive 2012 ESPN’s headline referring to Jeremy Lin, a well-loved Chinese American MBA player. For those people, we are responsible for taking away high paying jobs, inflating test scores, making college entrance more competitive, and best of all, we are a bunch of achievement-hungry psychopath Tiger moms. A myth can’t be farther from the truth.
I have an eleven-year-old boy who does go to a privileged private school which annual tuition feels like one for a mini Ivy without the name tag. In his small and insulated world, he makes friends of all skin colors and socioeconomic backgrounds: Indian, Iranian, Chinese, German, Turkish, American, white, black, yellow and brown… In his untainted tender heart, he sees no difference between his skin color and half Chinese blood than those of his friends. The only difference in his eyes is who likes Legos more. As a mother, I so hope that my son will continue to live in such a world where the same moral/justice standard applies to all and where only love prevails. I so hope the anguish and heartbreak that families of Vincent Chin, Peter Liang, Akai Gurley, Michael Wilson, Eric Gartner and many others have lived through will not repeat in my son’s generation if he chooses to become a parent one day. I so hope this is the only one good thing coming out of a double tragedy like that of Liang’s and Gurley’s.