When Akai Gurley was killed in November 2014, his death was not muddied by the controversy that plagued the high profile cases of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, both killed by police who held that the men were acting unlawfully and resisting arrest. His tragic end was not dogged by conflicting witness reports or disputed dash cam footage. By all accounts, Gurley was engaged in no criminal activity. He had no interaction with police. He was in a place where he had a legal right to be. Yet, this 28-year-old Black man still ended up dead, shot once in the chest by Chinese-American NYPD officer Peter Liang.
Though the shooting was likely accidental, an innocent man was killed, and calls for accountability were answered with the indictment of Officer Liang, who was found guilty of manslaughter. To call the conviction surprising is to call Mount Everest a rock. Considering the NYPD’s well-documented history of killing unarmed black men with seeming impunity, Gurley’s case is exceptional. The near immediate admission that Gurley was both innocent and unarmed, the swift indictment, and the conviction all were uncharacteristic of the typical handling of such cases.
Many Asian-Americans took note of these exceptions, carrying signs reading “One tragedy, two victims,” and “No selective justice.” They expressed their outrage in a protests in cities all over the United States after the verdict was announced in February. Liang’s supporters had argued from the day that the indictment was announced that he was a sacrificial lamb offered up to pacify a Black community seething and devastated over the routine executions of Black bodies.
They demanded that Liang not serve jail time for this accidental shooting. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, the African American man who charged and prosecuted Liang, seemingly succumbed to pressure from critics who held him personally responsible for what they deemed an unfair prosecution. He announced last month that he would recommend Liang serve no time. Earlier this week, in accordance with that recommendation, Judge Danny Chun sentenced Liang to five years of probation and 800 hours community service for killing Akai Gurley.
One fact the protestors and critics have ignored (probably tactically) in their quest to have Liang exonerated is that several witnesses testified that both Liang and his partner argued about whether to call for help as Gurley’s girlfriend administered CPR trying to save his life. Liang’s primary concern was not calling for an ambulance, but contacting his union to save himself. His job and personal freedom meant more to him than the innocent man who lay dying before him. So though the shot that ultimately killed Akai Gurley was most likely fired accidentally, this incident illustrates the essential difference between accidental and innocent. That difference is underscored by Liang’s reckless and inhumane response to his fatal mistake.
Liang is indeed guilty, and not just of manslaughter and official misconduct, for which he was convicted. He is guilty of ingesting and regurgitating the American practice of dehumanizing Black people. His supporters can maintain his innocence, because to them, Gurley’s death is no more important than his life. Liang is a player in the American system of oppression, a system much less about maintaining White supremacy than it is about reinforcing Black inferiority. So though Liang and the Asian Americans who support him are not members of the dominant race, they are proxy administrators in the system of racial injustice which is, at its core, conditioned on ensuring that Black people are a perpetual and absolute underclass.
Consequently, we can’t start any rational discussion from the point of any racial bias against, or indifference to, Asian Americans which may have motivated the NYPD and Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office to push for a conviction against Liang. The conversation should first address the tension between the African American and Asian American communities that each had a vested interest in the outcome of this case, while also acknowledging that the NYPD preys on Black communities. It is both dishonest and insulting to feign obligatory sympathy for Gurley’s death and the suffering of his loved ones and in the same breath bolster the claim that a blameless Liang was made a tragic scapegoat.
Liang took his place in the racist machine that is the NYPD. The New York Police Department’s nefarious and racist practices are no secret. Their history of torturing and harassing Black people is well-documented. Liang earned a paycheck by participating in the over-policing of poor Black communities in the city. He is no unwitting participant involved in this tragedy by sheer coincidence. He is a killer.
Moreover, as a Chinese-American, Liang undoubtedly enjoyed “model minority” status. That unofficial title conferred upon Asian-Americans is partially attributable to members of the Asian community engaging in the anti-Black racism synonymous with America.
Case in point: This casual indifference to Black life prompted one Chinese-American writer’s impudent op-ed for the New York Post. In the piece, Shirley Ng muses, “[Eric] Garner’s slaying stands in stark contrast to Gurley’s death from an unintended gunshot in the dark that ricocheted off a wall… Yet Garner’s killer, Pantaleo, is walking free while Liang, who never aimed his gun at anyone, is due to be sentenced for up to 15 years behind bars next month…Why is Liang, this rookie Asian-American cop, possibly going to prison for a tragic accident while others are never even charged?”
By the writer’s own admission, Gurley’s death was not the first sounding of the alarm. The bodies of Black people have been piling up for decades, cut down by the bullets, fists and chokeholds of sworn officers. The Black community has been protesting, marching and even rioting for decades. If those abruptly outraged were not moved to join the countless efforts to stop extrajudicial killings of Black people, why are they now moved to protest to ensure another police officer escapes unscathed after taking the life of an innocent Black man?
It is because for so many, this case is not about justice for Liang so much as it is about injustice for Akai Gurley. The primary concern in this case for all involved parties, except the family of Gurley, seems to be ensuring that Liang does not suffer. When the sympathies and loyalties of even the prosecutor who presented the case, a man once lauded as a champion of justice (Thompson helped prosecute the officers who sodomized Abner Louima), lie more with the defendant than the victim, then there’s no question that the system that purports to maintain law and order can hardly be called a justice system. When a Black man from the city of New York invalidates the life of another Black man who was stolen from family and community by telling those loved ones that his killer should not lose his own freedom because this is “about justice not about revenge,” there’s no clearer sign that the system is rigged.
No, there isn’t just one victim in this case.
Gurley is the ultimate victim, but his daughter, now forced to grow up fatherless is a victim. His parents who had to bury their son before his 30th birthday are victims. His girlfriend who watched the man she love die is a victim.
But to be clear, Peter Liang is no victim. He is a killer aided and abetted by his partner who could’ve called the ambulance immediately, protestors who lobbied for his pardon, the District Attorney who ignored the victim’s family’s wishes, the judge who felt community service was a fair exchange for Gurley’s life, the NYPD who fostered the reckless attitude toward Black lives, and the American system of racism and genocide.
It would be a bargain if Liang sacrificed his freedom. After all, his actions led to a needless loss of life.