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The American disillusion: Whose life matters?

| Monday, February 29, 2016

This article is a reflection on the manslaughter conviction of ex-NYPD officer Peter Liang.

On Nov. 20, 2014, Liang, then a rookie police officer, convened with his partner, Shaun Landau, in the Louis Pink Houses, one of the most dangerous housing projects in East New York. Both men were on a vertical patrol, in which officers are posted on different floors in buildings simultaneously. As the two rookie officers nervously walked the unlit stairs, Liang’s gun accidentally went off. The discharged bullet ricocheted off the wall and fatally struck Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old African-American man who happened to be walking into the stairwell with his girlfriend.

Last week, in the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, Liang was convicted guilty on five counts: manslaughter, official misconduct, assault, reckless endangerment and criminally negligent homicide. Liang faces up to 15 years of imprisonment as a result of the accidental shooting.

People rejoiced over Liang’s conviction. Indeed, as the New York Daily News put it, “The shocking verdict was a powerful message from the jury that the public opinion on police killings has radically changed in the wake of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Michael Brown and other tragedies around the country.” We, too, saw this as an important victory, as after all the tears, blood and Black Lives Matter movement, justice had finally been served in the form of a conviction. We feel genuinely happy, as you may too, for the great leap forward of social justice.

However, is this the ultimate goal of justice we want to reach? Please do not misunderstand us: We do believe black lives matter and that Liang and the NYPD are responsible for Akai Gurley’s death. And it should be noted that we by no means question the court decision; after all, we are not experts in criminal law. And yet, from a political and racial standpoint, we do believe Liang, a Chinese American, is serving as a scapegoat in our society. We do believe that no matter what happened on the night of Nov. 20, the odds are always likely to be against Liang. We do believe Liang, as a member of the quiet “model minority,” is paying a price for the institutional racism in our legal system. He is a “selective example” to justify the unjust system and cover its racial profiling problems.

In short, Liang is just unlucky to be an Asian-American cop in the NYPD. You may still argue race doesn’t matter and that this is a matter of cops versus civilians. Sadly, we are afraid we cannot agree, due to the status of other similar cases. We believe these cases are worth critically considering, as it is up to us as members of society to judge whether or not we truly are moving toward a higher standard of justice or toward a deeper level of institutionalized racism.

One case is that of Darren Wilson. Wilson remains at home, uncharged, after intentionally shooting Michael Brown six times in Ferguson. Last year, the local police officers’ association even declared “Darren Wilson Day” on the anniversary of the incident, called Wilson an “innocent, but persecuted, officer” and insisted “his ethnicity had nothing to do with their support of him.”

What about Daniel Pantaleo, who was not indicted by a grand jury and then allowed to work desk duties for NYPD after choking Mr. Garner to death? Or more infuriatingly, Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, who stood up in defense of Mr. Pantaleo and described him as “a model police officer whom the public does not know enough about.” Pantaleo was even offered 24 hours of armed protection after receiving several death threats. Furthermore, Bryan Conroy was only sentenced to five years of probation and 500 hours of community service after shooting and killing an unarmed West African immigrant, who was not suspected of any wrongdoing.

Ironically, as Pantaleo was being considered a “model,” Kizzy Adonis, an African-American NYPD officer who witnessed Mr. Garner’s death, was charged with failure to supervise last month and stripped of her gun and badge. Similarly, Liang was fired by NYPD immediately after the incident, and he is the first NYPD officer who has been put on trial and found guilty for killing a civilian in years. According to an article in the Daily News, there have been 179 fatalities involving NYPD on-duty police from 1999 to 2014. Among these cases, only three have led to indictments (and just one conviction).

We sadly conclude Peter Liang is the victim sacrificed for all the past abuses in our justice system. There are not one but two victims behind the tragedy of Akai Gurley’s death. Behind hundreds of similar cases of police killings, murderers were left unpunished while the real victims’ grievances and protests went unheard. As the shocking verdict reached Facebook and sparked heated discussions, someone commented, “If Liang were white, the result would very likely be different. But he is Chinese, so no one stands up for him.” Therefore, we decided to write this article and no longer remain the silent minority. We stand up, not just for all previous victims, but also for real justice in our society.

Yuchen Zou

Lan Jiang
Feb. 21

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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