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Peter Liang: Asian-American Scapegoat?

February 22, 2016

The manslaughter conviction of Peter Liang is awakening the nation’s normally quiescent Asian-American communities, where many are viewing the guilty verdict against the former NYPD officer through the prism of race.

Demonstrations sprouted across the country over the weekend in support of the rookie cop who accidentally fired his weapon in the darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project in November 2014. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and fatally struck Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man.

In Brooklyn, thousands of Chinese demonstrators protested Liang’s conviction, waving small American flags and holding placards reading, “One Tragedy, Two Victims” and “Equal Justice: No Scapegoats.” They were heckled by a small group of mostly African-Americans, one of whose placards read: “Akai Gurley: Murdered by Peter Liang.”

On Thursday, hundreds of Chinese-Americans visited the Lin Sing Association in Chinatown, where they donated money for Liang’s defense fund. One woman gave a check for $1,000. Lin Sing Senior Director Eddie Chiu said 5,000 people had signed petitions calling on Judge Danny Chun, who presided over Liang’s trial, to set aside the verdict and sentence Liang to probation. He faces up to 15 years in prison when he’s sentenced on April 14.

Good luck with that. No matter how Chun, who is Korean-American, rules, he’ll be vilified as racist or as the Asian-American equivalent, if there is one, of an Uncle Tom.
While the NYPD’s Asian Jade Society of police officers has called Liang’s manslaughter conviction a “referendum against all law enforcement in general,” many Asian-American demonstrators see Liang as an Asian scapegoat. White NYPD officers killed Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999 and Timothy Stansbury in another Brooklyn housing project in 2004, and a white officer was involved in the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014. The Diallo cops were acquitted by a jury. Grand juries failed to indict cops in both Stansbury’s and Garner’s deaths, although a federal grand jury has begun to hear testimony in Garner’s.

“Like any minority group, we want to be treated fairly,” said April Yee, a Brooklyn elementary school teacher who came from central New Jersey with other Asian-American teachers to protest over the weekend.

Jennifer Yang, who carpooled with six friends from Bergen County, N.J., to demonstrate in Brooklyn, handed out a pamphlet that called Liang’s conviction a signal of “selective prosecution.” It also read, “He was also misrepresented by the media: his subtle expression of remorse, due to his Chinese background, was mis-portrayed as being unsympathetic.”

God knows, African-Americans have a history of police grievance. In just the past two years, the country has witnessed an apparent cover-up by the Chicago police and its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, in the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014. In South Carolina, a video contradicted the police report of Michael Slager, a white police officer who fatally shot African-American Walter Scott in the back.

Ken Thompson, Brooklyn’s first black district attorney, won election in 2013 over the borough’s longtime white incumbent, Joe Hynes, in part on a platform of police accountability. At Liang’s arraignment last year, Thompson said, “We don’t believe that Officer Liang intended to kill Mr. Gurley. What the evidence showed is that this police officer put his finger on the trigger and fired that gun into a darkened stairwell when there was no threat.”

That interpretation appeared to change when, in closing arguments at trial, prosecutor Joe Alexis declared that Liang had pointed his gun before firing, implying he fired deliberately at Gurley.

Liang’s conviction may make some people feel that years of police brutality directed at blacks has been avenged. But a prosecutor’s job is not merely to convict. It is to do justice.

As a Chinese-American reader emailed NYPD Confidential of the verdict: “His case represented an opportunity for those jurors to assuage their conscience after multiple instances of unjust policing activities against black suspects. … And this jury decided that someone must be punished for all the police shootings of unarmed black men. This jury did not have the open-mindedness to weigh this case on its own merits but chose to make Peter Liang’s conviction an opportunity for a national referendum on policing and race relations. Unfortunately for Peter Liang and Asian-Americans everywhere, the verdict that the jurors handed down is that Asians are an easy minority to scapegoat for the unresolved racial prejudices that continue to hamper our judicial system.

“These jurors … have further widened the divide between races and made judicial justice that much more elusive. And not of little consequence, they sacrificed the future of a 27-year-old Asian-American rookie cop in order to assuage their own confused feelings about race relations in a multi-ethnic society.”

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