In a nation accustomed to demonstrations over police shootings of unarmed black men, this was something completely different: more than 10,000 mostly Chinese-Americans rallying in support of the Chinese-American officer who pulled the trigger.
The rally this past weekend for Peter Liang, a rookie New York officer convicted of recklessly firing a bullet that killed an innocent man in a dark stairwell, marked an unexpectedly large outpouring of activism from an ethnic group that often has to struggle to be heard above the din in the city.
Many said they believe Liang is being made a scapegoat for acts of police brutality largely committed by whites. Demonstrations were also held in Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle.
Yan Sun, a political science professor from Queens, said she and other demonstrators believe that prosecutors looking to make a point about police accountability felt free to make an example out of Liang because he comes from a community that isn’t thought to carry a lot of political clout.
“We feel of one of our own is sacrificed because we don’t make noise,” she said.
Other Asian-Americans have looked on the protests with dismay, saying Liang is no victim and the demonstrators are taking on the wrong fight.
The officer was on routine patrol in a public housing project when he entered the stairwell with his gun drawn and accidentally fired a shot when he was startled by a noise. The bullet ricocheted and struck Akai Gurley, 28, killing him. Liang testified it was an accident, but prosecutors said he was reckless to have his gun out and his finger on the trigger, and failed to help Gurley as he lay dying.
A jury convicted Liang of manslaughter on Feb. 11. He could get up to 15 years in prison, or as little as probation.
“I believe, a lot of people believe, they’re using him as a scapegoat,” said Steve Chung, a demonstrator from Brooklyn.
Annie Tan, an activist and educator in Chicago, said she sympathizes with those who see injustice in the way so many white officers who have shot black men have been acquitted or have not faced charges. She said Asian-Americans have also been ill-treated by the criminal justice system, citing the case of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in Michigan in 1982. The attackers, two white men, were given three years’ probation
“But does that mean we free Peter Liang for what he did? No, absolutely not,” she said.
New York City has a long history of fraught racial politics, and complaints by Asian-Americans about being ignored politically are not new. In 1990, Mayor David Dinkins was heavily criticized for failing to quickly intervene when black activists organized a boycott of Korean grocers.
The city has a large and growing Asian population but still relatively few Asian politicians. Asians make up 13 percent of the population and 6 percent of the New York Police Department’s uniformed force of around 35,000 officers. The judge who presided over Liang’s trial was born in Korea.
There are likely to be more demonstrations, both for and against Liang, before he is sentenced on April 14.
Steph Yin, 25, said she has had arguments with her parents and family friends who support leniency for Liang. Yes, she said, Asian-Americans are often been unheard and wrongly stereotyped as quiet and passive. But that doesn’t make Liang’s conviction a cause to rally around, she said.
“At the end of the day, he killed somebody who didn’t deserve to be killed,” she said.