On the packed stage set up inside Cadman Plaza Park in downtown Brooklyn, police officer Peter Liang’s mother Fanny broke down in tears, after thanking thousands of supporters who showed up on a Saturday afternoon for a peaceful demonstration against her son’s recent conviction for second-degree manslaughter.
The crowd, teeming with American flags, signs and banners bearing messages such as “Justice for All, Justice for Peter Liang” and “No Scapegoat,” responded by chanting Jiayou – a Chinese phrase that translates into “Don’t give up.” Spirits were high at the rally as a stream of buses lined up to drop protesters off, some of them coming all the way from New Jersey and Connecticut to express their outrage against what they believe is the prolonged, unfair treatment that Chinese Americans have encountered in the United States.
The case of Peter Liang has become a rallying point for Chinese and Asian American communities across the country. Liang was convicted for shooting Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old African American man, in the dark stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project in November, 2014. On Saturday, Chinese and Asian American communities in 42 cities held rallies in support of Officer Liang. In New York, more than 50,000 people gathered, according to the organizing committee. At the rally, volunteers passed around petitions for the Supreme Court of the State of New York, information sheets about Liang’s case and voter registration forms.
“This is the first time that I have witnessed such unity within the Chinese American community since I immigrated to the U.S. in 1979,” said Benny Fong, 54, a property manager who resides in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Fong thinks that the Peter Liang case is a tragedy but not a crime, a view shared by his bosses, who had encouraged their employees to participate in the rally by giving them the day off.
The case has continued to stir up conflicting emotions in Asian American communities since the tragic incident last November. Liang, who had then only been on duty for 18 months, was assigned to conduct a vertical patrol of NYCHA’s Louis H. Pink Houses in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. When Gurley entered the pitch-black stairwell, a bullet from Liang’s gun ricocheted off the wall, and ended up killing Gurley.
The circumstances of the shooting were on the minds of demonstrators.
“Well, the bullet went off the wall and hit the tragic victim,” said Jack Broderick and his wife Jing, who came to the rally early with a sign bearing three big characters – “off the wall” – to accentuate their stance. “There was no intent here, no criminal intent. No one pointed his gun at the victim. The gun went off and hit the wall and then hit the victim.”
“That’s what ‘off the wall’ means, it means that the gun wasn’t aimed at the victim,” he added.
The Brodericks were one of the few interracial couples seen at the mostly Asian American populated rally—and Broderick said that he thought more non-Asians should join. “The way I’m looking around, this is more than 99 percent Asian,” said Broderick. “And it shouldn’t be, because an innocent person – a person who’s clearly not a criminal – has been convicted, and that’s the failure of our legal system. That affects everyone.”
Kitman Ou, executive director of the Greater Chinatown Community Association, another one of the groups at the rally, urged every single protester to fill out a voter registration form. Ou sees voting as essential to supporting the community and advancing systematic reform.
“The more Chinese people vote, the more elected official know that we need help,” Ou said. “Part of the reason why voter registration helps is that the more voice we have, the more involved we are, the more we have our influence, the more rights we have.”
The rally also drew a counter Black Lives Matter protest right across the street near the park. The protesters, many of them holding signs bearing the message, “Jail Killer Cops,” pointedly illustrated the tension between police and the community in Liang’s case.
During the trial, Liang testified that after he discovered that he might have actually shot Gurley, he did not immediately resort to medical assistance, leaving Gurley’s girlfriend to perform CPR on him. Liang and his partner Shaun Landau claimed that they had not received adequate CPR training at the NYPD Police Academy. These details that came out during Liang’s trial have convinced many Chinese Americans that the shooting was an accident.
However, Gurley’s family and its supporters don’t believe the killing was accidental.
Speaking to a smaller crowd, Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen, bemoaned her nephew’s final moments. “That dying man was a human. In all things, we are human first. It’s not about skin color. It’s not about race, color, or creed. It’s all about being human. Whether you had training or not, it’s a life, a life that you took,” she said.
“It was not an accident,” she continued. “Had it been an accident, he would have attended or rendered some type of aid. It’s not what happened prior. It’s what happened afterwards.”
Free without bail, Liang faces up to 15 years in prison. His sentence on April 14 is a concern for both sides of the protesters. Many Asian-Americans, including City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who has argued that the police holds some responsibility because they assigned a rookie to a dangerous neighborhood, hope for a light sentence. Gurley supporters, on the other hand, believe that Liang should serve his jail time and pay for his mistake. Meanwhile, Gurley’s girlfriend, Melissa Butler, is filing a $200,000 lawsuit against the city and Liang.
In an ever-escalating tension between two minority races, there are others who believe they see a bigger problem illustrated in this incident. Sister Shirley, a nun from Staten Island, who protested with the Gurley family blames the system. “The problem is not Asians against Blacks or Latinos, the problem is we should be working together against the system,” she said. “It’s the system that sucks and it’s the system that corrupts. They know what they are doing and they put us against one another.”