Is Police Officer Peter Liang a Scapegoat?

Chinese Rally

More than 3,000 Chinese Americans gathered at City Hall on Mar. 8 to rally against the indictment of NYPD Officer Peter Liang, who fired the bullet that bounced off a wall and killed Akai Gurley in darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project last November.

The demonstrators argued that Liang was scapegoated after Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced the officer had been indicted on Feb. 11. They feel that the indictment was delivered as a reaction to the backlash against police and prosecutors for not charging the officers involved in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown shooting cases. Many Chinese-Americans think that the six-count indictment, which charges Liang with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, two counts of official misconduct and second-degree assault, and carries a maximum 15 year-sentence, is unfair for a rookie cop. The front pages of major Chinese newspapers in the city like the China Press, the World Journal and the Singtao Daily, were dominated these past few weeks with stories urging the community to “Support Peter Liang,” a statement that has become the slogan of Sunday’s and earlier rallies in support of the Chinese-American police officer.

Chinese Americans rally against the indictment of officer Liang.

Chinese Americans rally against the indictment of Officer Liang.

The case has been difficult for all involved. It has been hard for his fellow police officers, for law enforcement officials who must deal with it, for Liang and his family, and of course, for the victim and his family and friends. It is also a hard case for the Chinese-American community in New York, which has been wrestling with what happened in the weeks since Liang was indicted and come to a variety of opinions.

A growing number of people in the Chinese community feel sympathy for Liang and his family. “It was not his intention to hurt anyone,” said Douglas Lee, the chairman of the Chinese Cultural Association of Long Island, a Chinese language school, at the rally last Sunday. “It was a totally unfortunate accident.”

Bona Sun, one of the participants, said the tragedy shadowed both Akai Gurley and Peter Liang’s families. “We share the loss with Gurley’s family. In the meantime, we want to call upon justice for Liang.”

Sunday’s rally was one of a series of pro-police demonstrations called “Support Your Local Police” that has been going on in the five boroughs. The activists on Sunday marched from City Hall to Chatham Square in Chinatown after a press conference.

Since the indictment was handed down in mid-February, Chinese community leaders have held two other press conferences in Queens and Brooklyn to show their support for Liang.

City Hall Rally

But the efforts have not been limited to New York’s Chinese American community. Kevin Peng, the vice president of the Chinese American Equalization Association, an equal right activist group in Los Angeles, started a petition on the website of the White House on Feb. 17, that demanded District Attorney Thompson withdraw the indictment. Over 120,000 people signed the petition in five days.

“I don’t expect the indictment to actually be withdrawn by the petition. It’s just a way to call on people’s attention,” said Peng. “You can’t heal one minority group’s scar by hurting another.”

But not all Chinese community leaders feel that way. The Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, an advocacy group promoting racial equality, has said it agrees with the indictment against Liang.

“I am not going to comment on the rally,” said Cathy Dang, the executive director of the anti-violence committee. “For the past 36 years since our committee was founded, we’ve supported every single family that lost their family members due to police actions. If someone takes away a human life, he should be accountable no matter who he is.”

In an NBC News interview prior to the announcement of the indictment, Margaret Chin, a New York City council member, stressed that race doesn’t matter and everybody deserves equal treatment. She did not return numerous requests, via email and phone, for further comment.

The race issue has haunted the case since it happened last November. It’s hard for many Chinese Americans to see the Liang case as separate from the protest that followed the decisions not to indict in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Many believe that the Brooklyn district attorney pushed for the indictment of Liang in response to that protest.

In response to criticism, District Attorney Thompson said, at a press conference on Feb. 11, that it was unfair to suggest that there was any political motivation behind the indictment. “The evidence was presented to the grand jury and an indictment was returned. This case has nothing to do with Ferguson, Eric Garner, or any other case,” he said.

But the perception persists in the community, nevertheless, and the numbers add fuel to the fire. An investigation by the New York Daily News found that at least 179 people were killed due to NYPD actions over the last 15 years, and 86 percent of those killed were African Americans or Hispanic. The investigation also revealed that only three of the involved officers were indicted. One was convicted, and even he was not sentenced to prison. If Peter Liang is convicted, however, he would be the first officer in New York City to be convicted and given jail time for a police killing since 1999.

Liang’s supporters in the Chinese community, however, don’t seem to have much faith in the system. They believe that the political significance of this case has interfered with the legal proceeding. John Chan, the chairman of the Brooklyn Asian Communities Empowerment, a non-profit group that unites Asian Americans in Brooklyn, is concerned that Liang will face even more severe punishment than he deserves without the support of the Chinese American community.

“Unlike those abusive cops, Liang had no intent to hurt anyone,” Chan said, “He wouldn’t have shot at the wall if he meant to kill the victim. Who could imagine that a man happened to enter the stairwell right after the shot, and the bullet could be bounced back into his chest?”

Even the district attorney’s choice of words have been disputed. Swann Lee, a writer and Asian American rights activist, said she noticed that District Attorney Thompson avoided using the word—accident—when he spoke of the case in a press conference. “He never mentioned that the bullet ricocheted off the wall or that the shooting was accidental, which is a key fact that affects how people see this case,” she said. “I feel like he is trying to categorize Liang into a bully cop.”

Liang’s next court appearance is on May 14. Community leader Chan said local Chinese Americans are planning more rallies for Liang’s case.