In Backward Protests for Peter Liang, Who Are Our People?
Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to publish a critical perspective on NYPD officer Peter Liang’s conviction and the political controversy that has erupted over this case. Below is a contribution from San Francisco Chinese American activist, Ying-sun Ho, who shares his thoughts on white supremacy, its impact on the Chinese American community, and the relationship between these issues and Black lives. Though Ying-sun doesn’t identify as Buddhist, we felt it was important to include his perspective at BPF so that we might further develop our insights on race, justice, power, and the elimination of social suffering.
Gratitude to all those grappling with social justice in our complex world.
February 20 was a Saturday, which means I spent a good chunk of my morning with my mom at to the farmers market at San Francisco’s Ferry Building. We had bought our fruits and veggies and other yummy things and were almost back to my place when traffic ground to a complete stop. Actually, it had ground all the way into reverse, as cars were backing out of the one-way street I was trying to turn onto. My mom got out and investigated; a protest had shut down Market Street. This was interesting and unexpected. I knew that streets were closing that day for the Chinese New Year parade, but not for another four hours.
I got a little excited. This demonstration had a lot going for it right off the bat: I like protests; I love shutting down Market; I’m a big fan of surprises. But my excitement turned into anger and disgust when I finally parked and got a chance to see what was going on for myself.
Hundreds of Chinese people had taken to the streets. Not for justice for Chinese restaurant workers, or a living wage in San Francisco, or safe and affordable housing for immigrant families—issues that hit close to home but prompt far too little protest and direct action from the city’s Chinese population. No, these people were in the streets taking issue with the completely justified conviction of a Chinese-American cop for accidentally killing an unarmed black man 3,000 miles away in New York. They lifted signs like “ONE TRAGEDY, TWO VICTIMS” and “NO SCAPEGOATING” high above their heads as they marched through downtown San Francisco.
Esther Wang, a board member of New York’s CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, recaps:
On the evening of November 20, 2014, Officer Liang and his partner were doing their regular rounds at the Pink Houses, a public housing development in East New York. They were performing what’s known as a vertical patrol (a practice that has come under criticism for its harassment of residents of public housing and their guests). As they entered the darkened stairwell on the 8th floor, unlit due to malfunctioning lights, Liang took out his gun, finger on the trigger. Startled by the sound of Akai Gurley and his girlfriend entering the landing below, Liang fired one shot, which ricocheted off the wall and into Gurley, killing him. It hardly bears mentioning that Gurley was unarmed. He was simply there to visit his girlfriend.
Liang was indicted and convicted of manslaughter — a.k.a. accidentally killing someone. But from the moment of indictment, many Chinese Americans were up in arms about the persecution of this Chinese American officer. White cops don’t get indicted for killing black people. Why should Liang? Wasn’t this just scapegoating a person of color in hopes that it would placate the increasingly powerful and incredibly necessary Movement for Black Lives, which has been calling for an end to the epidemic of police killings of black people?
I was disgusted—yes, as a Chinese American, but also as, you know, a human. “ONE TRAGEDY, TWO VICTIMS”? It was so cold and callous and…embarrassing.
Let me be clear: I have spent a great deal of my adult life trying to bring the lethally racist San Francisco Police Department to heel. I think every white cop who kills an unarmed black person (or anyone, really) should be brought to justice. When Liang supporters say it is unjust to let killer white cops get off scot free, I start nodding my head. But then to pivot and suggest that the failure to prosecute those white cops should translate into a free pass for a trigger-happy Chinese American officer, a man whose guilt is not seriously in dispute? That is the height of selfish cynicism, an expression of a narrow nationalism that is a cancer in Chinese American communities. In San Francisco, we know it well. Blind backing from the Chinese community has kept Ed Lee—the city’s first Chinese American mayor (and one of its worst in memory)—in office. His ethnicity has trumped his consistent track record of turning San Francisco into an amusement park for big corporations and tech billionaires, and into a memory for the thousands of families—Chinese and otherwise—who can no longer afford to live in their hometown.
The answer to the racial disparities in the all-too-rare prosecution of killer cops is not to let them all go. It’s to put them all in jail. The proper expression of sympathy for Gurley’s family, for his toddler daughter who will be lucky to come away with a few fragmented memories of her father, is not to claim some sort of perverse co-victim status for his killer. It’s to support the family’s call for justice. It’s to stand against all police violence against black people. It’s to put your bodies on the gears of the hateful machinery of white supremacy not only when it ruins Chinese lives, but when it ruins black and brown and red lives, too.
Chinese people, listen to me: the cops are not our friends. Even when they’re Chinese. A friend said recently that the experience of Western colonialism and white supremacy has prompted Chinese people to rely on each other, to trust only “our own people” even when those people steal your wages or evict you (i.e., when they aren’t really our people at all). Well that exclusion, that feeling of humiliation at the hands of the West? The cops are a part of that. Even when they’re Chinese. Police exist to enforce the same order that keeps Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants working for poverty wages, living in substandard tenements, and forever alien in a land debased and deformed by white supremacy from Day One. The ways that police are not our people trump by far the ways that Chinese officers like Peter Liang are.
And as much as officers in the racist U.S. policing apparatus are not our people — even when they’re Chinese — those who challenge that racism ARE our people — even when they’re not Chinese. Here in the Bay Area, the group #Asians4BlackLives is showing what that understanding looks like when put into action.
We must embrace and foster an open-hearted solidarity with Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives, and anyone else mounting a challenge to the racism in the state and the economy that so hurts our communities. We must steadfastly reject solidarity with a fundamentally bankrupt political and economic order that oppresses Chinese people the world over.
There’s nothing wrong with loving Chinese people, with defending Chinese people, with lifting Chinese people up for recognition when they do brave and beautiful things. But if you want recognition that Chinese lives matter, there is only one appropriate response to the crime and the punishment of Peter Liang:
BLACK LIVES MATTER.