The New York Post reported yesterday that Kang Wong, an 84 year old man, was walking against a light in Manhattan’s Upper West Side when police gestured at him to stop. The man, who reportedly doesn’t speak much English, didn’t understand the order. Says one witness:
The cops, at the intersection to ticket jaywalkers just 12 hours after pedestrian Samantha Lee was killed, proceeded to write Wong a ticket. However, Wong still apparently didn’t understand what was going on, and started to walk away from the cop.
Wong was taken to the hospital, and later the local police precinct, where his 41-year-old son attempted to find out what Wong was charged with. After several hours, Wong’s son discovered that his father had been arrested for jaywalking, resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration, and disorderly conduct.
This incident is unfathomable, and underscores several problems with police procedure. First, is the problem of language. New York City is a multicultural, multilingual city, where a study conducted 13 years ago showed that 30% of residents spoke a language other than English. This number has risen to more than 50% by 2012, including more than half a million Chinese-speaking residents (representing just under 10% of the city’s total population), 2/3rds of whom speak English poorly. Although English may be the most prevalent language in the U.S., police who must interact daily with the city’s residents should be required to speak other predominant languages in their areas of operation, precisely to prevent these kinds of miscommunications and misunderstandings. We live in an era when translation apps are on every smartphone; is it really reasonable to suggest that police officers still have no protocol for how to deal with a pedestrian or traffic stop where language is clearly an obstacle?
At least one charge against Mr. Wong — resisting arrest — requires an understanding that he is under arrest: yet, Mr. Wong’s lack of English skills imply that at the time of his stop and arrest he was unlikely to have understood, and therefore had the capacity to comply to, officers’ orders. Further, during his arrest, was Mr. Wong capable of understanding his rights? Perhaps it is time to reexamine police procedure with an eye to the reality of multilingualism in this country. Perhaps it is time to implement a common sense measure requiring that people being stopped by police have the right to request that the stop be conducted in a language they understand.
Second, even if Mr. Wong was jaywalking and being disorderly, was he likely to have been so much of a threat to officers, that it necessitated a brutal beating? In photographs, blood streams from Mr. Wong’s head as he is led to a police car. The only word that springs to mind upon seeing these images is “senseless”.
In a post written last week documenting examples of APIA resistance, I posted a picture taken by acclaimed photographer Corky Lee at one of the protests of the 1970’s: a protest against police brutality in Chinatown. Nearly 40 years later, excessive police brutality — against Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and other minorities — continues to be a reality.
The NYPD say they are conducting an internal review regarding this incident. I’ll stay on top of this story to find out how to support the family, who say they will be seeking action against the officers who arrested Mr. Wong.
Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously said English is the official language of the U.S. That was wrong; the United States does not have an official language. This post has been corrected, and my apologies!
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Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!