After over a month of build-up, a “National Day of Protest” that organizers said would involve coordinated rallies opposing the indictment of NYPD rookie police officer Peter Liang occurred last Sunday. Officer Liang was indicted earlier this year by a grand jury on manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges after he fatally shot unarmed civilian Akai Gurley in a darkened stairwell during an unsanctioned vertical patrol late last year.
Last month, thousands of Chinese Americans took to the streets to oppose Liang’s indictment, claiming that the criminal charges against Liang were unfair, and a form of “racial scapegoating”. However, many other Asian Americans (including myself) support Officer Liang’s indictment as a necessary outcome if we are to expect greater police accountability and an end to racial profiling and police brutality. Last week, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) organized an open letter of support for Officer Liang’s indictment and solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement; over 50 AAPI organizations (including this blog) and more than 200 AAPI individuals — including several community leaders — signed on.
Over the weekend, anti-indictment protesters were scheduled to rally in cities ranging from New York to Los Angeles. In the wake of the growing coverage of incidents of police brutality — including the recent shooting death of unarmed civilian Walter Scott which resulted in criminal charges for the police officer in charge — I was curious to see what impact these recent events might have on Liang’s supporters, whose rhetoric appeared to hinge largely on the assertion that police officers should have the unmitigated right to shoot unarmed Black men and women without consequence.
This post was published hours before the verdict in the Rekia Boyd manslaughter trial was announced. This post has been updated to reflect the outcome of that trial.
Earlier this month, 50 year old Walter Scott was shot and killed by North Charleston police officer Michael Thomas Slager following a routine traffic stop for a broken tail-light. Slager’s cruiser dash-cam shows that Scott — who was Black and unarmed — fled his car moments after being stopped. Slager gave chase and says he hit Scott with his Taser. Scott again fled, and that’s when Slager pulled out his handgun and fired eight shots from 20 feet away. Five hit Scott from behind, fatally wounding him.
We know these details of Walter Scott’s final moments because of eyewitness video captured by Feidin Santana (embedded after the jump). Understandably, many have focused on the first few minutes of the video: Scott and Slager are seen in the middle of a physical altercation. A black object drops to the ground while Scott turns to flee. He breaks into a determined run. Slager reaches for his gun and pauses, then fires seven times in rapid succession into Scott’s back. A momentary silence, and then Slager fires one final shot. Scott crumples to the ground.
This is easily the most gut-wrenching moment of the Walter Scott shooting video; but, it is not the only remarkable moment. There is a second portion of the video that also demands our attention.
A minute after Scott falls to the ground, Slager radios his dispatcher saying he shot a suspect who went for his Taser. Then, after he handcuffs an unresponsive Scott, Slager jogs back the 20 metres to the site of the initial altercation. He picks up the black object that fell to the ground. As a second officer arrives on the scene, Slager strides back and casually drops the object — his Taser — next to Scott’s prone body.
Later, Slager claimed through his lawyer that Walter Scott was shot after he allegedly overpowered Slager. Slager claimed he “felt threatened” when Scott got control of Slager’s Taser. That narrative, combined with Slager’s moving of his Taser from its original position, might have been accepted as the official account regarding Walter Scott’s death — had it not been for Santana’s surreptitious cellphone footage.
While many support Peter Liang’s grand jury indictment as a necessary first step in establishing accountability and oversight for police in the event of a suspicious civilian death, there are those within the Chinese American community who have interpreted Liang’s indictment as evidence of racism, comparing his indictment to the lack of an indictment for the White police officers in the shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
In the first week of March, an estimated two thousand Chinese American protesters marched in New York City in opposition to Peter Liang’s indictment. In the coming week, organizers hope to take those protests national, with a series of demonstrations protesting Liang’s indictment planned for cities around the country.
Not only is opposition to Peter Liang’s indictment frustratingly illogical, but these protests threaten to dominate coverage of Asian American involvement with what has become labelled America’s new Racial Justice Movement. Already, mainstream media outlets have generalized these protests as representative of all Asian Americans, erasing the sharp political divide within the Asian American community on this topic, and more specifically the countless Asian Americans who strongly support Peter Liang’s indictment and broader mechanisms of police accountability, and who stand in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Recently, I was approached by an Asian American ethnic media reporter (who approached me off the record to express his own apprehension at speaking out, and thus whose identity I will protect) who was interested in possibly writing about the pro-Liang rallies. He said: “Anti-indictment people have taken the upper hand in voicing their opinions, and those who disagree with them have been branded as ‘traitors'”.
I was asked how — given this — I was able to write so openly in support of Officer Liang’s indictment.