From Divided to United?

The current debate over the conviction of NYPD officer Peter Liang is actually a good sign, heralding the growing political maturity of the Chinese American community.

By Rong Xiaoqing
March 1, 2016 | , , , , , , , , , , ,

There are many noteworthy aspects in the Chinese American community’s reaction to the recent conviction of Chinese American police officer Peter Liang, who accidentally shot dead African American Akai Gurley last November.

Liang, who was on patrol duty that night, was found guilty of killing Gurley, who was unarmed, in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. The officer is now facing up to 15 years in prison for manslaughter.

What fascinates me the most is the clashes of opinions on Liang’s case within the community, or, as some media outlets called it, “the division of a community.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like the attacks hurled against those who did not protest Liang’s indictment or those who stood with Gurley’s family during and after the trial. Among those who were on the receiving end of these attacks were the community-based organization Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) and NYC Council Member Margaret Chin.

The attacks are from those who believe Liang’s indictment and conviction were meant to ease the tension between the police and the public, to make up for several cases where several white cops responsible for the deaths of innocent African Americans were not punished. So far, the attacks are only verbal but some of them are too nasty to be quoted here.

And I don’t like members of this community fighting against one another when so many needs of the community required more attention and effort. These needs will not be met unless we members of the community all work together.

Protesters at the Cadman Plaza on February 20. Photo by Yue Yuan Hu

Protesters at the Cadman Plaza on February 20. Photo by Yue Yuan Hu

But for the entire Chinese American community to make progress toward equal rights and opportunities in this country, such clashes are not only unavoidable but also necessary. Different opinions on heated issues like this one, balance one another, provide a complete picture for people in the community, and, in the end, benefit the community in all possible ways.

There is no better example than the rally against Liang’s conviction that took place on February 20 at Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn, and simultaneously in more than 40 cities. There is marked difference between these rallies and the one that erupted in New York in the spring last year after Liang’s indictment.

Both protests meant to help Liang and call for judiciary fairness to the Chinese American community. Both were attended mainly by Chinese Americans. But the major difference between the two events were the signs the participants held. In the recent protest, “One tragedy, two victims” and “No Scapegoating” were the most popular slogans written on placards.

“Support Peter Liang,” which was almost the only slogan in the previous protest, was nowhere to be seen.

 

“Those who question the logic of the rally for Liang may not realize the long-term benefit activities like these could bring to the community.”

 

This didn’t happen accidentally. In the chatting group on WeChat, the most popular social platform among the Chinese where the organizers and passionate participants discussed the nuts and bolts of the recent protest, different voices started emerging a few days before the protests.

One person posted a message calling for dropping the “Support Peter Liang” slogan because “Liang did something wrong. We cannot support him killing people.”

Another person reminded that Gurley was a victim and the protesters need to show sympathy to his family. “At least, Liang owes his family an apology,” the post said.

Someone recommended that the protesters should only call for a fair judicial system, and not instigate animosity between the Chinese and African Americans. “African Americans are not our enemies,” the message went.

Still another suggested that the protesters offer a moment of silence at the beginning of the rally to mourn for Gurley.

Part of the crowd protesting the conviction of Peter Liang in Queens on February 20. Photo by Yue Yuan Hu

Part of the crowd protesting the conviction of Peter Liang in Queens on February 20. Photo by Yue Yuan Hu

These suggestions, after debating, were all evident at the rally. The open exchange of ideas played a significant role in maintaining order during the protest. Despite the anger of the tens of thousands Chinese American participants and the sometimes vehement counter-protesting from members of Black Lives Matter, the rally ended up peacefully

It’s unlikely the organizers would give any credit to groups and individuals who did not agree with their position on Peter Liang’s case for the success of the protest. But they should.

In general, the Chinese are not known for caring much about the pain of other minority communities. During the 2013 mayoral campaign, majority of Chinese American voters, thinking that the controversial stop-and-frisk program of the NYPD did not affect them, showed strong opposition to the proposals from several candidates, including the current Mayor Bill de Blasio, to stop or scale down the controversial program.

 

“For a community that has been shortchanged, underserved and deprived of equal rights for far too long because of its reputation as a “silent minority,” any non-violent effort of breaking the stereotype is encouraging.”

And when the grand jury’s decision of not indicting the white police officer responsible for the death of unarmed Staten Island cigarettes vendor Eric Garner triggered a citywide outcry in 2014, few Chinese Americans followed the news. Indeed, members of CAAAV and Council Member Chin were among the very few Chinese Americans who participated in the rallies and marches seeking justice for Garner.

This time around, looking at the weight the Chinese American protesters gave to the death of Gurley and the pain felt by his family and community, it’s hard to say whether the dissenters’ voices have fallen on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, those who question the logic of the rally for Liang may not realize the long-term benefit activities like these could bring to the community. The protests may not be able to reverse Liang’s case, as some participants may have hoped. And the protesters, many of whom new immigrants, may have oversimplified the social conflicts in this country by playing along the racial line.

But for a community that has been shortchanged, underserved and deprived of equal rights for far too long because of its reputation as a “silent minority,” any non-violent effort of breaking the stereotype is encouraging. These efforts may not bring immediate changes, and could even be considered radical at times, just like the Black Lives Matter movement.

But in the long run, they can help shape the conversations and, therefore, bring some fundamental changes to society. Or, as many of the protesters for Liang put it: “We do this for the future of our children.”

So, instead of squaring off, shouldn’t the two sides on Liang’s case within the community give each other a big hug?

Rong Xiaoqing is a new Open City Fellow. She is currently a reporter for the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily in New York. She also writes for various English and Chinese language publications in the U.S. and China, including the New York Daily News, South China Morning Post and China Newsweek. She writes columns for Fortune Magazine’s Chinese edition, Global Times’ English edition and Tencent website.

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