The (Asian American) People v. Peter Liang

I knew the Peter Liang case was important, possibly even historic, when my Chinese mother, despite her having shown no previous signs of race-consciousness, encouraged me to travel to Boston to attend one of the 37 Chinese American protests happening nationwide in the wake of Peter Liang’s indictment. One in a string of police brutality cases, Peter Liang’s guilty conviction marked a victory for the Black Lives Matter movement. However, this victory was quickly overshadowed by Chinese American frustration at the double standards within a justice system that has failed to indict far more egregious cases of police misconduct among white officers.

Last Saturday, I stood and watched the procession of Chinese protesters in Boston Common. Families passed me, holding signs that said, “One Tragedy Two Victims” or “Condolences to Mr. Gurley’s Family, Justice for Peter Liang.” A mother pushed a stroller in which her baby was hidden behind a large poster board reading, “Scapegoating Can’t Bring Peace.” The marchers chanted for “equal justice” and the community leaders taught individuals about the procedure of jury nullification. At one point, a leader tried to get the crowd to join in a rendition of “God Bless America.” No one there knew the words, so they talked amongst themselves in Chinese. Their words fell upon my deaf ears, but their excited tones did not. They were moved to pride in seeing their community mobilized and I, too, could not help but feel joy at the sight of easily the largest gathering of Chinese Americans that I have ever seen.

I lingered outside the protest, uncomfortably aware of the #Asians4BlackLives poster in my backpack. I think back to the video conference I had watched the previous day in which a panel of Asian American professors and organizers assured me that the protesters, conflating equal justice with equal privilege and acting on deeply entrenched feelings of anti-blackness, were misdirecting their anger. They argued that without solidarity, white-supremacist institutions could easily divide and conquer minorities. Asian Americans, along with other people of color, would always remain second-class citizens. The goal for Asian Americans should not be to access the rewards of whiteness, to gain the kind of privilege that allows police to kill without consequence. The goal should be to eradicate white privilege altogether. This cannot be accomplished by fighting for Peter Liang, but this can be done by calling for greater accountability and reform in the NYPD. Mutual accountability means mutual liberation.

But the more signs that pass – “No Selective Justice”, “Tragedy not Felony” – it becomes more difficult to dismiss the details of the case that the Chinese protesters are so infuriated by. I cannot forget that Peter Liang was the first police officer indicted for a line-of-duty shooting in over ten years. I cannot discount the role that today’s racially charged environment played in putting overwhelming pressure on the court to convict. I cannot accept that just because the judge was Asian, Liang’s trial was in any way de-racialized. I cannot dismiss the cases prior to this one – cases that involved the black lives of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, that were far more clear cut than a ricochet bullet, but that involved white cops and thus, cases allowing the officers to walk free.

Prior to the protest, the biggest question that weighed on my mind was education. Specifically, how do I translate concepts like the “model minority myth” to people who have lived their lives by that narrative? How to I communicate “solidarity” to communities where racism runs deep? Now, I question my position to teach, my right to be didactic. Who am I to use sociological concepts created in ivory towers to dismiss lived experience? Who am I to tell the protesters to overlook the troubling facts of the verdict because I want to maintain my allyship and they, instead, want to maintain their community? Who am I to tell them to stop and stand still with me?

In recent days, media coverage of the protests have evoked more surprise than negativity. Most articles just state, “Look at all these Asian Americans engaging in activism!” and the conversation stops there. Apparently, most journalists are too stunned by the act of protest to engage with its content. Strangely enough, the most virulent criticisms of the Chinese American protesters have come not from the African American community, but from the Asian American one. In this I see a troubling push for there to be one kind of Chinese American activist in a community that is becoming increasingly non-uniform. This kind of Chinese American activist is one who has interests that fall seamlessly in step with those of other POC, and who – through these aligned interests – holds a position of power. Everybody speaks, but this activist has access to platforms. Everybody speaks, but who is heard is who is politically useful and who is met with silence is who is politically expendable. Certain viewpoints go unconsidered and certain populations are rendered conveniently invisible. But this is a necessary silencing, so as not to wrinkle the tenuous reality of absolute solidarity, so as not to raise the question as to why it is so tenuous.

The shift that happens between allegiance to one’s ethnic community and one’s political allies occurs inconspicuously and is only illuminated in moments when those interests conflict. During break, in an attempt to substantiate my connection to the Chinese community, I played ping pong with Chinese elders in a community center in Houston, an experience that sounds far more interesting than its awkward reality. I found they looked at me in the same way people in China did, seeing my nationality first and my ethnicity second, picking up on my Asian American-ness first and my Chinese-ness second. Later, I told my mom about my awkward encounter and she replied in her usual matter-of-fact way, “You’re not like them.”

And it’s true. Having been shielded by class from the serious consequences of anti-Asian racism, I most likely won’t meet the fate of Vincent Chin who was killed in a working class neighborhood in Detroit. The threat of eviction does not loom over my predominantly white neighborhood as it does in Chinatown communities. At Amherst, surrounded by like-minded people who speak for me and non like-minded people who know to stay silent, I have never been at the receiving end of a hateful racial slur. My cushion of class and my disconnect from Chinatown conditioned me to be the model Chinese American activist. It allowed me to more readily adopt the position of ally to the Black Lives Matter movement than the position of member in my own ethnic community.

The Chinatown communities – the ones that have been protesting, the ones that I am removed from – cannot just let go of Peter Liang’s conviction for the abstract notion of some kind of greater good. They cannot just let go of Peter Liang, as a brother, a son, a member of their community, in the same way I can, as a necessary scapegoat. They, as Chinese American, do not have the capability of separation, of political abstraction that I do. Perhaps, I, as American Chinese, do not have the capability of community and personal investment that they do.

Having access to higher education, having access to social media, I have been handed a microphone that overpowers the whispers of a crowd that disagrees. Removed from their experience, I find it is all too easy to reduce their support to the product of anti-blackness and lack of education. But in this time, when the silence of a crowd has been broken and our voices are no longer amplified, when many Chinese Americans feel torn between our contemporaries and our solidarity and our Chinese and our community, it is important to recognize how different we are. The view that Peter Liang is part of a police system that has little regard for black lives does not have to be at odds with the view that his Asian American identity contributed to his surprising conviction. Instead of desperately maintaining one type of narrative, one conception of community, and one kind of activist, we must recognize that dissension breeds greater truth. Here, we have an opportunity to redefine what it means to be Chinese in America and reconsider what binds us together.