What are we fighting for? White Privilege or Racial Justice in the death of Akai Gurley

Guest Post by OiYan Poon

Second-degree manslaughter. Manslaughter is legally defined as an "unintentional homicide from criminally negligent or reckless conduct. It can also refer to an unintentional killing through commission of a crime other than a felony."

As I witness fellow Chinese Americans, including family, protest former NYPD officer Peter Liang's manslaughter conviction in the death of Akai Gurley, I struggle to make sense of it all.

Family elders tell me to have compassion for Liang. "It was an accident. He was a rookie cop. Don't lump him together with bad cops. The bullet bounced off the wall and into Gurley's body," they say. They question why white officers like Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, who killed unarmed African Americans like Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City, get to walk free. "Liang is being used by a racist system as a scapegoat for bad policing," they say.

On the specifics of the case, I disagree with my elders. Liang unintentionally shot Akai Gurley, the father of a 2 year-old girl, but then did not try to save his life, and called his supervisor instead of an ambulance. His reckless behavior fits the definition of manslaughter.

While my elders believe Liang should not have been convicted in the death of Akai Gurley, I disagree that Liang should be granted the same unjust immunity that white officers have received in the killings of unarmed Black men. Liang is not the only police officer who has taken an innocent life, and he should not be the only one held accountable for doing so. Those who are angered by the double standard between how the state holds white and Chinese American officers accountable must fight in solidarity with African Americans and other people of color to transform a broken justice system.

I am surprised by my elders' sudden political engagement, and have so many questions.

What are they really mad about? Are they mad that a Chinese American officer didn't get away with killing an unarmed Black man the way white officers have? Or are they truly trying to highlight how the criminal justice system unfairly privileges whites and creates second class citizens of people who are not white? If they are sincerely interested in drawing attention to the ways systemic racism harms Asian Americans and African Americans, I would expect to see them at future #BlackLivesMatter protests over continued police violence directed at African Americans.

What is it about Peter Liang and his conviction that is riling up a previously, generally politically apathetic population ? Where were they when NYPD officers unjustly beat up 84 year-old Kang Chun Wong for jaywalking in New York City Chinatown, when Chicago police assaulted Chinese immigrant Jessica Klyzek, or when a Minneapolis police officer was acquitted of gunning down 19 year-old Fong Lee?

As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I have experienced and witnessed both covert and overt anti-Asian racism, which has generally been overlooked by U.S. society and the state. These experiences allow me to empathize with and appreciate African American struggles, and motivate my fight for social justice and research on Asian Americans, education, and racism. We should fight for our dignity and rights. However, I am deeply disturbed by the current Peter Liang campaign, which inherently argues for maintaining police immunity in the perpetration of racial violence against unarmed citizens. If that's our cause, how then would we fight for Asian American victims of similar police violence?

In the end, history and morality tell us that fighting from a self-interested position is only self-defeating. Historically, Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans have tried to legally gain the privileges of whiteness and failed. On the other hand, Chinese Americans have also fought alongside other people of color for racial justice and won transformative systemic changes that benefit people of all races.

As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I have often felt culturally and linguistically distant from my elders. However, as someone who benefited from the love and nurturing of my immigrant elders, and as the new mother of a third generation Chinese American child, I want to have an inter-generational conversation about how we can advocate together for our struggles and still respect and support the humanity of others.

Just as in the past, we have a choice to either fight for a racist system that privileges whites to also benefit Asian Americans, or for a transformative systemic change that benefits everyone.

OiYan Poon is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Loyola University Chicago. Her research focuses on Asian Americans, education, and racial equity.


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