The speakers on stage muttered the name Peter Liang a few times. People in the audience nodded their heads in agreement to the overtones of anger and insult accompanying the mention of his name. During the question-and-answer session, one woman said: “I live in public housing. What should I do to guarantee that the police don’t kill my son as he comes down the stairs?”
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All the speakers – members of nongovernmental advocacy groups: a litigating lawyer, law graduates and a journalist who covers legal affairs – were African Americans, as were most in attendance. The panel’s topic was “The Intersection of Race, Gender and Privilege Within the Fight Against Mass Incarceration.”
The session was sponsored by Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies; it was appropriately held at My Image Studios near the corner of West 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem.
You entered the hall through an elegant cafe only about two years old; the walls were covered in mirrors. Thin Apple laptops populated the tables alongside the coffee. Behind the computers were young people dressed in elegant carelessness, most of them black.
Gender was less of a topic for the panel, though privilege remained between the lines. The rates of mass incarceration have gone down in recent years in some states, said the speakers, though the percentages for blacks arrested are still much higher than for the overall population. And they’re jailed for minor offenses for which whites are not.
Imprisonment has become an alternative to solving social problems, the panel stressed, and spoke at length on the NYPD’s provocative behavior.
“A resident of public housing goes downstairs to throw out the garbage, and a policeman detains him because he doesn’t have an ID,” one speaker said. “Who of you goes down to throw out the garbage with an ID?”
The public housing projects are the last of the Mohicans for the black community. Amid all the gentrification, they’re virtually the only possibility for an African American to still live in the city, he added.
Public housing is directly connected to Liang. In November 2014 he was 27, just a year as a New York City cop, when he was sent on patrol in Brooklyn’s Louis H. Pink Houses public housing project. He and his partner, Shaun Landau, made a “vertical patrol” through the dark and neglected stairwells – all the lights were burned out, the elevator out of order, some locks broken.
On the eighth floor Liang heard a suspicious sound. A flashlight in one hand, his Glock pistol in the other, he fired. The bullet hit a wall and ricocheted into the chest of Akai Gurley, 28, who had just left an apartment on the seventh floor.
Liang and Landau first called police-union officials. They did not try to resuscitate the victim. They said in court they did not immediately know that someone had been wounded, and that the police CPR course they had received wasn’t serious, so they didn’t feel qualified to perform CPR.
Long Island-based newspaper Newsday reported two years ago that since 1999, out of 179 New York City police officers who killed unarmed people, only three were put on trial. Since 2005, Liang was the first to be indicted. The trial began in late January, and a jury found Liang guilty of manslaughter and official misconduct on February 11.
In July 2014, a few months before Liang shot and killed Gurley on November 20, a white policeman, Daniel Pantaleo, choked a black man, Eric Garner, to death in broad daylight in Staten Island. Garner was suspected of illegally selling “loosies,” untaxed individual cigarettes.
It’s such a serious crime that it took five armed police officers to grab him, force him to the ground and hold him. “I can’t breathe,” Garner said 11 times. A grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo. The only police officer given a disciplinary trial was Sgt. Kizzy Adoni, the supervisor on the scene, a black woman.
Would it be plausible, then, that Liang’s trial was a direct result of the Black Lives Matter protest movement of recent years? His family and friends think otherwise.
Liang is a Chinese American, born in Hong Kong, whose parents moved to the United States when he was a child and lived in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. They all think he has been made a Chinese scapegoat in a society that does not prosecute white police officers who kill unarmed people. During Liang’s trial, Chinese and other Asian Americans, who rarely demonstrate, came out in their thousands to protest Liang’s alleged selection as a scapegoat.
Facing them were other protesters, mostly African Americans, demonstrating against what they said was the establishment’s indifference about black people’s deaths.
Both groups of protesters were there last Tuesday, too. That day, Justice Danny K. Chun of the New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn sentenced Liang to five years of probation and 800 hours of community service after reducing the charge to negligent homicide. Liang will not go to prison.
Chun is also an Asian American – of Korean origin. For some black commentators, this is reason enough to believe that because of his ethnicity, the judge reduced the charge and gave a lenient sentence. Chinese Americans, who expressed their sympathies over Gurley’s death, welcomed the judge’s decision.