It’s been a month since former New York Police Department Officer Peter Liang was found guilty of manslaughter, but the movement to “save” him is gaining momentum. Liang, who in 2014 shot and killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old black man, is Chinese-American. He’s also the first New York City cop to be convicted in a police-involved shooting in more than a decade, causing many people in Asian-American communities to accuse the justice system of “scapegoating.” In the immediate aftermath of his conviction, thousands of supporters rallied in cities across the country, flooding the streets with signs that read: “Save Peter Liang,” “No Selective Justice,” and “One Tragedy, Two Victims.” Last week, amid continued calls for protest and massive social media support, Liang began to assemble a new team of lawyers to appeal the verdict.
On February 5, I sat in a cramped courtroom watching his trial alongside other journalists, the Brooklyn district attorney, and supporters of both Peter Liang and Akai Gurley’s family. The basic events of the evening are not disputed: On November 20, 2014, Liang and his partner were patrolling a Brooklyn housing project when he shot Gurley in a dark stairwell. They did not attempt to resuscitate Gurley, and spent two critical minutes debating whether to call their supervisor while Liang said over and over again that he was going to lose his job. Gurley was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Liang maintains he fired his weapon by accident, and that he was in shock and inadequately trained to perform CPR. As the room waited impatiently for the defense to present its case, I caught a glimpse of Liang sitting next to his lawyers on the far side of the room. His head was bowed low, his back small. The sight of him conjured in me a familiar sense of despair.
As a daughter of Japanese parents, I’ve often felt a deep sense of duty and obligation, perhaps a burden, that I couldn’t quite explain to my white peers. That is, for an Asian kid, there always seemed to be more at stake. The narrative of the model minority has been so deeply embedded into the Asian immigration story that it’s seeped into our collective psyche. Our “success” is a way of justifying why we’re here and why we belong. Our sense of worth is tied to the “success” of our people as a whole. To fail is to betray generations. It’s hard to explain the depth of filial piety, but it’s impossible to understand Asian support for Liang without it. Peter Liang is everything to his parents. As I watched Liang and his family in the courtroom, I saw my parents in his, myself in him. But no matter how deeply I felt this cultural kinship, I couldn’t defend him.
The following week, Akai Gurley’s family and those of other victims of police shootings gathered outside the courthouse for a press conference. I stood by as cameras swarmed around them on the sidewalk, cars zipping behind them. Among those who spoke was Nicholas Heyward Sr., the father of Nicholas Heyward Jr., an African-American boy shot by a police officer in 1994. Like Akai Gurley, he was shot in the dark stairwell of a New York City housing project. He was 13 years old. More than 20 years later, Heyward Sr. was standing in front of the courthouse again, holding up a picture of his son in his hand. I felt the weight of one’s life being changed forever.