During the rally in support of former police officer Peter Liang this weekend, an officer in uniform pulled out his cell phone to show a picture of a young Asian girl holding a sign picturing Martin Luther King Jr.’s face, along with the words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Shouldn’t that be on the cover of the newspaper?” he asked.
The incident underscored the overlapping and conflicting tensions simmering beneath the surface in New York City, exemplified by the mass demonstrations in the wake of the killings of unarmed black civilians last year, here and around the country.
Whether black, white, or Asian-American, there is a divide between communities and police.
It’s not just black and blue
Akai Gurley’s death in November 2014 came as frustrations with the police were exploding, after the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and just before grand juries declined to indict the officers involved in either case. When a Brooklyn jury convicted Liang of manslaughter and official misconduct in Gurley’s death, he became the first officer convicted for a line-of-duty shooting of a civilian in over a decade.
In rallies across the country on Saturday, thousands of predominantly Asian-American protesters expressed outrage that the more serious misdeeds of other cops were being brought to bear on Liang.
“We’re not saying [Liang] is right, he’s also wrong. But the sentence should be less,” said Qiyan Chen, 32, a nurse from Queens. “We also feel bad for Gurley, he’s a victim, too.”
Calling the conviction a “grave injustice,” Tony Hom, 67, a lawyer from Manhattan, said it was the “first time the Asian-American community is starting to act up — starting to wake up.”
Across the street, a small group of Black Lives Matter activists counter-demonstrated — within earshot of the Brooklyn Bridge, which they and others had shut down a year ago with far larger numbers and shouts of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
Deploring a “racist system,” they called for justice, too. The two groups shouted at each other across the street with the police in the middle, for once somewhat overlooked.
What does justice look like?
Both sides of the protest were calling for justice.
For the supporters of Gurley, justice was served by the conviction of a police officer who shot and killed an innocent civilian. Not only was the conviction just, but it represented an overdue indictment of a system in which police officers patrol communities of color with heavy-handed militarism — a system in which a young black man could be killed with impunity.
For supporters of Liang — both police and Asian-American activists — the jury overreached. In their eyes, Liang was sacrificed for earlier sins: for the pot brought finally to boil. They point to the timing of the trial, after earlier non-indictments, and to Liang’s weak defense, which didn’t counter shifting arguments from prosecutors.
The two sides can look at the same image of Martin Luther King Jr. railing against injustice and come to completely different conclusions.
Now both groups turn with leery eyes to the courts to see which justice will prevail.
Liang is not a monster, but his conviction is an acknowledgement that killing unarmed civilians can’t be treated as business as usual for police. And it couldn’t be clearer that Gurley isn’t at fault for being in the stairwells of his own home; his death is the fault of aggressive policing that disproportionately affects minority communities.
It’s hard to imagine MLK feeling differently.
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