Liang case part of a larger problem

Parents and family members of people who died at the hands of police were by the side of Akai Gurley’s family this week as Officer Peter Liang was in court facing a manslaughter charge in the death of the 28-year-old Brooklyn father. The shared pain of the parents, most of whom live with the fact that many of the cops involved such cases walk free among us, still haunts the city.

Liang’s conviction yesterday on manslaughter and official misconduct charges is a battle won by thousands of New Yorkers who have poured into city streets; by his family, friends and supporters who’ve thrown fists into the air. However, deeper questions persist about how we should ease the tension between the policing of public housing and how we value the families who live there.

If, as Liang testified, fear made him take out his gun as he entered the staircase of the Pink Houses complex in Brooklyn, then how should residents of public housing feel? They say little has changed since Gurley died in 2014. The city can throw rookie cops into the projects but can’t change a lightbulb? What about shuttered community centers, the recurring lack of heat and hot water or the scarcity of youth programming?

The fear that Liang and other NYPD officers feel when they enter a public housing complex is the fear of the otherness of those who call NYCHA home. America’s historic fear of black lives, of dark staircases that we’ve decided are suitable for people of color (but “dangerous” for cops) doesn’t mean all 36,000 NYPD cops are racists but it means that our long-held prejudices still could offer deadly outcomes if you’re a person of color in 2016.

Warnings by Liang’s lawyers that convicting the rookie officer would have a “chilling effect” on cops across the city suggest that black lives are expendable — that police impunity is the price we pay for safety. It’s also unlikely as the killing of an East Harlem housing cop last year and the shooting of two others last week in the Bronx, will probably invite even more aggressive policing tactics.

Veteran white police officers like Daniel Pantaleo and Richard Haste, involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Ramarley Graham, have avoided prosecution. Vertical patrols continue. The city still treats public housing residents like second-class citizens.
We have a long way to go.  

Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist with the Coalition to End Broken Windows.