Indictment of New York Officer Divides Chinese-Americans

Vivian Yeefeb, New York Times, February 22, 2015

In Chinatown in Manhattan, it is the ultimate feel-good holiday: a time for joy, for festive red bunting and for stocking up on dumplings and rice-flour cake. Discord and heavy thoughts, according to custom, can wait until after the Lunar New Year.

But even as Phil Gim, a businessman in Whitestone, Queens, sent holiday greetings to friends and relatives in China through WeChat, a popular social media app, he found himself preoccupied with grimmer news. Churning through WeChat was a torrent of messages denouncing the indictment this month on manslaughter charges of Peter Liang, the Chinese-American police officer whose ricocheting bullet killed an unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, in a housing project stairwell in November.

{snip} Now, Mr. Gim and others said that with the Brooklyn grand jury’s decision to indict Officer Liang, he “is being sacrificed for all the injustices that happened.”

“The climate is crying out for the indictment of a police officer,” Mr. Gim said last week at a restaurant in Flushing, Queens, where he and other supporters of Officer Liang had gathered for dim sum.

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Now Chinese-Americans, too, find themselves divided.

Some have hesitated, reluctant to find politics or racial discrimination in the indictment of Officer Liang. Others have hailed the charges against him as a means of improving relations between the police and all minorities. But for some, the indictment is nothing less than the scapegoating of a young officer whose parents may have to live without their only son–and a call to arms for a minority group that has never been as politically active as blacks or Hispanics.

“We don’t want to be pushed around anymore, or picked on anymore,” Mr. Gim said. “We’re going to fight back.”

Mr. Gim and his lunchmates first met on WeChat after the death of Officer Wenjian Liu, who was shot in December. Now they are reaching out to the Chinese-language press, contacting lawyers to advise Officer Liang and planning a protest march in New York, a city with the largest Chinese population outside of Asia. An online petition opposing the indictment that was started in California by a member of the Chinese-American community has garnered more than 100,000 signatures.

The indictment has galvanized other Chinese-American leaders, but in a different way.

To say that Officer Liang has been singled out misses the bigger picture, those leaders argue. Asians have also suffered at the hands of police officers, they say, and it is time for them to join the chorus of black and Latino voices calling for reform.

“Peter Liang being Asian only means that all cops need to be held accountable, regardless of skin color,” said Cathy Dang, the executive director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, an advocacy group in New York that works with Asian immigrants from several countries. “We should use this indictment as fuel for us to organize even harder to hold the white officers who’ve killed accountable.”

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, a Democrat who represents the Chinatown neighborhood, also called for Officer Liang to be indicted, saying the filing of charges would be a step toward reforming a police force that she said has unfairly targeted Asians as well as blacks and Latinos.

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In some ways, Officer Liang’s case seems all too easy to slice along racial lines. Like Mr. Gurley, the shooting victim, the Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, is black; the judge who oversaw the officer’s arraignment, Justice Danny K. Chun of State Supreme Court, is Korean-American. After Justice Chun granted the prosecutors’ request to release the officer on his own recognizance, Mr. Gurley’s aunt spat out: “Asian judge!”

Even so, Ms. Dang said she hoped to encourage Asian-Americans to find common cause with blacks. Her group had previously called for the indictments of the officers involved in the deaths of Mr. Garner and other unarmed black men.

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