Paying for the Sins of America's Past

It's not often I read in the news about someone that's my particular demographic, and it's usually not for something good, outside of the movement of Linsanity 4 years ago.  We're invisible in many arenas in American culture, most notably the public services.  So when I heard about the Peter Liang story, I immediately pored over as much as I could over what was written about the case.

NYC edition: The Vertical Crawl

NYC edition: The Vertical Crawl

For those not familiar with the Peter Liang, he's a 1.5 generation Chinese American from Hong Kong who grew up in Brooklyn, New York.  He became an NYPD officer, and was given the task of being an impact officer in what's known as a vertical patrol, where officers would patrol stairwells of buildings known to have high crime rates.  It reminds me of the Raid: Redemption movie, only probably a few levels tamer.

18 months after graduating from the police academy, on November 20, 2014, Liang's on one of these patrols with his other rookie partner, a white officer named Landau.  They started the patrol with weapons drawn, as the stairwell was dark and known to be dangerous.  As they entered the stairwell, a noise startles Liang, and his gun accidentally fires.  The bullet from his gun ricochets and hits Akai Gurley, a 28 year old black man in the chest one flight of stairs down.  Gurley, frightened by the gunshot and not aware that he was hit, actually runs down two more flights of stairs before collapsing.

For a few moments afterwards, the officers were unaware that someone was hit (the place was pitch dark and the bullet was a ricochet hit on the next floor down).  There's a bit of discussion as to how they would contact their superiors about the accidental discharge.  Finally, as they start to look for the bullet, they hear Gurley's girlfriend's cries 3 floors down and realize what had happened.  Stunned and untrained, neither officer administers CPR as they felt unfit to do so, but it was later determined that such assistance would not have mattered.  They allegedly made a radio call to ambulances (there's no record of this but this was posited that the stairwell had poor reception), but Gurley ended up dying at the hospital.

Fast forward to last week, where Peter Liang was convicted of 2nd degree manslaughter and official misconduct.  He's set to be sentenced April 14th of this year.  His partner, Landau, was granted immunity for testifying in the case.  He was not even given official misconduct charges that Liang was given, and he was just as inexperienced and responsible for the delay of medical assistance.

As any person of color, we owe a lot to the black community.  They fought for equality and freedom that many of us now enjoy.  There is no doubt in my mind that if the Civil Rights Movement hadn't happened there would be Whites Only signs that would exclude Asians and Hispanics as well.  Yet the narrative has been shaped by America to pit us against each other, one as the "model minority" who gets it right vs. the other as the lazy people who don't take accountability for their lot in life, the foreigners who came over taking opportunity and the overaggressive less sensible neighbors who have not welcomed them with open arms.  

There have been changes since the LA riots in the early 90s, as 2nd generation of Asian Americans have become better educated about America's past and don't necessarily subscribe to the naive racism of their less familiar 1st generation parents.  But while there may not be outward animosity between the two, there's certainly no presumption of solidarity either.

There's no easy solution to America's race problem.  The backbone of American life was built on the backs of slavery (the Confederate States of America would have been the 4th largest economy in the world by itself).  Even after the abolishment of slavery, the continuation of segregation and Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from gaining any sort of meaningful progress for almost a century.  Though racism is definitely on the decline, black people still suffer from being in disproportionately socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.  It's not easy to pick yourself up by the bootstraps when you're only a few generations removed from total destitution.

Amidst all this, with the arrivals of first Jews, then Asians, America and other western countries have bought into and promoted the Goldilocks theory of race, that whites somehow possessed the best of both races.  Asians were too effeminate, intelligent but emotionless, blacks too aggressive, stupid and dangerous, but whites were "just right".  The idea, while not explicitly stated, is somewhat tacitly accepted and its main function is that it alienates both races as "other".  Many white Americans who want to "make America great again" view America as a country that is run by people who look like themselves, "the way it used to be", and see the current shifts as a danger to that status quo.

These same white Americans are the ones who pardon a white police officer who chokes an unarmed black man to death while failing to administer medical aid when he is unconscious, white police officers who shoot 50 times into a car with a black man on his wedding day, plainclothes white police officers who follow a suspect to his home and shoot him while he's unarmed, and decide instead to pay the victim's families a few million dollars as restitution.  In some of these cases, the predominantly white police unions even speak out in defense of these upstanding officers, and claim that they were officers in the line of duty simply doing their job.  In all of these cases, aggression was intentional and calculated, though perhaps poorly.

Unintentional crimes are always curious to me as to how they should be punished.  If I'm zooming down a street and speeding, but nothing happens to me, I merely would get a traffic citation.  But if it's dark and suddenly I hit and kill a pedestrian while speeding, the consequences are much more severe, usually I'll be charged with negligent homicide.  In both crimes, I'm doing the same exact thing, I just happened to be unlucky in the second scenario.  In a purely emotionless world, the consequences would be equal in both cases, because they are technically the same action, but when an actual person dies, someone needs to take the blame.  On the flipside, It would seem Minority Report-y if we started to jail every speeder for "future vehicular manslaughter".

Asians.  The real threat to America.

Asians.  The real threat to America.

I don't believe the prosecution argued that Liang shot Gurley intentionally.  Both sides agreed that it was an accident, though the prosecution argued one that could've been avoided by Liang.  But the Black Lives Matter people seem to tack this shooting on as another example of racial profiling gone wrong, when it is more of a wrong place wrong time type of situation.  They are satisfied to make Liang the poster boy for the epidemic of the shooting of unarmed black men. Unfortunately, this case doesn't fit that narrative.  If a white person walking down that stairwell, I'm pretty sure he would've died too.  The fact that the bullet ricocheted further gives credence to the fact that his discharge was accidental, unless he's some sort of video game character.

One bullet.  More than enough to kill an object you can't see in the dark.

One bullet.  More than enough to kill an object you can't see in the dark.

Of course it's a building with a predominantly black population, one that's also dangerous and known for crime, which is why the patrol was happening in the first place.  But neither of those circumstances were Liang's decision, he was assigned to patrol here by the NYPD.  Whether he was qualified or not was a decision that was up to his superiors.

The police union that was so behind Daniel Pantaleo in the Eric Garner case was somewhat distant when it came to Liang. The claims of the officer being an upstanding citizen were noticeably absent. It almost seemed like the NYPD was happy to have Liang be the fall guy for their previous crimes, as a sacrifice to the angry mob.  As long as the city didn't have to shell out a few million dollars again, who cares?  They can claim that they now have more accountability AND save the city some money!  It's a win win for both sides!

It's even more jarring when a case that's almost identical happened to a white officer, who was not even indicted.  He was merely stripped of his weapon and assigned another job in the police department.  There's a clear bias and inconsistent handling of Liang's case, and it's not even disguised.

Do I believe Liang should be punished for what he did?  Absolutely, there are mistakes he made that probably could have been avoided (perhaps calling for backup or phoning in his superior officer before entering the stairwell).  But should that warrant a possible 15 year sentence in jail as a former police officer? (jail's particularly not fun for former cops)

The NYPD will continue to conduct these vertical patrols, patrols that put inexperienced police officers like Liang into these terrible situations to begin with.  Make no mistake, there is no progress here for the "Black Lives Matter" movement.  Liang has made a tragic error at the worst possible political time, he's been convicted by public opinion rather than legal precedent.  He was painted as too heady, too emotionless, too selfish to aid Akai Gurney in his time of need, whereas his white partner was somehow left off the hook for just sticking around and arguing with him during those critical moments.  He's blamed for the death of an accidental bullet which would've just been a disciplinary action instead of a 2nd degree manslaughter charge, and tacked on an official misconduct charge when any sort of aid rendered to Gurney wouldn't have mattered after he was shot.  I only can hope that somehow we can stop this miscarriage of justice.