The Vexing Case of Peter Liang

The case of Peter Liang remains a particularly divisive and vexing one within the Chinese American community, with talks of national rallies now being planned for the indicted NYPD officer over the death of Akai Gurley. I have watched in horror as a White House petition grow to over 123,000 signatures, nervously wondering where this huge organizing force emerged from—especially as many large Asian American civil rights organizations have come out in support of indictment.

This is how the narrative is being presented from the side of these Chinese Americans in support of Liang: if the cops in the Eric Garner (Daniel Pantaleo) and Mike Brown (Darren Wilson) cases—being white cops—are not indicted, how is it fair that in this case, Peter Liang is indicted?

Is this something to do with Liang's race? That being not white, he falls into the unfortunate position of being an easy scapegoat upon which seemingly the entirety of the conversation surroudning police brutality is heaped on his back?

Furthermore, many Liang supporters espouse the notion that this all boils down to a mistake—that Liang shooting Gurley was a mistake, not "on purpose" like some of the other cases.

Each of these points are troubling, but also serves as interesting points of investigation into what is going on within the Chinese American community at the moment.

Those that support the indictment—including myself—typically counter these three points with the following:

  • The question should not be: "How is it fair that Peter Liang is indicted but Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo were not?" but instead: "How is it fair that Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo were not indicted?" Remember, and indictment is not finding anyone guilty, nor will anyone be sentenced. It simply allows the judicial system (as broken as it is) to proceed. We should be questioning why the other cops are not indicted, instead of the other way around.

  • This second question, of Liang being Asian American—and more specifically Chinese American—does not have a particularly easy answer in my eyes. I would hope that any police officer that kills will be brought at the very least to trial, regardless of race.

  • Liang's supporters continue to maintain that because this shooting was a mistake, Liang should not be indicted. How this justification makes sense confounds me, especially because there is still a dead man—mistake or not. The manslaughter charges brought out takes this "mistake" into consideration already—whether or not this is a mistake has nothing to do with an indictment.

Yet the new Coalition of Asian-Americans for Civil Rights—an ironic organizational name—claims that "if it was not for Ferguson and not for Staten Island, Peter Liang might not have been indicted." This claim suggests the use of the scapegoat frame, that the lack of indictment in the Wilson and Pantaleo cases is the reason for an indictment here—regardless of the fact that many more cases of police brutality have taken place within the time span of Mike Brown's death and that of Akai Gurley's.

Where is the source of all of this energy? Surely it is not the so-called "Coalition of Asian-Americans for Civil Rights," especially as they are so new to the scene. Something has provoked the conciousnesses of Chinese Americans before this "Coalition," and was able to do this on a massive scale (recall the amount of signatures on the White House petition).

What this source of organizing power may be both intrigues and worries me. Perhaps we can attribute to the firestorm of signatures on the White House petition to the internet, and the possibility that through social networks online, the petition went viral.

Or we may consider that throughout the New York Chinese American community, individuals held conversations—between friends, family members, coworkers—that sparked this massive dialogue and support for Liang.

However while these two possibilities may paint part of the picture, I do not think they are enough to explain this phenomena. The frames through which I've laid out previously are too coherent, too defined—it suggests framing effects at play, and the role of a larger force outlining this conversation.

This draws me to thinking about the role of ethnic press, particularly Chinese language newspapers. NBC News Asian America has already out that "the World Journal appears to have mounted something of a defense for Liang by attempting to paint a more complete portrait of the officer through its news coverage."

As the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the country—with circulation across the country from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to New York, the World Journal is published in traditional Chinese (suggesting, perhaps, also a conservative lean already), and has immense readership within the Chinese American community with a daily circulation of 350,000.

That number is huge. Ostensibly, what the paper prints will have a signficant influence on the community.

I am not attempting to link any particular paper as the source of this phenomena, but instead suggesting a need for further research and analysis of cultural sources that we do not pay enough attention to. Furthermore, I am also pointing out the power of the ethnic press in-and-of-itself, and that we need to pay more attention to ethnic press in discussions of the media.

And maybe there is something else at play other than the ethnic press that I am missing—that very well may be the case, especially because I have not spent the resources to analyze and assess articles on Chinese-language newspapers about Peter Liang, nor watched all of the Chinese-language television news on this matter.

Yet we have to think about this if we are invested in organizing Asian America, and realize that there are communities that—because of language barriers perhaps—are not as heard.

Photo by Sam Hodgson via The New York Times