In November 2014, an unarmed black man named Akai Gurley was killed by NYPD officer Peter Liang inside an unlit stairwell in the Louis H. Pink Houses. Akai Gurley was a father, a boyfriend, and an undoubtedly innocent victim. On Feb.11, Peter Liang was charged with involuntary manslaughter. Liang's decision to pull the trigger—intentional or not—and the fact that the bullet ricocheted off a wall and killed Gurley made Liang a criminal.
The public response to the incident and trial has been polarizing. Many Asian Americans have risen in defence of Liang, arguing he is a scapegoat for other police brutality incidents and should have a reduced sentence. Many others, however, have no sympathy for Liang. Last week, the Asian American Alliance at Columbia published an article in Spectator titled "Asian America, we cannot support Peter Liang." Annie Tan, a public school teacher in Chicago, recently published a piece in the Huffington Post in which she compared Peter Liang with the two white men who beat her uncle to death in 1982 in Detroit.
While I agree it would be unacceptable to reduce Liang's charges, I am deeply disturbed by how the larger movement against police brutality has reacted. Is it not possible for our generation to hold a moderate view? To both support Gurley, who was an innocent victim, and Liang, who fell victim to the forces of fear and inexperience?
The fear I refer to here is one that is created by American gun culture—a culture I admittedly did not grow up in and do not fully understand. I am a Chinese Australian Canadian who was raised in Beijing, Sydney, and Toronto. The closest I have been to an unholstered, loaded gun was when my family was pulled over for speeding in the Florida Keys and the officer approached us with his firearm raised. The first time I heard a gun discharge was during a rowing training camp in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
While I believe the precedent and tradition behind American gun culture is rich, one would have to be blind to neglect the dangers it brings American society. When I say danger, however, I do not refer to the palpable: homicide rates, suicide rates, mass killings. I refer to the systematic fear created amongst communities as well as amongst the policemen who put their lives on the line for the sake of service.
Civilians live in the fear that others have firearms and thus feel the need to defend themselves with guns. This psychological mentality of fear and self-defence propagates a culture of paranoia, ironically making both civilian life and policing even more dangerous.
A statistic often cited when criticizing the American police force is the frequency with which they draw their firearms. One can blame this statistic on poor police training or disturbing power dynamics. However, I contend that in the case of Peter Liang, as well as in many other cases, the cycle of fear caused by American gun culture is the root of the problem.
In a New York Post article, Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said that the "constant presence of illegal firearms in [the Louis H. Pink Houses] creates a dangerous and highly volatile environment for police officers and residents alike." The dangerous environment of the housing project drives residents, criminal or not, to defend themselves with firearms. The presence of crime and firearms makes policemen more likely to draw their weapons in precaution, which, in turn, makes violent conflict a more probable scenario. In fact, Liang was trained to take his gun out when approaching roof landings during vertical patrol.
On the day of the shooting, Peter Liang had only 18 months of experience as a policeman. When half an inch of travel and 11 pounds of force is the margin of error on a Glock 9mm's trigger, inexperience and the NYPD's notoriously poor arms training resulted in this tragic accident. Liang was described as "hyperventilating" and "shaken" after the event—in no state to react. He called for help but felt untrained to perform CPR. The incident, on paper, is clearly a case of criminal negligence. Liang, however, was put in a situation for which he was unprepared. The dangerous environment of the Louis H. Pink Houses was in no way suitable for a rookie, and the NYPD's poor decision to station Liang there also played a role in the incident.
Peter Liang was fairly trialled by the legal system but is a victim of two forces: of the fear propagated by American gun culture and of a poor decision made by the NYPD. Although it is absurd to ask for Liang's charges to be reduced, it is also absurd to demonize him as the AAA and Annie Tan have.
It is easy to jump to polarizing conclusions, to generalize, to codify—that the institution works against us, that all cops are cold-blooded, that a certain race or community embodies a certain characteristic. To do so, however, is to simplify and to propagate intolerance. To engage in discourse, on the other hand, is to recognize truths from both ends of the spectrum and to combine perspectives. It is what we came to Columbia for, and it is the best way to alleviate tensions in our community.
If you put yourself in both men's shoes, you will likely come to the same conclusion as me: that both men and their families deserve our support. Akai Gurley was a victim of America's increasingly weaponized police force. Cops like Peter Liang, however, are victims of a prevalent gun culture where police deaths are directly correlated with high gun ownership, but officers are poorly trained and are expected to stand down until it may be too late to react. I stand in solidarity with Akai Gurley and I stand in solidarity with Peter Liang—the two positions are not mutually exclusive.
The author is a Chinese-Australian-Canadian SEAS junior studying Operations Research: Engineering Management Systems.
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