Why we need to keep talking about Peter Liang

Seattle activist JM Wong addresses the crowd as part of a counter-protest at a rally supporting former NYPD officer Peter Liang. (Photo by Alex Garland.)
Seattle activist JM Wong addresses the crowd as part of a counter-protest at a rally supporting former NYPD officer Peter Liang. (Photo by Alex Garland.)

Since #Asians4BlackLives took off last year, Asian Americans have been taking a much needed look at ourselves, our places in U.S. history and what we stand for as racial justice advocates of the Asian diaspora.

Last week, I had the privilege of joining #Asians4BlackLives from across the U.S. and Canada for a story-gathering session at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. Together, we saw the big picture materialize around intersecting Asian and Black histories in the U.S. Using Timeline, we started compiling the events that built up to the #Asians4BlackLives movement.

Where did it really begin in U.S. history?

The conversation started with two Asian men in 1922 and 1923 being denied U.S. citizenship. So they took their separate cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that they could legally pass as white. A generation removed from the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882, the Naturalization Act of 1906 mandated that only those of white or African descent could become U.S. citizens. Asians learned how to survive in a paradigm of white supremacy by connecting to whiteness and distancing from blackness.

We can see the residue of this misguidance a few months ago when some Chinese American activists painted former New York City police officer Peter Liang as a young victim of a biased court system. A jury found Liang guilty of manslaughter in the death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man who was shot while passing through a stairwell when Liang and his partner were conducting a vertical patrol. A New York Post op-ed called Liang a scapegoat, opening with an agonizing comparison of Liang’s conviction to the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American engineer beaten to death in Michigan. Chin was killed by a Chrysler factory supervisor Ron Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz, who mistook him for Japanese, and in lieu of prison time, got off on probation and a $3,000 fine.

This unwitting anti-black push and racial distancing by protesters of the Liang verdict ultimately resulted in no prison time for the former police officer this April. Regardless of what the circumstances of Gurley’s shooting were, Liang’s freedom denies Gurley and his family justice. 

After the Allied Media Conference discussion on Asian and black U.S. histories, some of us visited the grave site of Vincent Chin. As an ancestor-abiding Chinese woman, it was hard to know what to say to Vincent exactly. It’s been 34 years since his murder, and his family must grapple every day with the injustice that Vincent’s murderers never saw a day in prison. As Vincent’s niece Annie Tan put it best in a Medium article, her uncle has much more in common with Akai Gurley than Peter Liang — a profound and timely reminder of how Vincent’s legacy is honored through #BlackLivesMatter.

Vincent Chin's headstone engraved in English at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit. (Photo by Christina Twu)
Vincent Chin’s headstone engraved in English at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit. (Photo by Christina Twu)

What really got me, though, is when Detroit community leader Soh Suzuki, our tour guide who visits Chin’s gravestone regularly, shares his personal connection to Chin. Suzuki’s parents were among the car company employees who moved from Japan to Detroit in the ’80s. With the rise of Japanese car manufacturers, anti-Japanese sentiment was high in the once booming Motor City.

“It was because of my family that Vincent Chin was killed,” said Suzuki.

Chin’s murder was utter violence. A case of racial profiling and mistaken identity. No matter what divisive narratives suggest, Asian and black communities are still united by racism — though we are looking at it from very different places.

And we’re all living beneficiaries of Asian-black coalition building, from celebrated moments in the Asian activist canon like Asian ally-ship in the Black Panther Party, to the union of James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs’ prescient contribution to political movements.

Just like these milestones we recount now, how we talk about Peter Liang as Chinese Americans, Asian Americans and people of color is a part of our American history, and will define our collective identity whether we want it to or not.

Let’s keep talking about Peter Liang and the possibility that a young, Asian American NYPD officer killed an unarmed black man. He took a man’s life away from a family and a community. Period.

How can you begin to rationalize or qualify that?

Join me and Pacific Rim Solidarity Network (PARISOL) in a discussion about Peter Liang on Saturday, July 9 at Bethany United Church of Christ in Beacon Hill.  RSVP and find more details at on the Facebook event page. 

8 Comments

  1. as an ABC myself, i can’t agree with your article. yes, peter liang is at fault – HOWEVER, let’s talk about all those other white police officers who walked away scratch free from their crimes. their crimes had clear evidence, videos, witness testimonies, and yet – did they get any punishment at all? what about the families of those lives that were brutally destroyed? i think you have made peter liang into the scapegoat that the police department set him up to be. there is a bigger problem at hand. the whole justice system needs to be reformed and changed in order to stop being so discriminatory and prejudicial. so please dont just point a finger at peter liang.

    1. Bob, your thinking is flawed. You are literally saying that because a white man got away with murdering someone, that an Asian man should too? Are you freaking serious? It DOES NOT MATTER what race you are…justice is blind. Honestly, Peter Liang got off with a slap on the wrist. You shouldn’t support Peter Liang, you should be protesting against the police system that put Peter in the position he is today. Peter made a mistake…he rightfully deserved the punishment he received.

  2. notice how all these comments are being removed by seattleglobalist for “violation of community guidelines” haha, more like liberal lunatics trying to censor comments by anyone who doesnt agree with them

  3. John, this article was written by the editor of this website so what do you expect? The author is obtaining a Masters degree in some vague major with no practical use. She had my post deleted because she can’t deal with facts. All you had to do was search through the news articles online. How can you be a recipient of a journalistic award and try to be a journalist when you can’t deal with simple research and objectivity? Maybe she ought to spend real time helping out Asian immigrants with volunteer work. I don’t think she bothered to realize that the rallies in various cities in support for Peter Liang drew thousands. Gurley protestors amounted to about 75 in NYC. Sharpton and others were no shows. It’s ironic corporate Facebook profiles don’t and try to request Facebook to remove critical posts but she can’t handle a different opinion. So much for diversity.

    1. A lot of people show up for Trump rallies, that does not make them noble. Peter killed a man and watched him die without helping. And he walks free. A black kid playing with fire accidentally has it goes out of control. He warns people in the area about the fire and he is jail for life now. AND IT WAS THE SAME JUDGE. And what does Sharpton have to do with this ? People who support Peter are no better then people who supported the killers of Emmett Till.

      1. Well said. I think the point is, regardless of race, he killed someone. There is no question it was it. He didn’t deny it. Now he has to pay the price. Period.

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