How a New York police killing revealed the fractures in Asian American politics
When thousands of protesters flooded downtown San Francisco in late February to speak out against the US criminal justice system, an immigrant mother of two took the stage. It was her first time addressing a large crowd, and the first time she had been involved in organizing a protest.
“The reason I was standing up to make a speech at the rally was because I’m concerned about the future for my kids,” Ping Luo recalled later. “If we don’t do anything right now, a similar thing could happen to my kids, could happen to your kids, to whoever’s kids.”
For a mother to speak out in fear and anger about the future of her children is not remarkable in the era of Black Lives Matter. It is the mothers – of Trayvon Martin, of Michael Brown, of Tamir Rice, of Sandra Bland – who have become the public faces of a community’s collective grief at police killings.
But Luo, a first-generation Chinese immigrant who lives in a middle-class Bay Area suburb that boasts one of the top-rated high schools in the country, was not talking because she was scared that one of her children would end up dead from a police officer’s bullet.
Instead, she was taking part in an international wave of demonstrations on 20 February protesting the conviction of New York police officer Peter Liang, a first-generation Chinese American, for killing Akai Gurley, an unarmed, 28-year-old black father who was quickly described as “totally innocent” by the New York City police commissioner.
That Liang is Asian complicated the white cop/black victim paradigm. Other non-white police officers have been involved in high-profile killings – two of the six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray are black, for example – but none have been claimed by their community the way that Liang has been claimed by Chinese Americans.
If the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement forced the US to hold up a mirror to its legacy of racial injustice, the protest movement that has exploded around Liang is a crack in the glass, complicating the picture and reflecting light into uncomfortable and unexpected corners.
The Liang movement has revealed – and possibly widened – the political divisions not just between minority groups, but among Asian Americans and even among Chinese Americans.
The question is, do we really want to become the oppressor?
“This is a story and a case that will go down in the history of New York and of race relations in the US,” said Cathy Dang, the executive director of CAAAV, a pan-Asian community group in New York that has been at the forefront of Asian American organizations opposing the pro-Liang movement. Dang and her allies see support for Liang as being driven by a desire for Chinese Americans to be treated as equal to whites in the racial hierarchy.
“The question is: do we really want to become the oppressor?” she asked.
That’s not a question that resonates with Luo. “We’re not asking for favors,” she said. “We’re asking for fairness and justice.”
‘We are afraid we will forever be the scapegoat’
Akai Gurley was shot and killed in the staircase of an East New York public housing complex on 20 November 2014.
Over the next two weeks, a 12-year-old black child, Tamir Rice, was shot and killed by police while he was playing with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland; a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri declined to indict officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown; and a grand jury in Staten Island declined to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for placing Eric Garner, a black man selling illegal cigarettes on the sidewalk, in a chokehold, leading to his death.
The decisions not to indict the white officers touched off a fresh round of nationwide protests and disbelief that a police officer would be ever be held accountable for killing a black person.
A rookie cop who’d been on the job for 18 months, he was the first New York City officer convicted for an on-duty shooting in more than ten years . Thousands of Chinese Americans say they are convinced that he is being “scapegoated” for the crimes of white police officers: a sacrificial lamb proffered by the government to angry Black Lives Matter protesters.
Min Liu, a first-generation immigrant living in a Silicon Valley suburb, explained the fear this inspires. “We are afraid we and our children will forever be the scapegoat,” she said.
“The Chinese Exclusion Act was where we were scapegoated because the workers were not happy about their wages and job losses,” she said. When unarmed black men were shot, she added, “no police were indicted. The one rookie Chinese cop who had no intention to kill was the only one who was indicted and convicted. It was clear scapegoating to us.”
What’s clear to Liu is unclear to other Asian Americans.
“A lot of the coverage has described this [protest movement] as the Asian American community,” said Vincent Pan, the executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “But I think that we need to be specific that this was the Chinese American community.”
More specifically, he said, the Liang case has largely become a rallying point for recent first-generation Chinese immigrants, rather than second- or third-generation Chinese Americans who were born and raised in the United States.
To Pan, the current crop of first-generation Chinese immigrants are distinct from previous groups in that they are highly educated professionals, he says, who came to the US to attend college or start careers, rather than to go to work in a restaurant or garment factory. They are also significantly more connected to China than was previously possible.
“When my parents immigrated to the US, they had to save up money for years to go back. Now Chinese immigrants can go back once a year. They can turn on the TV and see Chinese language news,” Pan said. “So the narrative that they are exposed to is one that is much more about what it is to be part of the Chinese diaspora. It’s not about achieving whiteness, because there’s not even necessarily a commitment to achieving Americanness.”
Pan’s organization, like most legacy Asian American civil rights groups, espouses a political philosophy of unity among Asian Americans and other people of color. Founded in 1973, the Organization of Chinese Americans began with the goal of acting as an analog to other civil rights groups, such as the NAACP. In 2013, the group officially rebranded as OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, a Pan-Asian advocacy group that would work in alliance with black and Latino organizations.
“We don’t have enough political power working solely as ethnicities to move anything nationally,” said Kham Moua, OCA’s manager of policy and communications. “We’ve seen the AAPI community change so much over the last years – moving to encompass Southeast Asians, South Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians. Alone, there’s not much we can do, but together there’s a lot we can do.”
Moua points out that other Asian American groups have been targeted by police – “Pacific Islanders and South Asians have quite a bit of profiling in their communities as terrorists or gang members,” he said – which means they are more likely to worry their children will end up like Akai Gurley than like Peter Liang.
But Kai Zhu, a first-generation Chinese immigrant and father of two, embraces the division – between his class of Chinese Americans and the working class, the second- and third-generation, and other people of color – and trumpets the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps values of “the old-fashioned meritocracy”.
“When we came to this country, most of us did not have anything,” he said. “We made it because we are hard working, hard studying. People need to work hard. We do want to help poor people, but giving them a sense of entitlement is wrong.”
Zhu, who worked as an engineer in telecommunications until he became a lawyer, lives in one of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest suburbs, Los Altos. In addition to organizing pro-Liang protests – first in 2015 when the officer was indicted and again in 2016 after the conviction – Zhu helped recruit Gabriel “Jack” Chin, a professor of immigration and criminal law at the University of California Davis, to add some heft to Liang’s legal team.
“In the Bay Area there are two different types of Chinese people,” he said. “One is the people in Chinatown in San Francisco. Those are more of the older generation. Here in Silicon Valley, most of us are well-educated professionals.”
Zhu also expresses the kind of nationalistic pride that makes interracial unity difficult.
“Just look into all of the south-eastern Asian countries, where Chinese are the minority, but they control the economy still. There’s a good reason for that,” he said. “Here, I guess it’s the same thing. I would almost take offense to say that we should be united with Latinos and African Americans just for the sake of getting benefits, because that’s not where our values are.”
Zhu first met Ping Luo and Min Liu when they were fighting the reinstatement of affirmative action at California universities, another divisive issue that, like the Liang case, divides many Chinese Americans from other Asians and other minority groups.
People get upset and start to say, well, maybe we are not really that liberal anyway
Asian Americans are very well represented at elite schools, but the dominance of ethnically Chinese students can obscure the fact that other Asian subgroups are struggling. At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders made up 43.6% of the 2015 freshman class, nearly half of them Chinese.
For many Chinese Americans, allowing schools to consider race and ethnicity in admissions raises the specter of quotas, and their own children losing their slots to blacks, Latinos, whites – and non-Chinese Asians.
Eason Wang, a pro-Liang activist and first-generation immigrant in New York City, says that the debate over affirmative action in the city’s elite public high schools is pushing his friends away from the Democratic party.
“Introducing some way to correct Asian over-representation in academic schools – those kind of things are typically sponsored by the left side,” he said. “People get upset about it and start to say, well, maybe we are not really that liberal anyway.”
For Zhu, a Republican, the tendency of Asian Americans to be supportive of policies like affirmative action, which are aimed at helping racial minorities as a whole, is the fault of teacher’s unions.
“I don’t think the second- or third-generation Asian or Chinese Americans really understand what is going on,” he said. “Because, to be perfectly honest, I think here in California all the young people are so liberal because they are so brainwashed by these public schools.”
‘A different solidarity’
The night before the 20 February protests, Karyn Smoot, a 24-year-old Asian American activist, used Google Translate to write slogans on a pair of signs.
Smoot’s mother is fourth-generation Chinese American. Her father is fourth-generation Japanese American and white. Smoot speaks Cantonese because she attended immersion schools in San Francisco, not because her mother is a native speaker.
One sign read in Chinese, “If you kill someone with impunity, all cops are responsible”; the other, “All cops are bastards”.
Smoot and two activist friends – one Chinese American, the other Palestinian American – were determined to counter-protest the Peter Liang protests.
“People were like, ‘You can’t be Chinese and not support [Liang]. You can’t have that position and still claim to be Chinese,’” Smoot said. “I thought it was important to be there to disrupt that solidarity in some way, or to try to redefine a different solidarity.”
Smoot is an activist with Critical Resistance, which works to abolish prisons. She has taken part in protests such as a blockade early last year of the Oakland Federal Building that brought together Arab, Filipino, Latino, Korean, Chinese, Palestinian, south Asian, and other activists to link “third world struggle with black resistance” on Martin Luther King Jr Day.
But at the Liang march, Smoot was confronting not the police or the federal government, but a community that she is supposed to belong to.
“People looked at us and got mad,” Smoot said, adding that some pro-Liang protesters tried to rip up their signs while others yelled at them.
“It made me feel like I didn’t have a lot in common with these people after all.”