Calling Chinese and Asian Americans to the side of #JusticeforAkaiGurley

by Timmy Lu | State Organizing Director
Communities impacted by oppression should speak for themselves and should be at the center of crafting the demand for justice–this is one of pillars of the environmental justice movement. This particular principle guides us in our solidarity with black people after the recent sentencing of NYPD Officer Peter Liang. 

Black people across the country are demanding an end to police violence. This call is not about holding only white cops accountable, but for holding ALL cops accountable.

There’s a widely shared and watched video floating around the web, featuring a Chinese American woman speaking at protests organized after a jury found Liang guilty of manslaughter in the killing of Akai Gurley.

It’s a slick and convincing video that uses politically correct language and spoke to many Chinese & Asian Americans like me. However, the message is absolutely wrong.

In the video, she speaks passionately and powerfully about white supremacy and the injustice of a system that lets white officers off the hook for killing black people. She then pivots with an unsaid “but” to the central demand of the protests: leniency in Liang’s sentencing.

Black Lives Matter. Full stop. There are no “buts,” redirects, or clever rhetorical tricks. Akai Gurley mattered, and Peter Liang took his life in a shooting that a jury decided was an accidental killing (manslaughter). There’s no “somebody else’s life matters too” because Gurley’s was the only one whose life was taken away.

This is a call for solidarity that Pro-Liang protesters miss when they demand that Peter Liang be freed, and when they call Liang a “scapegoat”–as though he did nothing wrong, or more insidiously, as though his prosecution was only because of Black protest, as though nationwide, Black people are marching in the streets demanding that only Asian cops be held accountable! hint: They’re not, and it’s not about you!

Allyship isn’t about telling a victim (Gurley) that the perpetrator (Liang) is also a victim and then elbowing your “One Tragedy, Two Victims” sign up to the front. If protesters want to sympathize with Gurley’s family, they should support the family’s call for justice, fight other instances of police violence against Black people, show up in the streets and get your bodies in the way of the white supremacist system that you claim to hate too, that oppresses you too. It is true that punishing Peter Liang will not topple the system, but hey, fellow Chinese people, getting Liang off the hook will NEVER get justice for Akai Gurley.

So what is this about?

This is partially about the political opportunism of Chinese conservatives, people who would unquestioningly support the police, landlords, and business interests anyway. As a political force, these are people who have no interest in racial justice and would end affirmative action because they think it hurts Chinese people to unfairly benefit Blacks and Latinos. These are the die-hards who would strive to end white privilege and replace it with only class and socio-economic privilege (nice neighborhoods, education, wealth). These people alone won’t turn out in the thousands, but they have the infrastructure to make it possible for them to so.

Chinese national identity in the last several decades has been defined by the history of Chinese humiliation by the West. It’s a sentiment that’s easily accessible to Chinese people across the world, and it is also tied to the exclusion that many Chinese immigrants feel about American politics and society. Amongst immigrant Chinese the feeling of being only visitors, or human “bridges” to the motherland is still very real and deeply felt. I’m not surprised that when Chinese people feel victimized or targeted, my people will rally. However, when they rally, they don’t rally for justice for all, but justice for themselves. That’s what exclusion does, it forces you to turn inward, trust only your own people even when they steal your wages or evict you, or to put your head down and play the game to get the privileges of class and whiteness.

Toss in implicit bias, latent racism, anti-Blackness, or whatever you want to call it, born from beliefs inherent to feudal cultures or American ideology, into a rotten stew that spoils any attempts at solidarity. These are the forces at play, such that when this young Chinese person at the Peter Liang rally speaks about white supremacy, she can only do so from the perspective of their own struggles as a Chinese American.

My day-to-day work is about organizing Asian Americans into a progressive political bloc that fights oppression in all its forms. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of a New American Majority. That is, a political force of Black, Latino, Asian, Native, Pacific Islander and progressive white voters that transforms American politics in the next century. The question of what these demonstrations are really about is an important one. In the protesters now mobilized to consider whiteness and racism, I see great possibility, but frankly that possibility is still held back by much narrow self-interest.

As the country shifts to become a majority people of color, the most important question for us is: “Chinese people, whose side are you on?” Because there’s no “Chinese side” of justice.

“A system that doesn’t value Black or Brown lives doesn’t value Asian lives either”

#JusticeforAkaiGurley #BlackLivesMatter