Between a Rock and a Hard Place: What the Asian American Protests Over the Peter Liang Conviction May be Missing


A couple of editorials have appeared in the media recently concerning the Asian American-led protests of the second-degree manslaughter conviction of Chinese American NYPD officer, Peter Liang. Mr. Liang, in his role as an NYPD cop, shot and killed Akai Gurley, an innocent, unarmed African American man. The conviction is being celebrated by many racial justice advocates who have, for too long, seen police officers involved in similar shootings let off the hook in hundreds of other cases over recent years, but some Asian Americans claim justice has not been served. Predictably, the conflicting reactions have caused a minor furor in the media which, as usual, seems to be zeroing in on the points of greatest polarization in order to drive up page views.

Both editorials are worthy reads.

First up, Jay Caspian Kang’s New York Times editorial suggests that it would be too easy to dismiss these protests as just an insensitive and reactionary move on the part of a group often perceived to be relatively privileged among racial minorities. This paragraph in particular offers food for thought:

This is the stunted language of a people who do not yet know how to talk about injustice. The protesters who took to the streets on Saturday are trying, in their way, to create a new political language for Asian-Americans, but this language comes without any edifying history — no amount of nuance or qualification or appeal to Martin Luther King will change the fact that the first massive, nationwide Asian-American protest in years was held in defense of a police officer who shot and killed an innocent black man.

The article suggests a lot that reads as plain text to Asian American racial justice advocates, including the need to consider the context of Asian Americans when trying to understand the protests. We are a group who were first lumped together into a single, entirely synthetic race in the U.S. in the context pre-civil rights era legally codified and explicit white supremacy, and in order to justify the super-exploitation of our labor. Regardless of rich cultural diversity, striking differences in the locations and conditions of life of our countries of origin, and equally significant differences in what drove us to migrate from those countries, we are still, in the 21st century, categorized as one group, by turns insulted and exceptionalized, persecuted and excluded as such, and, for some among us, included in a fragile and entirely conditional form of whiteness.

Asian Americans are among the most privileged of immigrants, and among the most destitute. Most arrive in the U.S. with no awareness we are Asian to begin with, making the fraught and dehumanizing process of race-making part and parcel of our integration into America. There is no organic pan-Asian racial or regional identity that contains us outside of the western societies dominated by the descendants of the Europeans who originally invented Asia as the Orient for the purposes of colonial plunder.

So, given this peculiar condition, it seems reasonable that Asian Americans, particularly new immigrants, would struggle to find a place for themselves in the United States.

Next up, Jenn Fang argues in a Quartz editorial that if Black lives don’t matter to our justice system, Asian American lives will never be truly secure in the U.S. This, from her editorial, is particularly compelling:

The racial cronyism that has long protected white police officers who take innocent lives is not more just if Asian Americans also receive [a] license to kill with impunity. Liang should go to jail—and so should Wilson, Pantaleo and Loehmann. Nobody wins in this situation, but we cannot compound tragedy with injustice.

Liang is the sole police officer in recent memory to be convicted for killing an unarmed, innocent black person. Asian Americans, regardless of our politics on Liang’s conviction, share outrage over this fact. Given this perspective, we can either fight for special treatment for Asian Americans along the margins of a racially unjust system, or we can work with other communities of color to dismantle this systemic injustice outright. In the dichotomous black-and-white racial landscape of modern America, we are being called upon to take a stand. But which side will we land on?

I’m not going to try to top or critique either of these articles. You can read them for yourself and come to your own conclusions. But, I do want us to consider this: perhaps the protests against and for the Liang conviction live in a political space within which there are no truly satisfying solutions. Yes, as long as the rules are as they are, a conviction in this case is a just outcome. That point, it seems to me, is beyond debate, even if the conviction is resulting in further victimization, this time of Mr. Liang’s family who are guilty of nothing, but will nonetheless suffer the loss of his income and his company.

However, winning convictions in these cases will not reduce the number of tragedies nearly enough. Punishment, as in prosecution and incarceration, as a basis for “justice” has proven to be a poor deterrent of most forms of crime. Even when there is a deterrent effect, the results are not satisfying. For instance, this kind of retributive justice does have a deterrent effect where domestic and sexual violence is concerned. But, and this is a big “but,” women and children are still suffering much too much violence, and not just because winning convictions in these cases is often difficult. Retribution is not enough because it focuses on effects, rather than on causation. In other words, it ignores the fact that the source of the problem is not aberrant individuals but a corrupt culture, including a culture of violence within which retributive justice, the idea of “an eye for an eye,” appears as common sense. Our solutions need to deal with the social basis for domestic violence, not just containing and punishing individual offenders.

The crisis of violent policing and racial profiling regimes targeting Black communities is a result of a combination of both outright racism and what that racism has been used to justify: over-policing, over-reliance on incarceration, and police agencies and individual officers who, therefore, have much too much power in situations in which they will necessarily be viewed with hostility by those who are profiled and targeted for the worst of these excesses. This seems to be the case both on the domestic policing front, and in the realm of homeland security, with direct and extraordinarily painful effects on those perceived to be Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and undocumented Latino immigrants in the U.S.

In order to end the repression and violence, we need to fight for fairness within the existing system of justice. Fairness, as defined by that system, is something along the lines of what it appears the people of the City of New York got in the case of Peter Liang.

But, we also need to transform the criminal justice system, including by reducing our extraordinary over-reliance on policing and prisons, and the pitiful under-funding of services and social systems that discourage crime in the first place; services  and systems that help people to feel less alienated and more included in society like good schools, stable neighborhoods, and real opportunity for secure and dignified employment at decent wages. And, in terms of law enforcement, we need to move away from the gun and the cage as the fulcrum of police power.

I mean, let’s get real here. The reason police officers have power is because we know they have a license to shoot us and/or take away our freedom if we fail to cooperate, right? So safety, to the degree we have it, is coerced. In order for that kind of coercion to work, some blood must be spilled, and indiscriminately, if not by intent then simply as a necessary effect of a coercive and violent system. Otherwise, the gun and the cage are empty threats.

The time has come for us to reach for more. To reach, in fact, for what we all deserve – a society that puts us somewhere other than between a rock and a hard place when parsing out justice.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

4 replies on “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: What the Asian American Protests Over the Peter Liang Conviction May be Missing”

Chinese American community, when you throw your support behind Peter Liang, consider the following quote by Jay Caspian Kang:

“…no amount of nuance or qualification or appeal to Martin Luther King will change the fact that the first massive, nationwide Asian-American protest in years was held in defense of a police officer who shot and killed an innocent black man.”

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