As I rode down Nassau Street in my mother’s car on February 20, everything seemed normal, from the weekend shoppers to the usual tourists. There was one thing, however, that caught my eye: a group of people clustered by Palmer Square, holding signs and shouting things I could not make out. I only saw the words “Peter Liang” and “justice.”
These protests had been occurring in New York City on a much larger scale. They concerned a case from 2014, in which demonstrators demanded the freedom of Liang, an Asian American police officer.
On November 20, 2014, Akai Gurley, a young black man, was fatally shot in a dark stairwell of a housing project in Brooklyn. Liang and Officer Shaun Landau were patrolling when Liang’s gun fired. Although the shot was allegedly accidental, the bullet ricocheted off of a wall and hit Gurley. At Liang’s trial on February 11, 2016, he was found guilty of manslaughter and now faces up to 15 years in prison.
Gurley’s death and Liang’s subsequent conviction do not demonstrate Asian superiority, and the protests are not about Asians wanting a higher status than that of blacks. Although Liang did not intend to kill Gurley, he committed a crime and rightfully lost the resulting trial. However, the case further emphasizes white privilege, an issue that has been especially evident recently in incidents such as the Ferguson, Missouri case involving Michael Brown. Unarmed and running from Darren Wilson, a white police officer, Brown was shot several times, even after putting his hands up. Wilson was not charged with the murder. Many protested, insisting that the racial difference between the two influenced the verdict. Such confrontations between white police officers and unarmed black males are not novelties by any means. Neither is the fact that those white men are almost never found guilty.
The reality is that, had Peter Liang been white, he probably would have been acquitted. Although many believe that race is no longer a barrier or a qualifier by which a person can be judged in America, many judges and jurors do have racist tendencies. White Americans often believe themselves to be superior, whether or not they openly state so, a concept fueled by white privilege.
The central issue in this case is not that Liang, an Asian American, was subject to standard sentencing for murder when he was sentenced to prison. Anyone, regardless of race, should receive severe punishment for killing another individual. The real problem is that whites have an advantage over other racial groups in America, whether it be in the workplace or in court. Although usually not overtly discussed by those who benefit from it, it’s a privilege whose existence is undeniable.
This is what the protests were about. People were fighting for Liang’s freedom because compared to the convictions that the murderers of Eric Garner and Michael Brown received, Liang deserved exoneration. They argued that white men should not be above others. If one cannot change the way whites get away with killing people, then minorities should be held to the same standard.
This country is known as a place where immigrants can start over and create a better life for themselves. It is the great melting pot of the world. American children are taught that “all men are created equal” and deserving of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” How can we pride ourselves on these founding principles when, centuries after their inception, we still cannot execute their truths? The simple answer is that we refuse to adjust their words—initially only intended for white men—to include all people, despite the fact that centuries have passed, and America is now comprised of people of all races.