How the Peter Liang conviction sparked a debate about white privilege and America's 'model minority'


“What do we want?” “Justice!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

That was the first thing Jess Fong heard when she stepped off a charter bus from New Jersey on February 20 to attend a rally in Brooklyn. For a moment, the déjà vu made her freeze.

The chanting brought Fong back to the Freddie Gray protest in Baltimore last May, when she was a student at Johns Hopkins University. “I remember walking down St. Paul street screaming at the top of my lungs the exact same thing,” she said.

This time, instead of protesting alongside Black Lives Matter activists, Fong stood among more than 100,000 mostly first-generation Chinese-American immigrants. They came out to support Peter Liang, the New York City police officer convicted of killing an unarmed black man. In 2014, a ricocheting bullet from Liang’s gun killed 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the dark stairwell of an East New York housing project. On February 11, Liang was found guilty of manslaughter, the first NYPD officer to be convicted in a line-of-duty shooting in more than a decade. On April 14, the original sentencing date, Justice Danny Chun denied the third mistrial request from Liang’s lawyer. Liang is now scheduled to be sentenced on April 19.

Fong, 22, said what she wanted in Baltimore last year and what she wants now is not that different: to end white privilege and racism in the country’s criminal justice system.

“The goal of this shouldn’t be to free him, ” she said of Liang. “The goal of this should be to highlight the racial inequalities and the problems and ask the question why is it that the cop that wasn’t white got convicted when so many others should have.”

To Fong’s surprise, a video of her speaking to Fusion at the rally was later translated into Chinese and went viral. On the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo, the video was described as “the true voice of second-generation Chinese-Americans.”

A week after Liang’s conviction, Asian Americans organized rallies and marches in major cities across the country to voice their anger. Many saw this as the scapegoating of one minority to appease another. They said the perception of Asian Americans as hardworking, quiet and apolitical makes them an easy target.

Fong, who grew up in a heavily Chinese neighborhood in suburban New Jersey, was one of the few American-born Chinese (ABCs) on her bus to the rally. Fong said she never intended to speak on behalf of her generation and understood why many of her peers refused to attend.

“It’s an awkward conversation to have with your white friends, black friends and even Asian friends,” she said. “It looks like you are on the wrong side of history.”

A student group at Columbia University, Asian American Alliance, issued a statement titled “Asian America, we cannot support Peter Liang.” In a widely shared opinion piece for the Huffington Post, reporter Steph Yin explained why she thought the rally was problematic. “My parents and many of their friends attended these rallies or have spoken up in support of Liang. They have stayed silent and very far away from any Black Lives Matter protests, but they find the time to pay attention and show up when it is a member of their community.”

Yin’s observation was spot-on. In the weeks leading up to the rally, Fong watched conversations evolve in the various groups on WeChat, the most popular social media app among Chinese speakers. At the beginning of the week, many in those groups favored slogans like “Free Peter Liang,” and “Save Peter Liang.”

At one point, “All Lives Matter” and “Chinese Lives Matter” became two of the most popular slogans. This made Fong cringe so she turned to her mother, who is an active member in the community. “I told my mom, ‘You have to help me shut this one down,’” Fong said. “So I sat her down and it was almost like a class… she whipped out a notebook and started taking notes.”

That night, Fong explained to her mother the history of the Black Lives Matter movement, about Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, as well as the social pressure that had been building up around Liang’s case. The 12 days between Liang’s conviction and the day of the rally was a period of intense studying for many in her parents’ generation, a crash course on how to organize, how to get out of the WeChat bubble, and how to use their political voice for the first time.

Any ABC can probably give a good explanation of the problem with “All Lives Matter,” but it can be an awkward and difficult conversation to have with parents, especially if you have drastically different opinions when it comes to social justice, race relations and what “white privilege” means.

“In my mind, that line is always drawn very clearly—the difference between white privilege and what we are allotted as a model minority,” she said. “But the first-gen immigrants, some of them might even aspire to that (white privilege) because to them that’s what it means to truly be Americans. It’s to be with the dominant social system.”

In the WeChat groups, many were already talking about another rally after Liang’s sentencing. But Fong said she won’t be there because she hasn’t seen any unified message from the Asian American community after the first rally. If anything, the protest revealed precisely how divided the community is.

“At this point the best we can and should do is trust that the judge passes a fair sentence based on Liang’s actions,” she said. “The sentence is at his discretion, and we need to trust that.”

On March 23, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said he had submitted a sentence recommendation that included no jail time for Liang. Instead, Thompson recommended that Liang be sentenced to six months of house arrest, five years of probation and 500 hours of community service. The decision has sparked wide criticism on social media.

But the DA’s statement still isn’t good enough, said Wu Yiping, one of the organizers of the February protest. Following Thompson’s sentencing recommendation, Wu had sent out a message to thousands of people in the 10 WeChat groups he oversees, urging them to be careful of “false hope and keep up the momentum.”

In a phone interview, Wu told Fusion: “We the parents need to do a better job communicating and educating our children, who get most of their information from mainstream media and are missing the whole picture about Liang’s case.”

This story has been updated to reflect a change in Liang’s sentencing date and the result of an April 14 mistrial hearing.

Isabelle Niu is a digital video producer at Fusion.

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