Over at the New York Times Magazine, Jay Caspian Kang recently had a really sharp essay on protests by Asian Americans over the conviction of Peter Liang, the New York City police officer who was involved in the 2014 fatal shooting of unarmed Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man. Protestors have called Liang a "scapegoat," pointing out that many white officers involved in previous killings of unarmed black men have not faced similar consequences. In fact, as Kang notes, Liang is "the first N.Y.P.D. officer convicted in a line-of-duty shooting in over a decade."
"It's easier to hang an Asian, because Asians, they don't speak up," is how one Asian-American critic of Liang's verdict recently put it.
But on February 20th, in cities across the United States, large numbers of Asian-American protestors did speak up, and turn out for public protests. They were there both to show support for Liang and to fight "the institutional racism and failures of our system," said New York State Assemblyman Ron Kim, the first and only Korean-American elected official in New York and an active advocate for minorities.
But as Kang points out, the fact that this movement has been triggered by the death of an unarmed black man at the hand of an Asian-American cop rests uneasily with many Asian-Americans and others alike, and reflects a sometimes — or often, depending on where you live — painful history of relations between Asian and black communities in the U.S.:
The Liang protests mark the most pivotal moment in the Asian-American community since the Rodney King riots, when dozens of Korean-American businesses were burned to the ground. The episode is often said to have been precipitated by the horrific killing of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl who was shot in the back of the head by Soon Ja Du, a Korean store owner, after a confrontation over a bottle of orange juice. In reality, the tensions between Asian store owners and the black neighborhoods they served had been simmering for years; they began well before Rodney King became a household name, and they continue today.
In his essay, Kang explains the Liang protests as a reaction by a community unaccustomed to taking the spotlight, one more used to opting for political silence. He recounts, from firsthand experience, seeing low participation by Asian Americans in modern social-justice movements. But he emphasizes that this lack of participation doesn't necessarily stem from apathy. He says many Asian Americans simply haven't known know what to say, or how to say it — and the Liang protests make that clear.
"This is the stunted language of a people who do not yet know how to talk about injustice," Kang writes. "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."
Of course, Kang notes, the protests don't change the fact that a man was killed, or undo Liang's actions on the day he shot Gurley: not performing CPR on a dying man, and failing to radio his supervisors immediately. "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," he writes.
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