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As Officer Who Killed Akai Gurley Gets No Jail Time, Asian Americans Debate Role of White Supremacy

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A New York City police officer who killed an unarmed African-American man will serve no time in jail. Officer Peter Liang, who is Chinese-American, fatally shot Akai Gurley in the darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. In February, a jury convicted Liang of manslaughter and official misconduct, but the judge made the rare decision to reduce the verdict to criminally negligent homicide. The case has sparked a debate within the Asian-American community as some say Liang was scapegoated because of his race. We host a heated discussion with Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen; Cathy Dang, executive director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, which has supported Akai Gurley’s family; and John Liu, the former New York City comptroller who supports Officer Liang.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on a 100-city tour marking Democracy Now!'s 20th anniversary, and we may be coming soon to a city near you. Tonight we will be in Boulder. Right now we're at Denver Open Media. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh in New York. Hi, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hi, Amy. And welcome to our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world.

We begin today’s show here in New York, where the family of an unarmed man killed by a police officer is reacting to news that the officer will serve no time in jail. In 2014, New York City police officer Peter Liang fatally shot Akai Gurley in the darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. Gurley, a 28-year-old African-American father, was walking down the stairs with his girlfriend because the elevator was broken. Liang says he accidentally fired his gun. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and struck Gurley in the chest. Following the shooting, Officer Liang first texted his union representative before making a radio call for help as Gurley lay dying. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton called Gurley a, quote, “total innocent.” On Tuesday, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun announced Officer Liang’s sentence.

JUSTICE DANNY CHUN: On the count of criminally negligent homicide, sentence of the court is five years’ probation, plus 800 hours of community service. This is 500 hours that the DA recommended plus another 300 hours. So, this will take close to about five months, in my calculation. Eight hundred hours of community service with—along with five years’ probation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In February, a jury convicted Officer Liang of manslaughter and official misconduct. He faced up to 15 years in prison. But Judge Chun made the rare decision to reduce Officer Liang’s verdict from manslaughter to the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide. After Judge Chun announced Liang would not go to prison, Akai Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen, spoke out.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: This is not justice. This is not justice. My family is going to continue, we’re going to continue to be in these streets. We’re going to continue to march 'til we get justice. We're going to continue until all black lives matter. How on Earth can you guys say it’s OK to murder and not be held accountable?

AMY GOODMAN: The Liang case has sparked a debate within the Asian-American community. Some believe he was scapegoated because of his race. Others stand by the family of Akai Gurley.

For more, we’re joined right now in New York by three guests. Hertencia Petersen is the aunt of Akai. Cathy Dang is executive director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, which supports Akai Gurley’s family. And John Liu is a former New York City comptroller and professor of public finance at CUNY and Columbia University. He has been working with supporters of Peter Liang.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! First, to Hertencia Petersen, our condolences on the death of your nephew, of Akai Gurley. This happened back in November of 2014. Hertencia Petersen, can you explain what you understand happened that day?

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: What I understand happened is that my nephew was basically walking down a flight of steps, leaving the building, and—because the elevator was broken. Peter Liang fired a shot. It ricocheted. And Akai—

AMY GOODMAN: Why did he fire the shot?

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: Because he’s saying that he was afraid. He heard a noise. And my question has, and will always be, if you’re going into a development and you know families live there, so why would you enter a dark stairwell with your gun drawn, with your finger on the trigger? Nine times out of 10, there’s an error that’s going to happen. Someone can get hurt. It could have been a child, a grandmother, a mother. It could have been anyone. And on top of that, he had a flashlight. What happened to using that flashlight? You don’t enter a dark stairwell with a gun drawn. A flashlight is sufficient. He asked his partner for light. So, why would you have your finger on the trigger?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So do you believe, Hertencia, that there is any truth to Liang’s claim that the gun actually—he accidentally shot the gun? In other words, he didn’t intend to?

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: No. First of all, guns don’t discharge by themself. You have to apply at least 11-and-a-half pounds of pressure. You have to. It does not go off by itself. So, no, I do not believe it was an accident.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Cathy Dang, can you talk about why your organization, CAAAV, has stood with the family of Akai Gurley, even though a number of Asian-American organizations have been protesting on behalf of Peter Liang?

CATHY DANG: Well, our organization started 30 years ago out of supporting Asian immigrants and refugees who were impacted by police and hate violence. And we stood firm that we had to address issues and root causes of violence that impact communities of color that’s perpetuated by the state and by the police. And police continue to carry on [without] being held accountable. We couldn’t let that happen in this case. And we got involved because we didn’t want race to be the reason why Peter Liang wasn’t held accountable. At the end of the day, he has a uniform, and he is an officer, and he needs to be held accountable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor John Liu, your response?


JOHN LIU: Yes, good morning. Thank you very much for having me on this show.

This is a very complex case. It does not fit neatly into what people typically see as a black-white model of race relations. I guess you had introduced me earlier as a supporter of Peter Liang. I wouldn’t quite characterize it that way. I’ve never met Peter Liang. I don’t know him. But I do agree with many Asian Americans in New York and beyond, and you can see from the tens of thousands of people who actually protested the initial verdict of manslaughter that Peter Liang was being scapegoated, being blamed for all of the criminal justice ills that have gone wrong in this country.

And so, people in the Asian-American community really do sympathize with the family of Akai Gurley, his aunt here. There’s nobody who’s against Akai and his family. No one’s saying that his life was meaningless. In fact, you know, he was a young man who held promise and was trying to do the right thing. But at the same time, you also have a feeling in the Asian-American community that Liang was just—that too much was put on him, that, you know, in the trial, the DA actually talked about how this was not about criminal justice in the rest of the country, it was not about the NYPD, it was just about Liang. And so, how can this be about holding the entire system accountable, when it seems like it’s all just about holding this one officer accountable, NYPD being held harmless? NYCHA, which is the agency that runs the building, that allowed there to be complete darkness in the stairwell, they are held harmless. So, you know, at the end of the day, it’s about holding police officers accountable.

And Asian-American leaders in the community at large are not saying that Peter Liang is innocent. He was convicted of official misconduct, which represents or reflects the fact that he just didn’t do anything to help Akai Gurley. He may have shot him accidentally, the gun might have discharged because he was startled by a noise in a dark situation, but he should have done more. So, people, you know, don’t dispute the fact that he was indicted, that he was convicted of official misconduct. And he is now sentenced—not jail time, but he does have a pretty long sentence. This is far more than we have seen in any other case in recent memory. Eric Garner being choked to death by a police officer, not even an indictment in that case. Michael Brown. So many other cases in New York and across the country. Timothy Stansbury in New York City, which was a case almost identical in circumstances, nothing in that case, no actions against the officer. None of these officers have even been fired from their jobs. So, Peter Liang has been sentenced, and he is being punished and held accountable. It’s just a question of to what extent do you hold him accountable? Do you hold him accountable for his actions that day, or do you hold him accountable for all the other cases that didn’t see any kind of justice whatsoever?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hertencia Petersen, your response to what Professor Liu said?

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: OK, my response to you is, number one, from the time the trial began, you have been in the courtroom with Peter Liang. Number two, if this was your child, your nephew, would you not want justice? Number three, you reference Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Timothy Stansbury, this—the list is long. Where was the Asian community? Where was the Chinese community? Where were they?

On top of that, what happened to Nicholas Heyward Jr., the same exact story, the same exact excuse. When you have a corrupted system, with police officers are being protected by the law, the ending result is Akai Gurley. We have been trying to prevent this from 22 years ago. And let’s take it to NYCHA. Peter Liang and Shaun Landau, that was not the first time they have been doing vertical patrol in the Pink Houses. That was their daily, nightly post. Number one, they knew the area. Number two, because you’re not going to sit here and try to justify why Peter Liang should not be held accountable. First of all, he is part of the system, the entire system. It’s a systematic problem. We have told, and have said plenty of times, it’s all about accountability. Yes, in Staten Island, the Eric Garner—if you have a prosecutor that does not care about what goes on in his community and is racist, that’s the result you will have. Now let’s take it to Ferguson. The same scenario. If you have a prosecutor that don’t care about the people that put them in position, this is what you will have.

So here it is now, my nephew, Akai Gurley. Sylvia Palmer, Akaila Gurley is without a son, a father, a nephew and a brother. So, yes, Peter Liang should be held accountable, accountable, because if it was your child, if it was your mother, your father or anyone of your loved ones, you would want justice. You would want—my definition of justice and yours is totally different.

On top of that, February 20th, 2016, there was massive rallies nationwide saying, “Injustice, injustice.” Peter Liang was not a scapegoat. Peter Liang is part of the problem. Every last one of those Asians and Chinese supporters, because you are also part of the problem. You helped back and finance. You understand? You guys got together, and here it is. You’re saying it’s OK. When I walked downtown Brooklyn February 20th, I was called a nigger. Do you understand? After giving solidarity to the family—the family’s there in the flesh—I was disrespected. So, it’s no way you can tell me—we are all people of color, all people of color. If we have to get together—and this is what the Justice for Akai Gurley Family and every grassroot, CAAAV, everyone has been saying: “Let’s not make this a race issue. We’re all human.” That fatal night, Akai Gurley—Peter Liang, he heard a sound. Shaun Landau didn’t hear that sound.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask John Liu, on that night, November 20th, 2014, when Officer Liang killed Akai Gurley, his first action, if he said this was a mistake, that he fired accidentally, was not to immediately get aid to the man he shot, but to text his union rep. Can you explain this, John Liu?

JOHN LIU: No, I can’t explain it at all. In fact, there is no justification for that, if in fact he did text his union rep before anything. We do know for a fact that he did not apply CPR. And if you’re an officer, you don’t have th luxury of saying that your training was inadequate or that you were in shock. He should have done far more immediately to help Akai Gurley. That is official misconduct, and he’s been fired from the force. He probably never should have been a police officer in the first place. He was scared. He was doing this patrol in a historically dangerous situation. And so, you know, look, I mean, I feel for Hertencia and her family. I understand—


JOHN LIU: I have a son. I have—I’m a father myself. So, I can imagine if something happened—if my son’s life was taken away. Now, in this case, Officer Liang is a part of the system. But yet, in the prosecution and the—and, ultimately, the sentencing recommendations and the sentence itself, it’s—he’s being treated as if the problem is just on him. So, he is a scapegoat in that—he’s not innocent, but he is being punished for much more than he was actually guilty of that night.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: You have to start somewhere.

JOHN LIU: And, Hertencia, I plead with you—

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: You have to start—you have to start somewhere.

JOHN LIU: Right.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: Because this is an ongoing—every 28 hours, a black, a brown, a Latino, an Asian—someone that’s a person of color’s life is always taken. You’re not—you’re not understanding what we’re saying. You’re going to sit there, and as if it’s—with no emotions. There’s a mother. There’s a mother in depression.

JOHN LIU: Why would you say no emotions?


JOHN LIU: Why would you—

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: You don’t. You don’t.

JOHN LIU: And, by the way—

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: The same—the same—

JOHN LIU: —I was never in the courtroom. I’ve never met—

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: Sir, sir, I know—I know what I saw Tuesday. I know what I saw back in February. I know what I saw downtown Brooklyn. I know what I saw, faces. I can tell you. OK? You—I know. Don’t tell me what I don’t know and what I don’t see.

JOHN LIU: I haven’t been there.


CATHY DANG: I want to chime in.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Please, Cathy.

CATHY DANG: And I really want to respond to this piece, that like any average civilian who commits manslaughter, second-degree, they would go to jail. A police officer is to be held at a higher standard. Why should Liang be held and treated any differently? When a black person is out there and “accidentally,” quote-unquote, kills someone, they would go to jail. Why is a police officer treated any differently, one? Two, all—this case, and we’ve always stood on this position, this case means that we stand together to make sure white officers are held accountable, not to let Liang off. And you can’t toggle between both sides and say, “Well, this happened, and we have to look at both sides.” You’re either for justice, or you’re not. That’s clear. You’re either for justice or not.

JOHN LIU: There’s no toggling here. And, look, I would agree with Hertencia that this should not be a black-Asian thing, and that I understand the emotions run high. The reality is that it does have to start somewhere. And with Officer Liang, he’s been—he was indicted, he was terminated from the force, he’s been found guilty, and he’s been sentenced. And so—

CATHY DANG: You can’t compare that to all the other cases.

JOHN LIU: So that is all—


JOHN LIU: Hold on. That is all—

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: Akai Gurley is nothing but bones right now, with maggots. Peter Liang can sleep in the bed under the cover—

CATHY DANG: And I’ve seen him walking around Chinatown, too.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: —with his wife. He can have children, cuddle his children. Akai Gurley has a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. You know what she asked her mom? “Why is daddy sleeping so long?”

JOHN LIU: This is—

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: No, it’s not “this is.” This is reality.

JOHN LIU: This is reality.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: It might not be your reality, but this is the Gurley family reality. And that reality is Peter Liang and the whole NYPD system is accountable.

JOHN LIU: Well, so let’s work together to bring reform to the NYPD.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: No, it’s not no together when you are doing backhanded deals.

CATHY DANG: But the people who part of that process need to be punished along the way.

JOHN LIU: And they are being punished.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one second. Let me—I’d like to bring in Peter—

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: No, they’re not.

JOHN LIU: Far more than anybody else has been.


CATHY DANG: You can’t compare this case to any of the other cases.


JOHN LIU: Actually, you cannot compare.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: Each case is individual. Each case is different.

JOHN LIU: Yeah, I absolutely agree.


JOHN LIU: You mentioned—

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: Akai Gurley had no—

JOHN LIU: You mentioned Eric Garner. You mentioned—

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: Akai Gurley had no—

JOHN LIU: —Amadou Diallo.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Please, one at a time.


JOHN LIU: All right. You mentioned a lot of other cases.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: No, you did first.

JOHN LIU: There were—OK, I will mention that also. And in all those cases, there was a direct confrontation between the officer and the victim. And that was—those were really clear cases of police brutality, even cases that were caught on video, and no indictments. Now, the Asian-American community is not saying we want white privilege. We’re not saying that, oh, you shouldn’t convict Peter Liang because he’s Asian or he’s a Chinese-American officer.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: That’s the message you’re sending.

JOHN LIU: No, no, that’s not the message.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: That is the message. That was the message February 20th.

JOHN LIU: The message—the message is that as much as we understand—

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: You don’t understand.

JOHN LIU: As much as we do understand the injustices and unfairness that the black community throughout this country has faced for so long, we also feel—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go—

JOHN LIU: —some injustice in the Asian-American community.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Liu, one second. We want to bring in Peter Liang in his own words. He spoke before his sentencing in Brooklyn on Tuesday and apologized to the family of Akai Gurley.

PETER LIANG: I’m not a person of many words. I’ve always treated people fairly and with respect. The night of November the 20th, 2014, was devastating. A shot from my gun caused the death of another person. I was in shock. I could barely breathe. The shot was accidental, and someone was dead. I apologize to Ms. Butler and to Akai Gurley’s family. I wish I could undo what happened. My life has forever changed. I hope you will give me a chance to rebuild it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Peter Liang apologizing to the family. Cathy Dang of CAAAV, executive director, could you respond to what Liang said?

CATHY DANG: You know, I think no matter how many apologies you can give, you can’t bring back the life of Akai for the family. And it’s painful for me to sit alongside auntie, the Palmers, parents, Kim and his children. And, you know, I just can’t understand if any other average person out there can apologize and will still have to go to jail for committing accidental manslaughter—or accidental death, accidental killing—that’s what manslaughter is—they would go to jail. So—and even if they apologize. So why should Liang be treated any differently than anybody else?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about the argument that people make that it’s because he was Asian-American that he has been charged, whereas all the white police officers who were responsible for the deaths of African Americans were exonerated?

CATHY DANG: I keep hearing again and again that he’s being used as a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who doesn’t do anything wrong or didn’t do anything wrong. And in this case, he did do something wrong: He killed Akai Gurley. And he needs to be punished for that, not just held accountable. He needs to be punished and serve jail time. And from the beginning, we’ve said this case means that we need to stand united to hold white officers accountable. What about the district attorneys, like Dan Donovan, who didn’t indict Dan Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner? We need to make sure that DAs are doing their job across the city. We want a special prosecutor in New York state to investigate all the killings in New York state.

And, you know, this is the testament to how our communities can come together to address something larger. We will never know, as Asian Americans, what it’s like to lose a life every 28 hours like the black community does in the United States. And what I do want to raise is that when we talk about structural racism, white supremacy and anti-blackness, we have to admit that Asian Americans are complicit and complacent to uphold white supremacy. And we are responsible in making sure that we stand together with black communities to bring down white supremacy and structural racism. That’s the only way to win for all of us. All of our lives will matter when black lives matter.

JOHN LIU: I wouldn’t agree that Asians are complicit with white supremacy. I mean, there—Asian Americans have been victims of the system, as well, not to the extent that the African-American community has faced injustices. But we have faced injustices ever since Asian Americans first got to this country.

As for Peter Liang being a scapegoat, he is a scapegoat. A scapegoat is not somebody who is totally innocent. A scapegoat is somebody who’s being blamed for far more than he’s actually being guilty of. Peter Liang has been indicted, has been convicted, has been sentenced. He will carry out this sentence, and he will be tagged as a convicted felon for the rest of his life. He is being held accountable. The question is, to what extent do you have to hold this one officer accountable, who did discharge his gun in an accidental situation in a darkened stairwell? There was no confrontation, unlike all of the other cases where an innocent person was killed by the police. And so, you know, this is very different from all the other cases. This is—I’ve spoken with many people. This is definitely a case that is much less satisfying. And, Hertencia, I mean, I understand the emotions that you and your family have gone through, but you have repeatedly called him a murderer.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: He is a murderer. If someone lied to you, they’re labeled as a liar. If someone steals, they’re labeled as a thief. If someone takes an innocent life, if someone kills someone, they’re a murderer, a killer, a murderer. Either way you put it, no matter how you want to sugarcoat it, in my reality, in my world that I live in on a daily basis, where I have to make sure that my grandson, my sons and my daughters—every morning, I have to tell them, “Please check in with me.” You understand? My reality is, I can get a phone call, “Ms. Petersen, come to the hospital.” “Ms. Petersen, you have to go to the morgue.” This is my reality. What’s your reality? What is your reality? OK? Peter Liang is a murderer, a convicted murderer, convicted murderer. Let’s get—let’s not forget that. He took an innocent life, a life that he had no confrontation with.

JOHN LIU: There was no confrontation.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: Exactly. So, if there was no—

JOHN LIU: He didn’t see Akai Gurley.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but we will continue, of course, to cover this case and so many others.

JOHN LIU: Please do.

AMY GOODMAN: Hertencia Petersen, thank you so much for being with us. And again, our condolences.

HERTENCIA PETERSEN: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Hertencia Petersen is the aunt of Akai Gurley. And thank you very much to Cathy Dang, executive director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, and to John Liu, former New York City comptroller, now professor of public finance at CUNY and Columbia University.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll talk about Flint, Michigan, the poisoning of an American city. Charges have been brought against three Michigan officials. We’ll speak with an award-winning journalist who helped to break the story of what happened in Flint. Stay with us.

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