On Feb. 11, Peter Liang, an Asian American police officer, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man, in November 2014.
The tragedy of the case seems all too familiar in a time when police violence against black Americans has sparked countless protests and dominated national media for the past two years.
Certain elements about the conviction, however, are unprecedented. Liang is the first New York cop in over 10 years to be convicted for a fatal shooting. Considering New York police killed 25 people in 2015 alone, Liang’s sentencing, an anomaly among hundreds of unconvicted cases, is pretty monumental.
The Black Lives Matter movement was quick to celebrate Liang’s conviction as a triumph against police brutality. Many police officers have gotten away with fatal negligence or brutality without facing jail sentences and a greater number of victims, mostly black citizens, have died without justice.
In an interview with the New York Times, Brittany Packet, a Back Lives Matter activist and organizer for Campaign Zero, expressed her hopes about the Liang conviction.
“I think it helps us begin to set some real legal precedents to ensure that when unconstitutional and racialized policing is engaged in, there will be punishment for that," Packet said.
Black Lives Matter activists are right to celebrate the conviction of the cop; manslaughter is a crime for which our police must be held accountable. Yet Black Lives Matter supporters should be careful not to generalize or attribute intent to this case, nor treat it moving forward as the gold standard of justice for victims of police brutality.
The nuances of this case differentiate it from countless other examples of white-on-black police violence and render it an unfitting example of justice for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The shooting occurred when Liang was patrolling a housing complex in Brooklyn. He entered an unlit stairwell (the light was broken) and, unable to assess the surroundings, unholstered his gun. Liang heard a noise, which was later found to be Gurley entering, that startled him. This resulted in the accidental discharge of his gun. The bullet fired in a random direction, ricocheted off a wall and struck Gurley in the chest, killing him.
It was an accident. Neither Liang nor Gurley even realized there was another person in the dark stairwell. Liang could not see Gurley, let alone see he was black.
Was Liang irresponsible? Yes. Were his actions attributed to racial prejudice? Not at all.
Liang is guilty of manslaughter in that he was holding the weapon that resulted in the death of another person. Despite the sentence’s justification that Liang is guilty of killing a black man, this was not an instance of conscious police brutality and it’s not right for the Black Lives Matter movement to peg it as such.
It’s unjust that this, of all cases, resulted in a sentencing, while hundreds of other straightforward racist police killings have gone unpunished.
It’s also troubling that Liang, an Asian American officer, was the one to take the fall.
Tens of thousands of Asian Americans have protested Liang’s conviction, believing that Liang was convicted as a sort of sacrificial lamb to appease the vocal activists of the Black Lives Matter movement. When a white officer gets away with strangling a black man, it's natural to question whether Liang’s minority status made him easier to peg as a scapegoat for broader police injustices.
Race is inevitably a part of the conversation about Liang and Gurney. But in this case, the racial dialogue is a two-way street. If Liang’s prison sentence was warranted, then hundreds of other, harsher sentences should be warranted for far guiltier white cops. If our police force and justice system is to be held accountable, the undue protections given to the guilty, white-majority cops should be applied to either all cops (for consistency), or none at all (for justice).
Justice applied sporadically is not justice. Liang should not have been the first officer convicted for a fatal shooting in New York, but hopefully he will not be the last. If anything positive may come from this mess of a case, it’s that perhaps it will set a precedent that cops' crimes will no longer go unpunished. Maybe Liang’s conviction is the first piece of evidence that the precedent is already set.
Unfortunately, we will not know what Liang’s conviction means for the Black Lives Matter movement until another police altercation ends in tragedy. If Liang’s minority status was a coincidence and not relevant to the court’s decision, then we should expect the same lack of bias in the trial and conviction of the next cop.
Until that happens, we should redirect our energy away from Liang's case, which was a perfect storm, and back toward combatting instances of actual racialized police violence.
Follow Hailey Dickson on Twitter.