When Chung Dick volunteered to help organize the protest over the conviction of former New York Police Officer Peter Liang this weekend, the sheer size of the crowds, not only in New York but in cities across the country, made him think this might be the beginning of a new era in Asian-American political activism.
Indeed, in a street ritual all-too-familiar since Ferguson, more than 10,000 Chinese and other Asian Americans thronged in protest in front of a Brooklyn courthouse this past Saturday. They chanted “No scapegoat! No scapegoat,” also holding signs reading “Justice, not Revenge” and “No Selective Justice."
“I would say this is the very first time that we had so many Asian-American groups together like this at a political rally,” says Mr. Dick, who owns a business-to-business consulting firm in Manhattan. “This is something that we never saw before.”
But from Philadelphia to St. Louis to Los Angeles, Asian-American protesters on Saturday this time decried the conviction of a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man. The protesters both have been emboldened by the new age of civil rights and galvanized by what they see as an injustice at least partly brought on by the Black Lives Matter protests.
Former officer Liang, a Hong Kong-born cop, just a year and a half on the job, fired his gun in a darkened stairwell in a Brooklyn housing project in late 2014. The bullet, fired accidentally, according to the young officer’s testimony, ricocheted off a wall and killed Akai Gurley, who was visiting his girlfriend and son. Earlier this month, Liang was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct by a Brooklyn jury. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
From the start, however, Liang’s indictment and now conviction has struck many Chinese Americans as “selective justice” – a stark contrast, especially, to the police officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold that same summer and who was exonerated by a Staten Island grand jury later that fall.
“But at this time, this case, it really touched the nerve of the Chinese American,” says Yiguang Ju, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University and the director of the Ivy League school’s sustainable energy program. “Many are starting to wake up, saying, we have to do something.”
“We have to have our opinion heard, we have to participate in this kind of a political system: go to elections, maybe go to protests, and at the same time to participate in the legal system so that we can have our voice heard and have our opinion represented fairly in this society,” continues Dr. Ju, who protested in Princeton, N.J., with hundreds of others on Saturday.
In 2012, only 47 percent of Asian Americans voted in the presidential election, the lowest among minority groups, according to US Census figures. And nearly 3 of 4 Asian residents today are foreign born.
And though about 12 million Americans identify as at least part Asian, with about 4 million Chinese, there are only three Chinese American members of Congress, and a total of 12 Asian Americans, including Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois.
“So our voice in general in the US community is really low,” Ju says. “In Chinese culture, we want to be a model group, we focus on professional rather than on political.”
Also galvanizing many Asian Americans to become more involved in political activism is a frustrating sense that, despite test scores and higher grades than average, they are discriminated against with lower acceptance rates than other ethnic groups.
Last May, nearly 60 Asian American groups filed a complaint with the Department of Education and Justice, claiming Asians are held to a higher standard in the name of "holistic admissions" – a form of racial discrimination, they say.
On Saturday, a small number of Black Lives Matter protesters countered the thousands supporting Liang, and there have been tensions between the groups. Liang was indicted just as the widespread protest movement itself began to galvanize after a number of grand juries refused to indict white police officers for the killings of unarmed black men.
"We are deeply sorry for Mr. Gurley and his family,” said Jack Ouyang, the spokesperson for the Coalition of Justice for Liang, which helped organize Saturday’s protests. “This is a tragedy for both families. We believe accountability is in order."
"In the wake of so many unfortunate deaths of unarmed African-American men in the hands of police officers, the tension between the police and African-American communities nationwide has reached an unprecedented level,” Mr. Ouyang’s statement continued. “However, it is totally wrong for the prosecutor to single out Mr. Liang."
Dick agrees. “We are not fighting against other minority groups,” he says. “We are united with them, but this time, we feel like we are being treated differently.
“We just want to have our voices heard,” he continues. “We are citizens of this country – we are not going to sit on the sidelines and watch what other people are doing. We have a voice, too.”