An overdue dose of justice in New York City

February 22, 2016

The New York cop who killed Akai Gurley has been convicted--but the problem with the police runs deeper than a lack of "professionalism," explains Julian Guerrero.

WITH A guilty verdict and a gasp from courtroom observers, the city of New York ended a 10-year streak of killer cops acting with impunity on February 11. New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Peter Liang was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct in the killing of Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old Black man who died in November 2014.

After more than a year of waiting for justice, Gurley's family can finally take some initial steps toward closure. "We're not rejoicing," Akai's aunt Hertencia Peterson told the Daily News. "But it's about being accountable. It's about a girl who will never know her father."

Liang, who was fired from the NYPD along with his partner Shawn Landau, faces up to 15 years in prison for manslaughter when he is sentenced at an April 14 hearing. Liang's lawyers have vowed to appeal his conviction.

Gurley was killed just days before two separate grand juries refused to indict the cops who killed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island in New York. Garner and Brown, like Gurley, were also unarmed Black men, and the failure to indict any of the police responsible for their murders provoked furious protests and mass civil disobedience actions around the country.

New York City cop Peter Liang heads into court to face manslaughter charges
New York City cop Peter Liang heads into court to face manslaughter charges

Gurley's name was emblazoned on protest signs and banners alongside the names of Brown, Garner, Tamir Rice and countless others killed by police.

Liang shot Gurley while carrying out a sweep in the stairwell of a building in the Louis H. Pink housing project in Brooklyn. Melissa Butler, Gurley's then girlfriend, had been braiding Gurley's hair before they decided to go out, choosing to take the pitch-black stairwell down because the elevator was out of service.

Several flights up, Liang and fellow rookie cop Landau were on a routine "vertical patrol"--where cops, starting on the top floor of a public housing project, move down the stairwells looking for criminal activity. According to Landau, Liang's gun "went off" after he was startled by a sound. The bullet ricocheted off the wall before striking Gurley in the heart.

Gurley and Butler were able to run two flights down the stairs before he collapsed in a pool of blood on a stairway landing. Butler frantically cried for help from neighbors and administered CPR for five minutes in a desperate effort to keep Gurley alive.

After the gun was discharged, Liang and Landau spent the following two minutes arguing about who was going to report that a shot had been fired. In search of the discharged bullet, Liang and Landau even walked past Gurley and Butler, without pausing to administer CPR or even check Gurley's pulse--all before radioing for help.

Rather than providing immediate medical assistance to Gurley, Liang and Landau froze, and residents of the building and the 911 dispatcher advised Butler on how to perform CPR. Neighbors stated that more cops arrived on the scene before any medical first responders.

Last year, police around the U.S. killed 1,138 people. Yet Liang is one of only six officers charged for an on-duty death in 2015. He is the first and so far only cop to actually be convicted of killing somebody while on duty since the beginning of 2015.

A GUILTY verdict for an NYPD cop is an exception in an era of state-sanctioned impunity for killer cops. That such a decision was reached at all can be attributed to the rising anger at police brutality as a result of efforts by the young but influential Black Lives Matter movement.

From the beginning, the trial deliberations, media spin and eventual outcome followed a narrative arc that diverged from the typical talking points and alibis trotted out by the mainstream media, police departments and the political establishment.

Liang's partner testified against him in exchange for legal immunity, and Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Marc Fliedner portrayed Liang as a "callous killer" who was more concerned with saving his job than Gurley's life. The Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and its leader Patrick Lynch made no public appeal or typical admonishment of the Black Lives Matter movement or the liberal political establishment on behalf of Liang.

After his indictment, in fact, Liang opted to use his own legal team instead of the attorneys provided by the PBA, which one media source stated was the result of the PBA's advice to Liang not to testify in front of the grand jury. Whatever the reason, the visible lack of PBA support for Liang has many people in the Asian community insisting that Liang is a scapegoat and that the PBA would have acted differently if Liang were white.

Across the country, Chinese community groups and civic organizations planned protests in solidarity with Liang. On February 20, several thousand turned out in New York City, and similar events were planned in other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston.

Even without official backing from the PBA, more than $40,000 was donated to Liang's defense fund alongside countless letters of solidarity addressed to the Liang family. In New York City, the Chinese Action Network has vowed to run candidates against Ken Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney who oversaw Liang's prosecution.

GIVEN THAT 85 percent of the NYPD leadership is white and only 6 percent of the NYPD is Asian, it may be that the NYPD and the PBA are acting in a discriminatory way toward the Liang family in not providing their usual loudmouthed support for Liang. But this does not mean that Liang should not be held accountable for killing Gurley.

Fortunately, some important voices in the Asian American community have refused to align themselves with the NYPD against the struggle for justice for Black lives. CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities brought together more than 50 Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations to issue an open letter in solidarity with the Gurley family and the Black community. The letter reads in part:

Police violence against Black communities is a systemic problem, and when police officers are not held accountable, they are enabled to kill with impunity. Without accountability for police officers who use deadly force and a complete and thorough overhaul of policing practices and other institutional policies in the U.S., we will have more Akai Gurleys and more Officer Liangs, more Mike Browns and Darren Wilsons, more Rekia Boyds and Dante Servins. This should be unacceptable to all of us, especially as many of our own community members, from South Asians post-9/11 to Southeast Asian communities, are also targeted by police departments across the country.

Our history shows us that when Asian communities work together in solidarity with Black communities, we all benefit. We also recognize that the Asian community in the U.S. has historically benefited from Black-led movements for racial and economic justice.

At a post-verdict rally on February 12, Hertencia Peterson, Gurley's aunt and a tireless advocate for justice for Akai, used a megaphone to send a message of gratitude and defiance to her family's supporters:

We are fighting the injustice upon the Black, the Latino, the Asian [communities]. We are a united front, we are a united people, and we are going to dismantle this system of the NYPD. Brick by brick, law by law, we are going to tear it down.

DESPITE THE guilty verdict for Gurley's killer, public discussion of the case revolved around the "unprofessional" conduct of Liang and Landau--as if what was at issue in Gurley's murder was the officers' deviation from the NYPD's standard operating procedure.

The real issue, of course, is the daily abuse and disregard for Black lives by the NYPD, including its "vertical patrols" and other heavy-handed tactics that target low-income communities like East New York.

The NYPD regularly justifies its practice of heavily patrolling low-income communities by pointing to high crime rates in these neighborhoods. But today's crime rates are at record low levels historically.

In this light, the aggressive tactics of "New York City's Finest" focused in certain communities carry a whiff of colonial rule--where the slightest infraction must be met with overwhelming repression lest the restless subjects think they can step out of line without suffering the consequences.

To illustrate the point, more than one-third of New York state's prisoners hail from just five New York City neighborhoods:

Most prisoners' addresses tend to be listed in the South Bronx, Brownsville, East New York, Harlem and Bed-Stuy. Brownsville residents were incarcerated in droves last year, with police sending 3,800 people to jail who hailed from just two zip codes: 11212 and 11207. South Bronx was not far behind, with 1,796 residents from the 10456 zip code spending a night at the Chateau du NYPD.

These neighborhoods were the site of some of the highest numbers of pedestrian stops under the NYPD's racist "stop and frisk" policy, which was ruled unconstitutional in 2013. Over a four-year period, from 2006 to 2010, Brownsville residents were stopped 52,000 times by the NYPD. The total population of Brownsville is 55,043, according to the 2010 census.

Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn where 76 percent of the population is African American, has some of the city's worst socioeconomic conditions. With its high concentration of public housing, Brownsville is known for high poverty and crime rates and has some of the most pronounced health disparities in New York.

To highlight the twisted priorities of state investment in these Brooklyn neighborhoods, a 2003 study "found 35 blocks where more than $1 million in state funds were spent to take people out of that community in 2003" and place them in prison. In one particular block, the sum topped $5 million.

A Brownsville resident's life expectancy is--shockingly--11 years shorter than those residents who hail from the city's financial district. As New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett pointed out, "That means Brownsville has a life expectancy more along the lines of Sri Lanka, a developing country."

The Pink Houses that Akai Gurley called home are situated only a few blocks from Brownsville.

So while the mainstream media focuses on Peter Liang's failure to administer CPR and call for an ambulance, several other questions go unexamined: Why does the NYPD have a disproportionate presence in low-income neighborhoods? Why are NYPD cops trained to have their guns drawn while on patrols?

Perhaps the reason why these questions aren't even raised by the mainstream media is that their logic calls attention to the contradictions at the heart of urban life in America--where the greatest concentration of wealth in world history exists side by side with some of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the country, and society can't afford a fraction of the resources it devotes to building ever more skyscrapers to end the homeless epidemic.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio talked about a "tale of two cities" during his 2013 mayoral campaign, he was tapping into a growing frustration and discontent widespread among New Yorkers confronted with an ever-gentrifying city. But those same people who were moved by de Blasio's message back then are still struggling to get by after urgent calls to address poverty stalking many communities have gone ignored.

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