How the Police Used the Killing of Akai Gurley to Pit Black and Chinese Americans Against One Another

Photo illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty
From one point of view, Akai Gurley's death was a familiar story. On November 20, 2014, the unarmed 28-year-old black man was shot dead by a New York City police officer as he went down a dark staircase with a companion in Brooklyn's Pink Houses projects. Although ambulances were called, Gurley did not survive. At a present moment when the murder of George Floyd has sparked nationwide (and global) protests against racist police brutality, Gurley's story resounds as a case study of the very biased violence that so many are now facing and that are to be systematically dismantled.
However, as Down a Dark Stairwell explains, Gurley's saga was complicated by two interrelated factors that made it a unique focus in recent American history. First, the officer who killed Gurley was Peter Liang, a 27-year-old Chinese-American man who had been in action for less than 18 months and claimed that the tragedy was an accident that occurred during a routine "vertical" patrol "Where officials check a building from the roof to the ground floor. Second, he was charged in six cases, including second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent murder. He was the rare NYPD member who was charged with the death of a black person.
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The documentary by director Ursula Liang (unrelated), premiered on June 17 as part of this year's Human Rights Watch Festival, is a two-sided portrait of the divisive turmoil that resulted from this crime, with friends and relatives of Gurley protests against Liang led and in favor of meaningful sentencing and sentencing and the Asian-American community that defended himself and claimed that he was a "scapegoat" who deserved to be released. This conflict raised questions that remain at the forefront of American culture to this day: police accountability for acts that lead to innocent black deaths; the intolerant assumptions and training of officials who force them to react fatally to such situations; and the ability of public activism to raise and transform social awareness of unjust paradigms.
Suffice it to say that Down a Dark Stairwell speaks directly to the here and now, even though it is a characteristic example of the friction between minority communities and the police forces monitoring them in the past. For Gurley's mother Sylvia and Aunt Hertencia (known as Aunt T), the problem was an example of how the NYPD used murder power against a black person in them again because of the color of the skin and the instinctive fear associated with it. Asian-Americans, however, saw it differently. For her, Gurley's death was a terribly unfortunate mistake, but Liang himself was also a victim of a xenophobic power structure that characterized him for a crime that many other white officers had also committed without consequences. Given this opinion and their belief that, according to his legal defense, Liang had only fired and accidentally fired his revolver after being frightened in a poorly-lit environment, they took to the streets to aid his relief.
There was never any doubt that Liang killed Gurley. And given the circumstances - including the fact that the deadly bullet bounced off a wall before he hit Gurley - it was reasonable to assume that he hadn't gone out that night to maliciously kill a black person. The notion that hovers over Down a Dark Stairwell is that Gurley's death was really a by-product of a police culture that was shaped by racist attitudes and training. Unfortunately, director Liang hardly spends any time on this relevant aspect. Instead, her main concern is less straightforward: she documents the anger and fear on both sides of the case that led to organized mass protests by blacks and Chinese-Americans who passionately and convincingly expressed their respective feelings of persecution and marginalization.
Down a Dark Stairwell's plethora of current footage is supported by a number of excellent formal details, such as: B. Providing radio broadcast exposures visiting the attractions of the East New York, Brooklyn and Chinatown neighborhoods, and repeating court certificates of recordings of the transcripts of the stenographers. Director Liang captures the anger and resentment of New York's black and Chinese-American populations who are at odds here, although, as some activists note, they should be united against a system that pits minorities against each other while maintaining their (white) Protects populations. have. When Liang was the first New York policeman to be sentenced to on-duty death for 14 years, the Chinese and Americans believed that he was chosen because of his nationality. And when he was released from the hook with a five-year suspended sentence and 800 hours of community service, black Americans took this as a sign that their lives didn't matter, especially compared to that of police officers.
Kimberly Michelle Ballinger, Akai Gurley's life partner, holds her daughter Akaila in Gurley's entourage at the Brown Memorial Baptist Church on December 5, 2014 in Brooklyn, New York.
Down a Dark Stairwell reflects the binary narrative dynamics of his story, but ultimately comes at the expense of solving the primary underlying problem. While many Chinese-American activists put forward a touching argument for their day-to-day abuse, they never offer Liang a convincing defense, other than arguing that because of his Asian heritage, he is being punished for something that white officers are not. That is undoubtedly true. However, as Liang's supporters claim, it does not mean that he should go for a crime that he undeniably committed. Rather, it shows that all police officers, regardless of their ethnicity, should and must be held responsible for their violent behavior. The real injustice at the heart of this story is that so few white cops are responsible for their destructive acts - a fact that has been demonstrated by countless other incidents across the country, from Michael Brown and Eric Garner to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Since Down a Dark Stairwell does not fully anticipate this larger problem, it looks both contemporary and somewhat incapable of seeing the forest for the trees. While concisely viewing its material as an exposé of a police force that protects itself through the division of minority communities, it misses the opportunity to advocate for the change that the country desperately needs, and is currently trying - due to Floyd, Taylor, and others - the following: the revision of a law enforcement and legal system that allows police officers to get away with the murder of black people.
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