After the quick release of police officers Darren Wilson and Danny Pantaleo from criminal charges, the indictment of the New York Police Department’s Peter Liang by a Brooklyn grand jury Tuesday came as something of a shock. Following the decision, Liang, 27, plead not guilty yesterday to second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault and two counts of official misconduct in the November 20 killing of unarmed New Yorker Akai Gurley.
Protests erupted around the country in the latter half of 2014, first around the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Another spark came when grand juries in Missouri and Staten Island each chose not to bring charges against Wilson, the officer responsible for Brown’s death, and Pantaleo, who, on camera, placed 43-year old Eric Garner in a fatal, illegal chokehold for selling loose cigarettes — a trademark offense of New York’s controversial “broken windows” policing. Gurley’s death in late November coincided with the decisions, and demonstrators added his to the list of names chanted mournfully in the streets, where Gurley’s family joined them.
Peter Liang had been on the job just 18 months when he entered East New York’s Louis Pink Housing Projects. He and partner Shaun Landau were, as the New York Post detailed back in December, conducting a “vertical patrol,” routine surveillance in the stairwells of the city’s public apartment complexes. Liang and Landau’s supervisor on the beat, Deputy Inspector Miguel Iglesias, had explicitly instructed officers in the local housing command not to enter the stairwells, and were to stick instead to courtyards and apartment lobbies. With a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other, reports indicate that Liang “mistakenly” opened fire from above when Gurley and his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, entered the dimly lit stairwell’s seventh floor. The bullet appears to have ricocheted, hitting Gurley in the chest. He made it down to the fifth floor before collapsing.
Rather than calling for an ambulance, Liang and Landau took six and a half minutes to text their union representatives before requesting help. Gurley was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital shortly thereafter. A father of two, he was planning to surprise his mother, Sylvia Palmer, in Florida for Thanksgiving at the end of the month. Kimberly Ballinger, Gurley’s common-law wife and the mother of his son, told the press that Liang’s indictment is just “one step towards justice” for her late partner.
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Unlike last year’s other police-involved killings, there has been little debate as to Gurley’s innocence. Even the notoriously bullish Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch was quick to call the incident a “tragic accident” in a statement from the union. The fact remains that Gurley was one of the black people killed by police or vigilantes every 28 hours in the United States. Out of 179 officer-involved shootings in New York over the last 15 years, Liang is just the fourth member of the NYPD to face charges. If convicted, he will be the second, according to the New York Daily News. In cases where race was known, 86 percent of the victims of those shootings were black or Hispanic. Even if Liang had no intent to kill Gurley, the circumstances of his death are anything but accidental.
As groups like Justice League NYC, the Dream Defenders, Ferguson Action and Million Hoodies Movement for Justice (and many others) have all pointed out, police-involved killings and the broader phenomenon of violence against black and non-white Americans are symptomatic of a much bigger problem: deeply entrenched, systemic racism. The rallying cry #BlackLivesMatter was coined by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and National Domestic Workers Alliance Special Projects Director Alicia Garza after protests around the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 failed to produce an indictment for his killer, George Zimmerman. The hashtag and the eponymous movement each point out that black life itself is deemed less valuable in America, less worthy of basic protections against physical and economic violence. As many have noted, residents of the Pink Houses had complained for months to the New York City Housing Authority about the broken lighting in the stairwell where Gurley was killed. A minor concern, perhaps, but one that may have saved a life. Protesters, though, are not calling for changes as straightforward as new light bulbs or even convictions. Though groups nationally and in various cities have articulated specific demands, all seem to center around one relatively simple concept: basic human dignity.
In light of the judicial system’s penchant for turning the other cheek in officer-involved shooting, this emergent movement and its leaders can and should take credit for the indictment, one unlikely to have come amidst silence in the streets and on the airwaves. Yet, as Million Hoodies Executive Director Dante Barry said Tuesday on Twitter, “Don’t get confused about an indictment. That’s still not justice.” Justice, sadly, is about more than one indictment, a slew of convictions or a few bad apples. As the Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated so brilliantly — on highways, in shopping malls and even on the steps of Congress — it’s about shutting down the businesses as usual that have proven so deadly to so many.