At the Met Gala in early May, New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) wore a tuxedo coat with the words “End Gun Violence” affixed. The phrase referred to his statement two weeks earlier, when, asked about an increase in New York City shootings, he said:
Of course, Floyd was not killed by Black youths or with a gun. The movement for Black lives focuses on police extrajudicial killings through a variety of means, including examining budgets and other government practices. Adams’s rhetorical move was to shift public discussion from police misbehavior, instead promoting the idea that gun violence in Black communities requires police and, therefore, the call to defund police is the real problem.
Shifting responsibility for crime to Black communities and wider communities of color is an old tactic, a strategy that has justified repeatedly expanding policing that targets Black people in the United States. Perhaps these unsuccessful U.S. policing strategies are increasingly funded in part because sometimes people within communities being blamed for crime still support the police.
Why do the people who endure biased and oppressive policing sometimes respond to community violence by aligning with the state — that is, police, policymakers, executives, and the courts? What are the social justice implications when oppressed communities are internally divided?
As I show in my book “Invisible Weapons: Infiltrating Resistance and Defeating Movements,” Black, Latina, and Asian American communities are wrestling with such efforts to blame them for the government’s actions. Members of these marginalized communities are politically sidelined by the state, being taught to anticipate futility and to eventually advocate against their own political needs.
Akai Gurley and the NYPD
One example can be found in the contrasting protests in 2014 after a New York police officer shot and killed a Black man, Akai Gurley, while he was walking down the stairs in his apartment building.
The 28-year-old Gurley was fatally shot in November 2014 by rookie officer Peter Liang, who was Chinese American. Liang was indicted and later charged with manslaughter in February 2015. One year and one day after being charged, a jury convicted Liang — but the judge reduced his charge to criminally negligent homicide and sentenced him to community service and probation. Gurley was killed four months after Eric Garner Jr. died in New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold, and three months after Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed in Ferguson, Miss., by police officer Darren Wilson. Each death prompted Black Lives Matter protests, locally and nationally, some of which lasted months.
Few officers are indicted, charged or convicted for deaths like these. A New York Daily News investigation found that, over 15 years, at least 179 people were killed by New York City on-duty police; of those, only three were indicted and one charged. However, as The Washington Post has reported, no federal agency collects data on police-involved killings. In fact, public records laws shield police from disclosing such data. This denial of data results in failures of accountability for all communities.
In the Gurley case, Asian American communities reacted to the fact that while very few officers are ever charged in such deaths, one who did was Asian American. Different responses divided Asian American communities.
A contingent of Asian American organizers within the Movement for Black Lives argued that both Liang and the larger system of policing deserved to be indicted. This subgroup wrote a letter to others in their communities in over 15 languages explaining their support for the movement and asking for others’ support as well.
But thousands of Chinese Americans organized in response to what they called a tragedy for both Gurley and Liang. They publicly argued that Liang was being scapegoated to compensate for the many White officers who had escaped being indicted for far worse behavior. Liang’s supporters were aligned with Ken Thompson, the district attorney prosecuting Liang, whose office recommended to the judge that Liang receive no jail time.
Thompson’s advocacy followed the request of Liang’s supporters. Those supporters, a subset of Chinese Americans, are in effect accepting responsibility for another police officer’s exoneration for an unprovoked killing — even though they, like the Movement for Black Lives, explicitly blame the killing on systems that primarily protect White officers in particular and White people in general.
Trading systemic accountability for personal responsibility
In the Liang incident, some subset of a marginalized racial group effectively endorsed police actions — not because they agreed that police should be free to shoot Black people, but because they did not believe that the government and state would change. In supporting Liang, they reinforced police impunity, rejected the Movement for Black Lives, and undermined any interests they might have had in police accountability in favor of narrower community interests.
As I explain in “Invisible Weapons,” such self-defeating political choices often occur in Black, Latino and Asian communities. Such approaches help elect officials like Adams — a former cop backed by many Black, Latino and low-income voters to win — and for shifting communities’ focus away from the state and onto themselves.
Marcus Board (@ProfMBJ_) is a professor of African American studies at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming “Invisible Weapons: Infiltrating Resistance and Defeating Movements” (Oxford University Press, 2022).