The story I’m about to tell is an old story. In an election season and a fast-paced society, something that happened three weeks ago is very likely to wind up in oblivion.
On the other hand, according to the legendary detective Poirot, everything that happened on earth would leave a trace. Whether the trace would be noticed or not depends on whether it could make sense to anybody or not.
This morning, when I cleaned up the trunk of my car, I stumbled upon a T-shirt. It is a dark blue affair with white words, “Fair Trial for Peter Liang”, printed on the front. It instantly triggered my memory about how I got involved in the protest on February 20th.
The tragedy happened on Nov. 20th, 2014. While patrolling the Louis H. Pink Houses in the East Side of New York with his partner, rookie NYPD officer Peter Liang fired his gun. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and killed Akai Gurley, who was walking down the stairs with his girlfriend.
On February 11th 2016, a jury found Peter Liang guilty of involuntary manslaughter and official misconduct in the shooting death of an unarmed man. After the conviction, some activists from Chinese community started mobilizing people for protests. At first, I didn’t think I should get involved because I am only living in the U.S. as a Canadian on visa. You don’t take sides in a domestic dispute when you’re a house guest, do you?
But my neutrality was soon broken when I was dragged into a WeChat group by a friend whom I have been acquainted with through my daughter’s school. She’s a fellow parent of a high school girl, and she is also a member of The Orange Club, the organizer of Irvine’s protest on February 20th. Later I found out that it was no accident. The Orange Club started out by organizing the protest for SCA5 in 2014. Therefore, it has great mobilizing power among school kids’ parents.
I have always regarded myself as an observer more than a doer. But once I was part of the conversation, I was soon influenced by their passion. A deep concern began growing in my mind. I couldn’t help but worry about my kids’ future. What if my kids decide to live in America when they grow up? What if they will be treated unequally then?
I couldn’t maintain my detachment anymore. I became agitated. I announced to my kids: “I’m going to join a rally on Saturday morning. I’ll make lunch beforehand and leave it on the kitchen table. You can warm it up when you’re hungry.”
My 15-year-old daughter was surprised, “why do you want to join a rally? That is so not you.”
I answered proudly, “I’m doing it for justice.” After that, I briefly accounted Peter Liang’s story.
She frowned, “I don’t see inequality here. He shot an unarmed man, after all.”
“Don’t you see it’s a selective justice here? There are at least hundreds of similar cases before him, in which African Americans were killed by white police officers under controversial circumstances, but the white police officers walked away. Why should Peter Liang be tried? He’s clearly a scapegoat.” I had totally soaked up in the opinions flying around in our WeChat group so I answered confidently and fluently.
“I kind of agree with you on the scapegoating part. There seems to be some degree of inequality here.“ She conceded. “But if you guys are pursuing real justice. You should expect that Liang’s conviction become a precedent and that the system will continue to convict police officers in the future who wrongfully shoot unarmed citizen, no matter what color the victims or the perpetrators are.”
“You sound so politically correct.” I sighed, “but the reality is more complicated than you think. If we continue remain silent, we are going to be treated unfairly forever.”
“But I don’t think you can justify your cause.” She said very seriously. “To start off, you want Asian cops to enjoy white cops’ privilege of killing black people, which is totally injustice.”
“We think that Peter Liang did make a mistake and he should face consequences. We just hope he won’t go to prison for 15 years. It’s too harsh a sentencing.” I stepped back a little bit too.
“Which brought me to my second point: you are using the wrong method. When African American people go to protest, they can always gain sympathy because they protest life or death issues. You guys do acknowledge that Peter Liang was guilty of something, it’s just that you don’t agree with the crime he was charged of. This is a matter that should be argued at court.”
“You watch too much TV.” I gave her my verdict.
“Please don’t go to the rally.” She said. “It’ll make all Asians look like a joke.”
I was speechless. My mind told me that logic was on her side, but my gut feeling told me that I should go. And I sincerely thought that I was doing it for her good, even if she didn’t agree.
On the day of the protest, I snuck out of my home at 11am and drove straight to the rally spot. I was given a sign and a T-shirt. I put on the T-shirt on top of my own T-shirt, and raised the sign high above my head. Fair trial for Peter Liang! I shouted, following the group.
Still, I couldn’t understand why a normally quiet and politically inactive person could be suddenly galvanized to action.
During the march along Alton Street, I stumbled upon two alumni of my alma mater. We all graduated from Peking University, but in different years, from different departments. I knew before that they lived in Irvine too, but we rarely had time for a formal gathering. So, right there, right then, we happily chatted away and, very strangely, we soon found ourselves in the discussion of the Tian An Men protest back in 1989.
“What were you doing in the summer of 1989? Were you participating? ” One of them asked. “The summer of 1989” is a code for “Tian An Men Protest.” Even after leaving China for so many years, we’re still more comfortable using code names than referring to the real thing.
“You know what? I didn’t get to participate!” I answered somewhat regrettably.
Let me tell you why. I graduated in 1988, one year before the protest. In the summer of 1989, I was working for Canon, the Japanese optical equipment manufacturer. Our office was in the Beijing Hotel, one mile east of Tian An Men Square, and my home was located 5 miles west of Tian An Men Square. In the week when Tian An Men Square was blocked and public transportation wasn’t available, I walked 6 miles along Chang An Street to go to work in the morning and another 6 miles going back home in the evening. In other words, I witnessed everything but wasn’t a part of anything.
“Yeah, kinda.” I echoed inadvertently.
Now looking back, the most terrible part of that experience is that I didn’t know how to feel and what to think when I pushed my way through the crowd of students who were about the same age as me. There was no doubt that I had sympathy toward them, but I also had a vague awareness that I already belonged to the “white-collar” class and my standing should be somewhat different from them. But what should a white-collar worker think and how should she react? I didn’t know either. In the end, all that the summer of 1989 left in my mind was the pain for not being able to utter a voice.
Ever since the minute in the morning of February 20th when I stepped sneakily out of my home, I had been feeling ridiculous. From what I know, from history or from literature, it should be young generation that evades their parents’ supervision and sneaks out of their homes for radical actions. How come in my home, it’s the parent who acted hot-headedly?
Right in the middle of the protest, I was stricken by a thought as fierce as lightning. “Am I compensating for my long suppressed desire to participate in a protest, no matter what the cause is?”