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NYC activists celebrate guilty verdict in Akai Gurley case, plan to keep pressure on NYPD

Akai Gurley's aunt speaks to a crowd outside the NYPD's headquarters on Friday after the conviction of officer Peter Liang. (WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

Akai Gurley’s aunt speaks to a crowd outside the NYPD’s headquarters on Friday after the conviction of officer Peter Liang. (WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

One day after an officer was convicted for manslaughter in the 2014 death of a Brooklyn man, dozens of people gathered outside the New York City Police Department’s headquarters to celebrate the verdict and show support for the victim’s family.

“Did you ever think that we would get to a place where we could have a rally and be in a happy place?” asked organizer Kerbie Joseph of the ANSWER coalition. “Since I’ve been marching… it’s been a place of dread and frustration.”

On February 11, a jury declared Officer Peter Liang guilty of second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct in the killing of 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the stairwell of Brooklyn’s Louis H. Pink Houses on November 20, 2014. Liang and his partner, Officer Shaun Landau, had been conducting a “vertical patrol,” where police patrol building stairwells starting from the roof downward, in the dimly-lit stairwell of the building. Liang had his gun in hand, a supposedly common police practice, when Gurley and his girlfriend entered the stairwell. Officer Liang was then startled and let off a shot that ricocheted off the wall and hit Gurley, who made it from the seventh floor — where he entered the stairwell — to the fifth floor before collapsing.

Prosecutors say that neither officer called in for an ambulance and that Liang was more concerned with saving his job than with helping Gurley. Officer Landau even admitted to snatching the phone out of Liang’s hand as he tried to call the sergeant. Although they are supposed to be trained to do so, neither Officer Liang nor Officer Landau performed CPR on Gurley, claiming in court that they were not properly trained and that the NYPD had helped them cheat on the CPR-certification test. Liang’s lawyers claim that he was busy crying and in a state of shock and was thus in no condition to perform CPR.

“It’s going to be pretty clear he broke down and was crying in the hallway,” Defense Attorney Robert Brown told DNAInfo. “Not necessarily the best physical and mental condition to perform CPR on someone.”

The jury didn’t see it that way and took two days to decide on the guilty verdict. Liang and his partner, Officer Landau, were also officially terminated from their jobs after the verdict came out. The next day, outside of the NYPD’s headquarters at One Police Plaza, supporters of the Gurley family gathered for a rally to celebrate the verdict. Organizers and Gurley’s family thanked all the activists in New York City who demonstrated for the last year and helped keep Gurley’s case on people’s minds.

“I really feel like without you, there’s no way that we would’ve gotten the verdict that we did,” Gurley’s cousin Mesha Joseph told a crowd of activists at the rally.

Ever since Gurley’s death, his name has been chanted at multiple protests and demonstrations along with the various other victims of the NYPD, and many actions were dedicated solely to remembering him. Protesters have been a common sight outside the courthouse, in Grand Central Station, and on the streets. Many of the more dedicated activists and groups have become close with the Gurley family, providing various kinds of support.

“I want to thank everyone from the Grand Central crew NYC Shut It Down, People’s Power [Assemblies], Malcolm X Grassroots [Movement], everybody,” said Gurley’s aunt Hertencia “Aunt T” Peterson at the rally. “There’s so many, and I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”

This coalition of grassroots groups all contributed to keeping Gurley’s name from being forgotten and were thanked multiple times by the family for their work.

“I know for a fact that protesting and all of the noise that we’ve made played a role [in the verdict],” said Kim Ortiz of NYC Shut It Down. “You know things like this get swept under the rug. Cops on videotape get non-indictments. So absolutely the pressure that we’ve kept up, our endurance, our persistence, and our straight up militancy have definitely played a role in this verdict and also nationwide.”

Many of Liang’s supporters insist that, while white officers often get away with killing civilians, Liang was convicted because he is Chinese. Liang’s mother spoke out about this the day after the verdict at a press conference in Brooklyn along with other supporters of Liang and his family.

“If the cop was white, he would have not been convicted,” Adele Chen, a friend of Liang, told NY1. “Because there are so many cases where the cops are white and they have not been convicted for the crimes. So why is this one Asian being convicted for what he has accidentally done?”

Activist groups like CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, an Asian-American group that has been supporting the Gurley family and advocating for Liang’s conviction from the beginning, insist that while Liang’s race may have played a role in his conviction, justice requires that he, as well as white officers, be held accountable when they kill people.

“I hear it, and I feel for them,’’ Cathy Dang, executive director of CAAAV, told the New York Times. “I understand that they feel like he is a scapegoat, but at the end of the day a life was stolen from a family, and Officer Liang is part of a system that does it to many other people, and we can’t keep giving police officers impunity.”

Liang is set to be sentenced on April 14 and faces up to 15 years in prison. The activists who helped bring about his conviction, however, say they will continue onto other cases where cops have gotten away with murder, and hopefully make sure that officers of all races are held accountable.

“Our black and brown bodies are still dropping at the hands of law enforcement, so we need to keep pursuing every single case of injustice,” Ortiz said. “We need to make sure that every single case gets accountability and get justice for these families because it’s not just Akai Gurley.”