How the Police Used the Killing of Akai Gurley to Pit Black and Chinese Americans Against One Another
The new doc “Down a Dark Stairwell” examines the killing of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man, by NYPD Officer Peter Liang, a Chinese American, and how it divided New York City.
From one vantage point, the death of Akai Gurley was a familiar story. On Nov. 20, 2014, while walking down a darkened stairwell with a companion in Brooklyn’s Pink Houses projects, the unarmed 28-year-old black man was shot by a New York City Police Department officer. Though ambulances were called to the scene, Gurley didn’t survive. At a present moment in which George Floyd’s murder has sparked nationwide (and global) protests against racist police brutality, Gurley’s tale resounds as a case study of the very prejudiced violence so many are now confronting, and seeking to systematically dismantle.
However, as Down a Dark Stairwell elucidates, Gurley’s saga was complicated by two interrelated factors that turned it into a unique flashpoint in recent American history. First, the officer who killed Gurley was Peter Liang, a 27-year-old Chinese-American man who’d been on the job for less than 18 months, and who contended that the tragedy was an accident that occurred during a routine “vertical patrol” in which officers check out a building from the rooftop to the ground floor. And second, he was indicted on six counts, including manslaughter in the second degree and criminally negligent homicide—making him the rare NYPD member to face charges for the shooting death of a black person.
Premiering on June 17 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Festival, director Ursula Liang’s (no relation) documentary is a from-both-sides portrait of the divisive uproar that ensued from this crime, with friends and relatives of Gurley leading protests against Liang and in favor of a meaningful conviction and sentence, and the Asian-American community rallying to his defense, claiming he was a “scapegoat” who deserved to be set free. That conflict raised issues that remain at the forefront of American culture today: cops’ accountability for actions that lead to innocent black deaths; the intolerant assumptions and training of officers, which compels them to respond to such situations in deadly fashion; and the ability of public activism to raise social awareness of, and transform, unjust paradigms.
Suffice it to say, Down a Dark Stairwell speaks directly to the here and now, even as it details a distinctive past example of the friction between minority communities and the police departments that oversee them. For Gurley’s mother Sylvia and aunt Hertencia (known as Aunt T), the issue was a cut-and-dried instance of the NYPD once again using homicidal force against a black man because of the color of his skin, and the instinctive fear it instilled in them. Asian-Americans, however, viewed it differently. To them, Gurley’s death was a horribly unfortunate mistake, but Liang himself was also a victim of a xenophobic power structure that was singling him out for a crime that many other white officers had also committed, with no consequences. Given that opinion, as well as their belief that Liang, per his legal defense, had merely tensed up and accidentally fired his revolver after being startled in an ill-lit environment, they took to the streets to support his exoneration.
That Liang killed Gurley was never in doubt. And considering the circumstances—including the fact that the fatal bullet ricocheted off a wall before striking Gurley—it was reasonable to assume that he hadn’t gone out that night looking to maliciously kill a black individual. The notion that hovers over Down a Dark Stairwell is that Gurley’s demise was really the byproduct of a police force culture ingrained with racist attitudes and training measures. Unfortunately, though, director Liang barely spends any time on that pertinent angle. Instead, her prime concern is more straightforward: documenting the fury and anguish felt on both sides of the case, which resulted in organized mass protests by black and Chinese-Americans, who passionately and persuasively voiced their respective feelings of persecution and marginalization.
Down a Dark Stairwell’s wealth of in-the-moment footage is aided by a host of excellent formal touches, such as providing exposition via radio broadcasts set to sights of the city’s East New York, Brooklyn and Chinatown neighborhoods, and replaying court testimony over shots of stenographers’ written transcripts. Director Liang captures the rage and resentment of New York’s black and Chinese-American populations, who here find themselves at odds even though, as some activists remark, they should be united against a system that pits minorities against each other while protecting their (white) own. When Liang became the first New York cop convicted of an on-duty death in 14 years, Chinese-Americans became convinced that he had been singled out because of his nationality. And when he was then let off the hook with a sentence of five years’ probation and 800 hours of community service, black Americans took it as a sign that their lives didn’t matter, especially compared to those of police officers.
Down a Dark Stairwell echoes its story’s binary narrative dynamic, but ultimately at the expense of addressing the primary, underlying issue at hand. While many Chinese-American activists make a stirring case for their own day-to-day mistreatment, they never provide a compelling defense of Liang, aside from arguing that, due to his Asian heritage, he’s being punished for something that white officers are not. That’s undoubtedly true. Still, it doesn’t mean—as Liang’s supporters assert—that he should therefore walk for a crime that he inarguably committed. Rather, what it illustrates is that all police officers should—and must—be held liable for their violent behavior, regardless of their ethnicity. The genuine injustice at the heart of this tale is that so few white police officers have to answer for their destructive actions—a fact demonstrated by myriad other incidents across the country, from Michael Brown and Eric Garner to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
By not fully reckoning with that larger problem, Down a Dark Stairwell comes across as both timely and somewhat incapable of seeing the forest for the trees. While it incisively casts its material as an exposé of a police institution safeguarding itself by dividing minority communities, it misses its opportunity to advocate for the change the country desperately needs, and is currently—because of Floyd, Taylor and others—striving to realize: the overhaul of a law enforcement and legal system that lets cops get away with murdering Black people.