It should not come as a surprise when a cop faces charges for killing an unarmed civilian. But it does. That's why the news Wednesday that the officer who shot dead unarmed black 28-year-old Akai Gurley will face charges — including second-degree manslaughter — was welcomed as a nod towards justice.
Little wonder, following the failure last year of a grand jury in Ferguson to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, and the failure of a New York grand jury to bring charges against Eric Garner's killer, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo.
But it goes too far to call Officer Peter Liang's indictment good news: It's just not more bad news. It's literally the least that can be done: to assert that an armed officer answer to a court of law for opening fire on a young black man who did nothing more than open the door in a darkened stairwell.
Indeed, when Rev. Al Sharpton's top aide, Kirsten John Foy, said today that the indictment "renews faith in the process" she was dangerously wrong. This is no time for renewed faith in a process that has again and again gifted police officers with impunity and black lives with violence. The only thing that should be renewed today is anger when we recall Gurley's death, and efforts to assert that which should needs no stating, that Black Lives Matter.
The better-than-nothing charges that Liang faces do not amount to justice, either systematic or for Gurley's loved ones. Second-degree manslaughter, in the unlikely event that Liang will be convicted of that charge, carries a minimum sentence of one to three years, and maximum sentence of five to 15. Let's put this in some context. Anti-police violence activist and rapper DaMonte Marquise Shipp Sr., 22, (aka Ceebo Tha Rapper), whose cousin Ezell Ford was shot dead by LAPD officers last year, received a 17 year jail sentence for a robbery, . Even if the law comes down its hardest on Liang, he will likely sit in a cell for for years fewer than Ceebo. The rapper's own lyrics penned before his trial say it best, for a young black man, "it's a social purgatory, when you go to court."
Those who will now pin hopes for justice on a conviction for Liang would do well to recall that a conviction in an equally high profile officer-involved shooting meant no justice at all. Oakland cop Johannes Mehserle, who was caught on camera in 2009 shooting dead unarmed black man Oscar Grant at point blank range as he lay face down on a BART train station platform, was convicted on involuntary manslaughter. He spent less than a year in jail.
We should not expect a sea change in police behavior because Liang will face charges. We need only consider the bullish and brattish attitude of police unions and leadership in the face of muted calls for reform to see this.
In response to the announcement of Liang's indictment, NYPD union chief Patrick Lynch commented, "The fact the he was assigned to patrol one most dangerous housing projects in New York City must be considered among the circumstances of this tragic accident." Lynch's words remind us how far we are from justice. A young black man is dead, and this powerful cop thinks blame should be attenuated because the project housing where the officers were patrolling is known to be dangerous. Lynch wants a building's reputation to be considered in judging whether a cop was justified in shooting first because a black man opened a door in a stairwell where the light was out.
The assumption of threat in that situation, inscribed on black skin, reflects a deep structural racism, whatever Liang's personal views might be. The fact that Liang was "nervous" and killed Gurley "accidentally" does not account for the fact that, without cause, the officer had his gun out and ready to shoot. That Liang is a rookie cop is no excuse; he wore the uniform, he was armed. His inexperience and fear is no use to Gurley's loved ones. And his indictment reflects no shift in policy, and no justice.