Thoughts on Peter Liang: Tomorrow they will come out like ants

(From Inside-Out China)

By Xujun Eberlein

“They came out like ants!”  Some years ago, William T. Vollmann wrote this headline in Harper’s, adding the subtitle “Searching for the Chinese tunnels of Mexicali.”  Tomorrow (Saturday, February 20), “they”—the Chinese Americans—might again come out “like ants” in more than 40 cities, this time not from the mysterious tunnels of Mexicali, but from a cellphone-based social media network called WeChat.

Peter Liang arriving at Brookyn Supreme Court on day of conviction.

Peter Liang arriving at Brookyn Supreme Court on day of conviction.

(Before anyone attempts to protest the use of “ants” as a metaphor for people, let me say up front that it reminds me of a childhood song “Little ants, love to work” or “小蚂蚁,爱劳动”.  It was a song adored by my grandmother, a poor peasant who worked nonstop her every waking hour. The metaphor also has an ironic connotation in the sense that ants work but don’t speak. Have you ever heard ants make a sound? But who knows, that might change.)

Ever since former NYPD policeman Peter Liang’s guilty verdict last Thursday, plans for rallies all over the nation have been developed through grassroots campaigns on WeChat. Watching the efforts in full swing on a cellphone is no less breath-taking than an action movie. All kinds of voices, rational and irrational, calm and angry, fair-minded and extreme, can be “heard” on the palm-size screen. What a mass movement!

As someone who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, I am always wary of mass movements. Even with well-meaning participants, they have the intrinsic tendency to let people get carried away. I prefer to stay out, and I don’t plan to participate in Boston’s rally tomorrow.

Photo of Akai Gurley and Brooklyn housing project where he was shot.

Photo of Akai Gurley and Brooklyn housing project where he was shot.

What made me write this piece, however, is that my fellow Chinese Americans surprised me with their earnest efforts in educating each other on public affairs, on how American democracy works.  Exactly because this movement is a grassroots action, many of the participants are lay people who have been busy feeding a family and not paying attention to the English media.

As all sorts of slogans were suggested for the rallies, many, including “All Lives Matter” were introduced at face value into the mix. Quickly—and on WeChat everything happens quickly—others with the knowledge of the line’s racist connotation spoke out, and it was dropped. In a sense, this movement has become a “teachable moment.” But because so many people are involved, it is still possible that the slogan will show up somewhere tomorrow. Let’s hope it doesn’t, but in case it unfortunately does, let’s hope the onlookers don’t compound the mistake by attributing racist intent.

Speaking of presumptions, I’ve heard that some thought Peter Liang showed no remorse after accidentally taking Akai Gurley’s life.  I have been following media reports closely about the trial, and I had a rather different impression. If anyone interpreted Peter Liang’s sobs during his testimony as acting rather than true regrets and remorse, then let me share with you some further information.  Peter Liang’s mother, Fenny, said that Peter Liang was repeatedly banging his head against the wall at home, and he was so grief stricken about the tragedy that he kept saying he’d rather be the one who was shot.  Fenny did not sleep for 24 hours because she felt the need to watch her son so he wouldn’t do something stupid to himself. Read more


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