"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.
(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.
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.
From all I can tell by reading Chinese information on the internet and WeChat, Peter Liang has a working class family, and his parents did not receive much education. Neither Peter nor his father are good with words. Here's a small but telling detail: after the verdict, when a tearful Fenny Liang phoned her husband about the bad news, the old man said no words; all she could hear was his heavy breathing.
Cultural misunderstanding might have caused some to believe that Peter Liang did not have remorse. I know way too many Chinese who don't express emotion through words, and that does not mean they don't have the emotion.
In fact, another thing that touched my heart as I watched the movement on WeChat this week is how much sympathy and compassion my fellow Chinese Americans showed toward Akai Gurley and his family. Just two days ago, a fund was announced on WeChat for the purpose of helping both Akai Gurley's and Peter Liang's families, and another similar fund is in the process of being set up. Rally organizers and participants are planning to have a one-minute silence to mourn Akai Gurley and express condolences to his family. Slogans with the message of condolences are also being made.
One of the proposed slogans is "One Tragedy, Two Victims." I feel this is so true. I feel for Akai Gurley's family. I feel for Peter Liang's family. Peter Liang should take responsibility for Akai Gurley's death, and he is being punished morally for that. But as Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson—the prosecutor—said in an interview today, "This is a tragedy, and there is no winner here." He also stated, "I do not believe that Peter Liang intentionally killed Akai Gurley. We have never said that."
So, what is the point of seeking the maximum sentence for a young man who made a grave mistake without intent?