Margaret Chin Copes with Controversy after Liang Conviction

City Council member Margaret Chin (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

City Council member Margaret Chin (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

Council member Margaret Chin sits in a meeting room in the building where her office is located with a coffee mug in hand. She looks tired and the dark circles around her eyes are visible. She didn’t sleep well after Peter Liang’s conviction. “It’s not so much crying. But my heart hurts. I try to be strong. But it’s really hurting. Every time I see Peter and his mother in the media, I feel for them,” says Chin, about the Chinese police officer who was convicted of manslaughter and last Thursday the accidental shooting death of innocent African American Akai Gurley.

On the morning of Feb. 17, Chin, together with other elected officials including Rep. Grace Meng and Council member Peter Koo, met Liang’s mother at City Hall. After the meeting, Chin approached the mother separately and told her to take care of herself. “She reiterated how she felt about her son’s conviction,” says Chin. “I don’t think she holds a grudge against me.” Still, that didn’t brighten Chin up a bit. “I am a mother too. My son is only a few years older than Peter. I understand what she’s been going through.”

This may sound like the cliché elected officials always say when they try to comfort people suffering from tragedies. But to Chin, these words couldn’t be more personal. A year ago, when the grand jury was still making the decision on whether to indict Liang, Chin issued a statement calling for an indictment. It made her one of very few in the Chinese community holding such a view. Now that Liang’s conviction has triggered a huge outcry from the community where many people think the conviction was unfair, Chin once again has becomes a target. The criticism and attacks against her, some too nasty to be printed in a family newspaper, flood the social media platforms. Some Chinese are calling on their peers to speak with ballots and vote her out next year when she runs for a third term.

Chin agrees with her critics on one thing: Race has played a role in Liang’s case.  “Looking at the history and the recent cases of police officers involved in misconduct or who caused the death of another person, if Peter was white, he might have been treated differently,” says Chin.

But if time could be reversed, Chin says she would still issue that statement, only that she would try to explain it better to help the community understand her view. “Going back to the beginning, I called for the indictment. That was based on what was going on at that time with all these cases involving police killing innocent people and there was no process so they just got off. My standpoint at that time was: [for] any officer, if you cause someone to die you have to be accountable and go through the legal system,” says Chin. “The sad part was people didn’t understand where I was coming from. Even back then, I never said Peter Liang was a bad person and he intended to kill Gurley and he should be convicted.”

To people who know her, Chin’s firm stand on this matter is not a surprise. She has been a person who sticks to her principles and never bends, even when that puts her under enormous public pressure or in a position against her own interest.

On the New York University expansion case, she supported the final expansion proposal because she believed it could bring more public resources to the community in Greenwich Village. Some community activists have been treating her as public enemy number one since then. When Mayor de Blasio launched his rezoning plan, Chin once again brushed off strong opposition from some Chinese community organizations and showed her support because she has long been advocating for increasing affordable housing through inclusionary zoning. Last year, when the mayor’s Independent Quadrennial Advisory Commission issued a report on a pay raise for elected officials and suggested eliminating the stipends to committee chairs in the City Council to help fund the pay raise for the members, Chin supported it even though, as the chair of the Aging Committee, she may suffer a loss in her own wallet.

The same pattern applies to her dealing with police violence. The statement regarding Liang’s case was not the first time Chin called for the indictment of police officers responsible for the death of innocent citizens. In the case of Eric Garner, the African-American who sold loose cigarettes and died after a police chokehold, Chin issued a similar statement and participated in related protests too. But this didn’t register in the minds of many people in the Chinese community. “At that time, many Chinese thought Eric Garner was not from our community. It’s not our business,” says Chin.

Being criticized as “not helping the Chinese community,” Chin feels wronged. “I grew up in the community. All my life I’ve been helping the Chinese community. But in my work, I also work on coalition building. I strongly believe that we cannot do it by ourselves. That’s why in the City Council I joined the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. When I advocate for legislation and budget, I have to get other council members to support me.”

The idea of working with people from other communities is not a new one to Chin either. Decades ago, when the Chinese community was angry that the builder of the Confucius Plaza Apartments was not hiring locally, Chin, as a young activist, helped to mobilize activists from the Latino and Black communities who had more experience in construction to stand with the Chinese in the protests.

In the Liang case, Chin says her original expectation for the indictment was that it would allow the legal system to shed more light on the issues such as the NYPD’s risky practice on vertical patrolling, dispatching rookie cops to the most dangerous areas and the shoddy maintenance of government housing. “Before the case, the City Council had held several hearings on some of these issues. And Chinese are also victims of police brutality. We also live in government housing,” says Chin.

But the standards of right and wrong in an ideal world often have to go through challenges in the real world. Sometimes, the challenges are so tough that even a die-hard idealist like Chin is not completely prepared. “It was too severe. I was not expecting it,” says Chin, about Liang’s conviction, particularly on the count of manslaughter. “I texted many people and read documents. I wanted to find out how the jury came up with the conclusion.”

Chin admits that conviction has shown the judicial system has problems. But she still chooses to believe in the system. “The system can be changed,” she said. Now when many Chinese are rolling up their sleeves and extending their hands to Liang and his family, Chin is doing her part. But she is still looking for a solution within the system. She is drafting a letter to the judge asking for leniency in the sentence. And she says she’ll send a “dear colleague” letter to get more council members to sign the letter together with her to give it more weight.

“We should look at the larger picture. It’s the government that failed both (the Liang and Gurley) families,” says Chin. “We hope we can begin the healing process. I just hope this issue will not split the unity of different ethnic groups. We worked so hard to bring people together.”

As for herself, Chin says she has stopped looking at the attacks online. “Do you think that is good to my health? I am a human not a robot,” she says, and then, adds: “I have a lot of work to do.”

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