Down a Dark Stairwell: Akai Gurley’s death and anti-Blackness in the Chinese American community

October 31, 2020

Guest post by Miranda Liu, student at Stanford University

Down a Dark Stairwell has an ambitious goal, one that seems far-reaching and at times, impossible: to tell the full story of Akai Gurley’s death at the hands of Peter Liang. The film begins at the scene of the crime, right after Liang shoots Gurley and just as 911 is called. It then spends most of its time leading up to Liang’s trial, showing the responses of Black and Chinese communities and Gurley’s close family and friends. Its depiction seems fraught with tension and pain from the very moment the film begins to after it ends, leaving the viewer to confront the realities of policing and racism in America today.

It seems abundantly clear to me that Down a Dark Stairwell is targeted towards Asian and Chinese Americans. It seems like it wants to begin conversations about the role that the state and police play in perpetuating violence and anti-Blackness within Asian American communities. This film isn’t about police brutality as much as it is about how communities respond to it, and therein lies the crux of the film. Especially after the Black Lives Matter protests and widespread conversations surrounding police abolition this summer, it can feel like Down a Dark Stairwell lags slightly behind. However, its purpose and storytelling are not centered around policing, but interracial solidarity. This film is a call for Chinese Americans to stand up for Black communities the same way Black activists have stood up for Asian Americans, and in doing this, it does its job incredibly well.

This film tackles anti-Blackness in the Chinese American community in direct, salient ways. One of these is to bring to light two very different demands from the Chinese activists. This divide is central throughout the piece. On one end of the spectrum, mostly older Chinese American organizers feel mistreated and scapegoated by the criminal justice system, evident in WeChat messages—“Chinese people are white too!” On the other end, mostly younger Chinese Americans advocate for solidarity with Black protestors in their demands for justice for Akai Gurley. Unfortunately, the film’s focus on highlighting the former means there are few moments of interracial solidarity, and I found myself cherishing and clinging on to those moments. At times, it can seem like the Black organizers and activists are far ahead of the Chinese ones on this front. The Black organizers reject the model minority myth while the Chinese ones seem to relish in it, and are having conversations about police abolition and white supremacy while Chinese activists try to convince others that Liang is a scapegoat and that they want to be treated like white people.

Around the middle of the film, Chinese and Black protesters are divided by a busy road, with police in the middle, preventing the groups from getting closer to one another. It seems like this image can serve as a metaphor for the film itself: Down a Dark Stairwell is angry and heartbroken, and rightfully so. It seems much more focused on division than on unity, but there are salient moments where it reaches for cross-racial solidarity, unity, and organizing, and it is in those moments where the film shines.

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