Veteran NYPD Detective Vincent Cheung had arrived at his assigned corner after conferring with community organizers ahead of a weekly demonstration for trans lives near Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn. The plan for this March night was to meet with other officers and monitor the scene from 14th Street and 8th Avenue.
Activist Terrell Harper was marching with the procession from the famed bar as part of his advocacy for trans lives. Harper, a veteran protester, considers himself to be a form of security between the police and the public.
So, Cheung and Harper have both been present at these weekly demonstrations, each in their own very different capacity. But on March 11, 2021, the two met face-to-face.
Select clips released from Cheung’s body camera show Harper berating the detective with a tirade of anti-Asian slurs and stereotypes.
Cheung is a native New Yorker of Chinese descent and a 16-year veteran of the city’s police force working in community affairs. While he’s used to the anti-police rhetoric, he felt this situation crossed the line.
“This was something that I never experienced before,” he told Gothamist. “I’ve never experienced this level of racism and hatred directly at me, directly at the Asian community.”
Cheung said the insults came completely unprovoked. As a result, his union is taking the unusual step of suing Harper in what his lawyer said could be the first lawsuit of its kind.
“What separates this lawsuit from other lawsuits is that they deal with physical harm,” Cheung’s lawyer at the Detective Endowment Association (DEA) James Moschella said. “This is unprecedented in that it is a verbal act of assault.”
The lawsuit, filed in civil court, further claims that Harper had the intent to cause Cheung severe emotional distress.
But Harper, who is a comedian when he is not out protesting, sees it differently. He said his words are political speech and that he was just “roasting” the detective and law enforcement, in a provocative manner.
“That was my attempt to show him racism. We’re fighting this because of the color of our skin,” Harper, who is Black, told Gothamist. “Don’t forget about the color of your skin. Don’t think you put that uniform on and think that you’re not subjected to the same thing.”
Now, along with the lawsuit, Harper faces accusations of racism, the very thing he says he’s dedicated his life to combatting. He believes the encounter has been framed unfairly, considering that he views the whole interaction as lasting 15 minutes while the two-three minute portion directed at Cheung is what spread online.
“They made it seem like I was racist towards Asian people with the things that I’m saying, and it probably looks like that,” Harper said. “That’s because they took it out of context.”
The full bodycam footage has not yet been released to the public.
Still, DEA union president Paul DiGiacamo believes the act to be hate-related, and asserts that it would have been a hate crime if Cheung were a civilian.
“New York City detectives are out there in a very difficult time in our history,” DiGiacamo said. “This was a targeted hate assault because this detective was Asian.”
In the two weeks following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, NYPD First Deputy Commissioner Ben Tucker told city council that more than 350 police officers had been injured in the line of duty.
And while the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) shows that the agency received over 750 complaints with more than 2,000 allegations relating to NYPD officers’ behavior during last summer’s protests, the DEA has not received any other complaints of verbal assault from any of its other detectives based on their race.
At the heart of Cheung’s lawsuit is the fine line between hate crimes and free speech.
New York City has the highest reported number of hate crimes in the country, yet authorities still believe hate crime is woefully underreported. And though some experts believe the damage from a hate crime is rooted in hate speech, that speech is still constitutionally protected..
“Hate speech can serve as evidence of the racial animus with which you committed a crime,” Cardozo Law School professor Ekow Yankah said. “But in America, we’ve made a very conscious decision that the First Amendment protects hate speech.”
Yankah added that while there is no legal definition of hate speech, it can be criminalized if it directly threatens violence.
“It wouldn’t be the hate speech that’s illegal, it’s beating somebody up,” Yankah said. “The hate speech would amplify the punishment because he’s doing it for a prohibited reason.”
In this case, both sides agree that there was no physical violence. The lawsuit alleges that Harper spit on Detective Cheung–which would make the interaction an assault– but if it was not done on purpose, no crime occurred.
Cheung explained he opted to take the case to civil court to be sure to take a stand against anti-Asian hate. He also said he knows it will be an uphill battle, but he feels he has no other choice.
“There’s a lot of confidence lost from the Asian community in the city to protect them,” Cheung said. “The justice system isn’t protecting law-abiding citizens here, so the only way to really hold people accountable is by going the civil route.”
Joseph Gedeon reported this story for the Gothamist/WNYC’s Race & Justice Unit. If you have a tip, some data, or a story idea, email him at email@example.com or reach out on Twitter @JGedeon1. You can also text him tips via the encrypted phone app Signal, or otherwise, at 929-351-5374.