Akai Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen

"I've never trusted the police," Hertencia Petersen said as she shifted her weight in her seat. "I think cops work on modern-day lynching mode." Our cameras were rolling as she candidly shared her disdain for law enforcement. "I can't say that, can I?" Petersen asked solemnly.

Petersen was sitting in the hot seat because on Nov. 20, 2014, her nephew, Akai Gurley, was shot and killed by a rookie New York City police officer, Peter Liang. The officer claimed to have been startled when he heard a noise in the stairwell of the Brooklyn public housing complex he patrolled, so he shot his weapon and Gurley was dead. Petersen explained that Gurley had no contact with Liang at all before the officer shot him; he was just walking down the stairs.


As Gurley's family mourned, we all mourned—he was yet another hashtag to add to social media pages as we all proclaimed that black lives matter, even though the world continued to confirm that they didn't. All Gurley's family wants is accountability. No one has had to pay for his death, even though Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson promised the family that he was seeking justice. Thompson, however, most recently suggested no jail time for Liang after his manslaughter conviction. (A judge subsequently reduced that conviction to criminally negligent homicide and sentenced Liang to probation and community service.)

Petersen continues to fight, march and rally for her nephew and refuses to let his memory fade. She wants to let the world know that Gurley was more than just another victim of police brutality and that gun laws need to go through some serious changes. As part of The Root’s Growing Pains video series, dedicated to telling stories of growth and the overcoming of obstacles, Hertencia Petersen talks about how gun violence has affected her family and her own response to it.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter