Thousands of people rallied in cities across the US on Saturday in support of Peter Liang, a NYPD officer convicted of manslaughter after shooting and killing an unarmed man in a New York stairwell.

Organizers claimed that tens of thousands of people took part in protests in 30 US cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington DC. Crowds gathered to express support for Liang and to argue that he is the victim of a racist, politically motivated prosecution.

Liang was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter by a Kings County jury on 11 February and faces as much as 15 years in prison. The 28-year-old was prosecuted over the death of Akai Gurley in November 2014, and was fired by the NYPD following the ruling.

During a patrol of a public housing building in Brooklyn with his partner Shaun Landau, Liang testified that he was startled by a noise and his gun “just went off”. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and hit Gurley in the chest as he was walking down the stairwell.

Liang’s defense argued that the incident was a tragic accident but the prosecution maintained that the officer was reckless, and that Liang compounded the incident by failing to perform CPR on the dying Gurley.

Saturday’s rally in New York was dominated by the Chinese American community, of which Liang is a part, along with current and former police officers who have warned the case will have a “chilling effect” on their ability to do their jobs.

In Brooklyn, thousands of people waved American flags, held signs calling Liang a “scapegoat” and demanded his freedom. A message from Liang was read out in which he thanked his supporters while expressing condolences over Gurley’s death.

Speakers at the rallies expressed sorrow over Gurley’s death but said that Liang was picked out for prosecution to satisfy political concerns over the death of black people due to police actions. A Facebook page in support of Liang noted that he was prosecuted while officers involved in the deaths of other black men, namely Eric Garner and Michael Brown, have walked free.

Leaflets distributed at the Brooklyn rally claim that the case is a “tragedy for both families” and that Liang was misrepresented by the media.

“His subtle expression of remorse, due to his Chinese background, was misportrayed as being unsympathetic,” the leaflets read.

Jack Ouyang, spokesman for the Coalition of Justice for Liang, said the officer was unfairly targeted. “In the wake of so many unfortunate deaths of unarmed African American men in the hands of police officers,” Ouyang said, “the tension between the police and African American communities nationwide has reached an unprecedented level. However, it is totally wrong for the prosecutor to single out Mr Liang.”

Don Lee, a candidate for the New York assembly, described Liang as “a sacrificial lamb from a community that has for too long fallen victim to the system”.

Liang’s conviction “does not give comfort that we are heading toward a serious discussion of reforming our policing policy and our criminal justice system”, Lee added. “The notion that we’ve solved the policing problem by convicting a single individual is a harmful one.”

Melissa Butler, who attempted to save Gurley after he was shot by Liang, has filed a $200,000 lawsuit against Liang and the City of New York over the death. Butler, who was with Gurley at the time of the shooting, claims that the city was negligent in hiring Liang and Landau and that she was left to tend to Gurley alone without the officers’ help.

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