Catharsis for the Unadorned

It was supposed to begin with a word of respect to Firewater Poetics and Gentrified Minds.

Brief odes to the defunct – where I started, and the young – my latest inspiration, respectively; meant to recognize their roles in being the exceptionally fiery punctuation that enlivens an otherwise spiritually weak and wearily bleak landscape that has been suffocated with the dusty ash of cliché and overused words. Gratuitous expletives, MFA-laced grandiosity, and coma-inducing self-celebration that have, out of utter fatigue, violently crashed and incinerated into unsightly heaps, littering open mic stages everywhere.

It was supposed to begin with a word of respect to true artists – unencumbered by institutional decorations or secret fantasies of fame via Russell Simmons – who have worked so hard to keep us all awake. But I never got my name on that list.

He was a white man, mature in years on the planet, who took evident pleasure in notions of being down with the Lower East Side; never mind that, for decades now, the LES hasn’t been the working-class, immigrant-powered enclave that infused it with its undeniably rich flavor.

He robotically shook my hand with a cold heart – flimsy fingers and damp palms.  He transparently figured that I probably wasn’t much of a writer; he’d never seen me before in his roving circle of aging hipsters and scruffy youngsters. Surely if I had something valuable to offer, he would have heard.

“Open mic? Sure, you can sign into that book right there,” he indicated, lazy with lack of intention. Before my first stroke of ink hit the sparse list of other sign-ups, he added, “There’s a three-minute limit.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling like the girl without a guest list in the opening of Lil Louis’s classic house track, Club Lonely.

“Mine is five minutes,” I said dogmatically, thinking of the women’s stories that begged to be relaunched into consciousness and resignedly planting the pen on its side. “So, never mind.”

Something was funky in this room. Perhaps it was the unsettlingly detectable odor of literary elitism; or, more likely, the acridity woven like deceptively thin barbed wire into the room’s air, which was marked by desire to believe in one’s greatness despite a disparate paucity of one’s skill. Either way, it was a clique-ish scene for sure, and all of the sereneness that the range of aromatic blends served at this cozily accoutered tea house were supposed to purport did nothing to ease my distinct feeling of being precisely in the wrong place right now.

“Five minutes?” The old hipster inquired incredulously. “Why five minutes? What is it, a slam piece?” He asked in great jest, as if, in considering his substantively baseless assessment of my ability, the possibility of my work being a slam piece was most certainly and laughably out of the question.

I watched his dull complexion crinkle into a myriad of crevices as he chuckled and exposed bad teeth. I had no answer to give him.

“Well,” he suddenly shifted, “can’t you shorten it? Can’t you hurry through it to make it three minutes?”

Why, because your open mic sign-up list is bulging with eager participants? I thought. The picture of six names scattered throughout fifteen slots, with lots of white space to spare on that notebook page, sat like a boulder on my squishy mind. The event’s start time was approaching quickly.

“Absolutely not.” A slow, defiant, prolonged shake of the head encompassed my controlled irreverence while I stared straight at him in response.

“Ok well, now I’m curious. Maybe we can let you do it, since it’s your debut and all,” he grinningly conceded, silently congratulating himself on his graciousness.

Debut? I raged inside. Really motherfucker? Debut? I’ve been doing this shit – since you were still bumping around Tompkins Square Park with a pipe and a dream, motherfucker, so don’t get all high and fucking mighty with me now. No I’ve never done a Def Jam, never succumbed to the pseudo-Rican Nuyorican poetry slam, never been published, and never got no goddamned literary degrees, and I’m quite motherfucking proud of all of that. Kiss my unadorned ass, motherfucker.

“Don’t worry about it,” I told him, with no intentions of giving this space a single word of work. “If there’s time, I’ll do it. If not, I won’t. No sweat.”

“I’m gonna need you to sign up then,” he said, motioning toward the still-unfettered page of open mic sign-ups.

Before the featured poets, I sat with everyone else in that warmly-lit space to listen to the company in which I didn’t sign up to include myself.

One after the other, the open mic poets were introduced with great fanfare by the old hipster and his little brass bell – as if they’d all lived in a commune together all these years.

The grey-haired man by the window, who later fell asleep during the featured poets’ sets, creepily relished his memory of sitting in a pizzeria and capturing the sight of a woman’s beguiling ass – which he sophomorically likened to a set of two big round soccer balls. A woman with an alliterated moniker, who seemed more preoccupied with carefully portraying herself as the epitome of cool than anything else, delivered an unmemorable blurb while dressed in requisite black clothing and accessorized with the appropriate hardware and cat glasses. The man with a cap of closely cropped wavy white hair, dressed in head-to-toe denim, used his uniquely gravely, urgent voice to bellow a heartfelt diatribe based on a lifelong feeling of misplacement. The Occupy prototype in a plaid shirt, knit cap, and scruffy beard leapt up to rant about Rush Limbaugh in pure prose, and the proper, published woman in the corner politely read a sleepy, proper piece of poetry. Almost everyone took more than the allotted three minutes.

After enjoying half of the featured set, and merely enduring the other half, I dashed out of the suffocating little tea house while the old hipster and his little brass bell announced the following week’s event.

Heavy with stories untold, I lumbered westward – out of the oddly shiny East Village, which is now so unlike the neighborhood it was when poetry slams didn’t yet exist.  The night sky – exactly the type of indigo blue that has birthed so much enduring jazz – miraculously sparked a hope that there was still someplace that might hear me – an old, washed-up nobody.

“But it’s the old, washed-up nobodies who will make revolution,” a nice socialist once said to me.

That was kind of him to say.

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Do Not Lean On Train Doors

All hail the men and women in blue; this is what we’re taught to do. Night after dogged night, like a cop run ragged by the banality of a an overly familiar beat, a bunnies-on-speed proliferation of television cop shows parade actors in makeup who embody the glory of what it means to be a coveted member of Any P.D., USA. The sleek suits, flowing trench coats, crisp uniforms, and luminous badges are supposed to make our eyes glaze over with admiration, eject ourselves from living room couches, reject civilian inferiority, and declare our desire to better the world by being all we can be! According to these astute advertisers, our humanity could be improved and encouraged by government-sanctioned gun-toting and baton-brandishing. It’s para-military recruiting at its best; beneath prime-time television’s depthless façade of flashing red lights and slick edits of city street scenes lies marketing acumen worthy of an Emmy award.

The two that stepped onto the Jersey-bound PATH train at 9th Street looked as if they had been recruited from the major networks’ prime-time line-up. Wide, tall, puffy in the chest and square-jawed, they silently rearranged the standing crowd by the door with an authoritative entry and lust-filled glare. The partners, one Black and one white, each branded by PAPD (Port Authority Police Department) emblazoned in white stitches on their navy blue collars, didn’t speak, but maintained a wordless cadence that kept their thoughts in lock-step with one another. It was the ambition of crushing a quota, making it to the next level, not having to traverse the trains for petty offenses, of which the partners reeked. Any unsuspecting citizen who showed promise of generating any sort of frivolous PAPD paperwork would do; the partners were hungry and willing to devour any opportunity to pounce. At Christopher Street, the next stop, they got their chance.

“Fuck New York!” the gregarious young man in a baseball cap and sweatshirt laughed as he boarded the train with a friend. Caught up in playful conversation, he didn’t realize that he’d caught the attention of the Port Authority’s Finest half a car away. Upon hearing the outburst, the Black cop honed his vision on the vivacious passenger and silently mowed through the crowd toward him. The white cop, who appeared to negotiate bafflement with attempts to seem in control, temporarily remained stationed by the car doors, shifting one foot into the space that his partner left vacant.

The officer approached the man and conversation ensued. From where I stood, it was difficult to hear the conversation in its entirety, but the unconscionable weight of being a young man of color emerged irrepressibly in his responses to the officer. Though he presented no imminent, physical threat to anyone on that train, his inability to contain his justified indignation at being harassed for “not maintaining a conversational tone” (as another passenger later informed me the cop described the man’s offense) put him in a precarious predicament. Rather than concede to the officer’s unreasonable accusation, the man continued in forcefully audible conversation with his friend while the cop hovered over him, his right hand gripping a pole and a set of cuffs at the ready. The white cop walked the half-car distance toward his partner and fell in line behind him. He slipped on a pair of synthetic PAPD-issued black gloves. The cuffs were dangling, and the black gloves were on. I watched the seated passengers. Most of them averted their eyes as if observing is a crime. Lately, with cop paranoia escalating as their illegal antics are increasingly caught on video throughout the Occupy movement, it seems that it is. Any passenger bold enough to observe was witnessing the slow-motion obliteration of the right to speak freely while young, male, and Latino in a baseball cap and hoodie.

Like a sudden crackle of aggressive thunder disrupting nervously anticipating skies, the side of the young man’s head made contact with the car door, pushing his baseball cap slightly over his eyes. With instinctual speed, the proud trans woman standing across from me aimed her pink smartphone at the Black cop who continued pressing the young man against the car doors as he tightened the cuffs.

That’ll teach you for not bowing down to the boys in blue.

My voice uncontrollably filled the car; I demanded a reason for his arrest. The seated passengers awakened from their subjugated trance long enough to glance sideways at me. “Idiot,” they seemed to say. The young man pushed through the pressure that the egregiously misguided PAPD duo poured onto his body to holler thanks to the woman with the pink phone. The recorder diligently captured all faces. At Hoboken station, the train released an ear-splitting sigh of relief  and let the cops out; their young, unjustly detained arrestee yanked roughly in tow. The woman and her pink phone elegantly strutted onto the platform and followed them from a distance.

Every year, I take special pains to avoid any place that has a large concentration of St. Patrick’s Day revelers. Every obnoxiously rambunctious group of green day party people I have ever encountered were usually some variation of frat boys who used St. Patrick’s Day as carte blanche to express racist leanings that usually would remain suppressed on any other day. On “progressive” station WBAI’s Radio-Free Eireann, an Irish American talk show, I’ve heard the host refer to a bar as being so crowded that “it was like Hiroshima – there were bodies everywhere!” Generally speaking, I have yet to be convinced that there lies a deeper consciousness within the collective of Irish America – one that allows them the awareness from which the rest of us don’t have the luxury of escaping.

Before being privy to the cozy relationship between Jersey trains, the PAPD, and St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve found myself unwittingly jockeying for breathing space on many a packed train stuffed with garrulous, drunken revelers in green garb. Beer spilled liberally, open containers adorned the train floor, drunk girls teetered and squealed, and frat boys wobbled and roared at almost unfathomable decibel levels. Were there any cops monitoring these trains during this traditionally raucous holiday? Surely the cumbersome confetti of beer cans found kicked about throughout the trains and stations have become an expected three-seventeen sight by now. Surely this fits within the parameters of violating the Jersey trains’ rule of “no drinking/no eating on train or in stations.” Surely, a trail of beer cans might be something a trained cop might want to look into.

But not on St. Patrick’s Day. Never on March 17th.

Despite the gangs of green clogging up stairwells and openly siphoning alcohol straight from unconcealed cans, I have never seen a cop approach one of these people for failing to “maintain a conversational tone,” much less for issuing a ticket for a an actual offense.

I watch one man, a sober Latino guy – for whom I’m sure there are many repeat stories of similar natures – get violently slammed against the car doors in full view of passengers, cuffed and arrested for not employing a cop’s definition of “conversational tone.”

Every year I watch swarms of white kids in green t-shirts talk shit loud enough to make God’s ears bleed while taking gulps from beer cans. Never once have I seen PAPD confront or, heaven forbid, arrest any one of them.

Until next time, this is Amerikkka. Brought to you by your local police department. Coming to you live, 24/7.

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Ring the Alarm

“On strike, shut ‘em down! New York is a union town!”

With a solid pair of marching shoes, raised fist at the ready, and red light sirens blaring through my house of consciousness, I joined Communication Workers of America (CWA) during their contentious two-week strike last summer against billionaire right-wing menace, Verizon. Known as one of the most militant unions in the country, CWA effectively held that strike line down twenty-four/seven, and rank-and-file leadership kept a contingent of rightfully pissed-off members well-organized and unified.  As a union member myself, I’d leave work and head over to Verizon Headquarters to chase after scabs with the ardor of a bona fide Verizon employee, and leave behind billows of smoke from the extraordinary level of conflagrant anger that kept me chasing and yelling until the sun set.

New York is indeed a union town, and every fight to keep it that way should be engaged at full-throttle, only because unions represent one of the very few shots left at maintaining living wages for the working class – and certainly not because the unions themselves, which are run by wealthy attention-seekers who use the tired backs of the rank-and-file to ascend toward Political Hollywood, are any sort of definitive anodyne for us.

The day I signed on to the menial glorified gofer job that I currently hold, I was also mandated to sign on with the union that represents our shop. The experience of initiation was shaky at best – inefficient, overly casual, and uninformative – all under the sizable roof of one the city’s most powerful unions. Naïve and inexperienced with unions, and lacking knowledge about any labor movement, I trod with trepidation on foreign territory. I knew the union was set to break off chunks of my paycheck for dues, but did not understand what my dues would be funding. After a few years of watching the morale of otherwise strong-willed coworkers wilt like lettuce in a steam-cooker as we endured one blow after another while our leadership gave us obligatory condolences and promises to “fight for a better future,” (I love union leadership’s cliché drivel like I love the sight of a fresh pile of steaming dog shit first thing in the morning) now I know exactly where our money’s going – to the flashy gold jewelry ostentatiously displayed by the leadership that inarticulately and ungracefully admonishes us for not being as intelligent as he.

This year, a funny thing happened on the way to contract negotiations – we got blindsided by an unexpected, arguably compromising counteroffer from the employer, and effectively ushered into accepting the demoralizing deal by a leadership that is not shy about conveying its cozy relationship with our employer. For a membership that has endured dictatorial abuse by a corrupt leadership whose crooked deeds are complemented and wholeheartedly endorsed by a handful of rank-and-file who are carefully selected specifically because they excel in lapping at the balls of leadership, this was the tipping point.

Sufficiently fired up on the day of the meeting, members approached the mic, one after the other, with eloquence and passion as they derided the leadership for their blatant disrespect, dishonesty, and hearty attempts at censorship. As the heat in the room approached a five-alarm boiling point, and with five members left patiently waiting their turns to speak in between leadership’s lengthy, nonsensical diatribes that pertained to nothing in particular, the microphone in our cavernous hall suddenly and mysteriously died.

One of the waiting five speakers caught my attention from across the room amid its spirited fracas. “How about a ‘mic check’,” he asked, only partially joking.

I nodded. “Sure, let’s do it.”

Our designated leader, who was seated to my left and draped in his requisite gold décor, turned toward me and vindictively sneered – venom dripping off of his every devotedly enunciated syllable – “There will be no ‘mic checking’ in here.”

This union had been one of the first to champion Occupy Wall Street back in October – an exercise in political jockeying that was void of any genuine interest for the plight of the working poor, no doubt, but a gesture to which it should be held accountable nonetheless. Its president and vice-president, each of whom earn six figures – easily at least five times the salary of the rank-and-file – tried in earnest to communicate their faux commitment to The People by making a big show of getting arrested at one of the Occupy actions.

“I thought this union endorsed the Occupy movement,” I countered, knuckles at my hip and eyeballs at his face.

“We will not bring any political business into this room,” he seethed idiotically.

“What is a union if not political?” I asked, agitated by and bored with his unending lack of logic. “These members,” I waved toward the mic that maintained a line of determined speakers despite the suspiciously abrupt technical malfunction, “deserve to be heard.”

My role during the beautiful four hours in which the membership stood up to a lying leadership consisted of the usual. After the meeting’s adjournment, leadership’s lemmings made a point of hunting me down for a semi-private cornering in which they vehemently reproached me for so publicly illuminating the discrepancies that existed between what leadership told the membership and what really happened behind closed doors; for defying leadership’s misrepresentations by voicing truthful accounts, and challenging my colleagues to argue otherwise. “What you did was very disrespectful,” they said. “You were the cause of the chaos among the membership. What happens behind closed doors should stay there,” they yelled, protecting their master as best they could.

‘Chaos?’ I thought, ‘Honey, that wasn’t chaos. That was the cacophony of awakening.’ Their crude manner was not at all endearing, and I’ve long since ceased to try to figure out why these particular rank-and-file members would vaingloriously wear the collar of ownership that leadership slapped on them so firmly. I’ve finally surmised that to proudly parade a collar that tight, shiny, and farcically strung to a very short leash, some sort of compensation must be in order – low-level corruption at its best. All hail the mighty union. For the people and by the people it is not, but I am not a dust-kicker without direction or hope, however dim.

Like a malicious parent who aims to diminish a child’s self-worth but actually ends up igniting that child’s vigilant resolve to live assertively, leadership, through all of its demonstrated disdain for its membership, has consistently embodied Mr. Stubb’s sentiment in Moby Dick wherein he indulges in a moment of abrading his crew. “The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are all asleep,” he chides. All of us in this union could stand to rub the sandman’s dirt out of our eyes and take a cue from the staunch defiance and message-inducing tactics employed by the fittingly red shirt-clad rank-and-file of CWA. Though some of us are either as green as I once was or have been spiritually defeated by years of leadership abuse, this membership has demonstrated that though their fire may have been dampened by years of rain, the embers remain radiant and ready for a suitable catalyst. What leadership does not realize, in the midst of subjecting us to their decade-long castigation, is that the membership is being roused by a rank-and-file dog whistle call to action, best manifested in Mr. Stubb’s next sentences:

“Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull… – pull and break something!”

Break something, indeed – the Vader-like grip of unreasonable fear that silences most rank-and-file dissenters would be an appropriate place to start.

Posted in Aberrationist, Daily Rant, Do or Die. Occupy. | Leave a comment

Bring the Fire. Let this Dragon Begin.

When the sky is an industrial patchwork of stoney grays and every living thing that previously managed to sprout between cracks in concrete just can’t do it anymore, words can be insufficient. While the salt methodically erodes mounds of dirty snow and our soiled winter soles, there’s born a certain point after which words are moot. Superfluous. Irrelevant. How many times can we shriek at heavy puffs of smokey, overbearing clouds before we realize that we are irrevocably planted in the Earth we continuously poison; before we realize that there are too many things to fix, and not enough of us to fix them.

There are many of us who have done a lot of shrieking, and I stand in awe of all who continuously think, who relentlessly speak, who doggedly pave the way toward humanity – an attribute that I’m sure will never permeate society during my lifetime. In this grim landscape of the brusque, crude, self-absorbed and murderous, there are glimmers of light if one can tolerate the enduring fog and search hard enough. Some dazzling strokes of luck have led me to some of the sources of my most intrigued, joyous moments of hope, and none of them came from any damned politicians (exceptions: Charles Barron, John Liu, and John Avalos, who actually have given me such glimmers). Don’t believe the talking head/politico hype – great artists are the authentic bearers of truth and wisdom; to wit, Gentrified Minds and Jomama Jones. Such gorgeous fighters, the both of them. They enter the ring and craft their battles so differently, but both work from an explicitly deep love of people and place.  Snot-faced Zuckerberg’s little contraption has proven to be of marginal use to me through connection with some of the best Facebook friends on the planet; razor-sharp hell-raisers who regularly pound the pavement and believe in every person’s self-determination. At this very moment, while I watch my Forty-Fuckin’-Niners wipe the field with some Giant ass, one of those friends is chastising all of us who are indulging in this inane, corporate-funded tradition of watching uber-macho big boys in shiny tights run and tumble their way to the Super Bowl. My friend is right for doing so. Cheering on a football game is not one of my shining moments. It’s only for today; because my Niners are playing for San Francisco – a city of traditionally staunch supporters of aversion to all things considered “normal;” the city where Jose Sarria and Harvey Milk unabashedly yanked GAY out of the closet. And because they’re red and gold – which is important. There are no two colors that mean more in the Chinese culture than red and gold; the combination signifies infinite “double happiness;” it wrings life’s golden sponge until it’s bone-dry and bestows its wearer/receiver with every last drop of the best luck available to all humans everywhere.  That’s the power of the red and gold. Tonight’s midnight will usher in the Lunar New Year 4710 – the Year of the Dragon. What an auspicious sign for the new year if the red and gold team wins tonight.

But I imagine that Chinese New Year celebrations will mean little to nothing for Su Zhen Chen, U.S. Army Private Danny Chen’s mother. The last time I saw Mrs. Chen was at a press conference called by OCA-NY (Organization of Chinese Americans – New York) on January 5th, where they reported what the family has learned so far from the Army Brass. To see her in person addressing her son’s death is to have your heart ripped out of its rib cage and fed to hungry animals while it’s still beating. Her anguish is palpable, and it’s frightening how much pain a non-parent can glean from a mere few minutes of being in her presence. There wasn’t a lot of information available when I was first trying to learn as much as I could about Danny Chen’s murder, but through the persistent efforts of OCA-NY, the Army has been forced to charge eight white soldiers in connection with his death, and acknowledge the fact that their claim of Danny’s having committed suicide is not fact – something that the usual culprits of mainstream media refuse to recognize while they continue to call Danny’s death a suicide. Thanks to a recent article by Jennifer Gonnerman, a good journalist whose absence has contributed to the formerly ass-kicking Village Voice‘s steady downfall toward being an inconsequential rag, we now have some flesh and bone on Danny Chen’s pre-Army life.

According to Gonnerman’s article, Danny was a dedicated son who was very close to his mom. Danny made the decision to join the Army based on his aspirations to become a member of the NYPD, which, based on his 19 years of life experience, would enable him to catch bad guys, make the world a better place, and earn a steady paycheck – part of which he wanted to use to help his parents. He was smart, shy, and over six feet tall, and like most Asian kids in New York or any metropolis, was no stranger to violence and racism in the big city. While most of his peers in Chinatown or the LES were cared for by grandparents while parents worked long hours in restaurant and garment industries, Danny’s mom, a seamstress, managed to drop off and pick up Danny from school, and keep him focused. Gonnerman relays that Su Zhen Chen was a doting mom by all accounts, and despite the small family’s economic hardship, she and Danny’s father, Yan Tao Chen, a waiter who worked 10-hour days, did everything within their power and knowledge to be great parents to him. Despite his parents’ desires for him to pursue a safe, traditional life path, Danny was given to expressing a powerful sense of individuality that, in my experience, does not come easily to a 19-year-old from a Chinese American family. “I want to live for myself,” he said. “Not for anyone else.”

There was a comment on my last post that at least partially blamed Danny’s death on bad parenting; the criticism was that the parents failed to warn him of the dangers of life’s ills. Plenty inflamed by this cheap shot at blaming the victim, I managed to keep a lid on my ire while asking the poster – who claimed to be an activist – what s/he is doing to raise awareness in addition to blowing off misguided steam online. Anyone who’s serious about activism is serious about discourse – particularly when it comes to exchanging ideas on how to address the unending diarrhea of racism, sexism, classism, and other parasitical -isms that keep us indefatigably reaching for the super-sized plunger. I didn’t expect to receive an answer, and apparently I was correct in doing so.

Last Sunday, on Dr. Martin Luther King’s 82nd birthday, the first of the eight accused murderers, 32-year-old Spc. Ryan Offutt, faced an Article 32 hearing in Afghanistan to determine whether he’ll be court martialed on formal charges. I’ve heard nothing about that hearing yet, but am hoping like hell that the indicting-a-ham-sandwich-in-the-grand-jury theory holds true here. According to the January 5th press conference, the most severe charge, negligent homicide, carries a jail sentence of 10 years. Dereliction of duty, with which two officers – Staff Sgt. Blaine Dugas and Lt. Daniel Schwartz – are charged, carries a sentence of one year. If Danny’s murderers are convicted, the most any one of them will pay for stealing Danny’s life is 10 years. Ten years versus the 60 more he may have lived. The rest of the officers will face their Article 32s until February 20th. There’s barely been any mention in the press (except for dependable locals like dnainfo) of the hearings in Afghanistan, which seems like a neat little way for the Army to put on a show to placate the few of us who are paying attention, then find that court martials for all eight of the suspects would be unfounded. All I know is, there better be a fucking trial, and it better be in the U.S., fully accessible to everyone.

My Forty-Fuckin’-Niners went into OT with, and subsequently lost to, the New York Giants. There will be no Niner-inspired red and gold revelry to accompany the Dragon’s entry. The Chen family’s anguish and loss rages forward, along with the agony experienced by hundreds of other military families whose sons and daughters were quietly killed by racism in our ranks. Let this Dragon make its grand entrance, and let us be the ones who breathe into it a pandemic, multi-alarm fire. Too fast too strong too bold. That’s the red and gold.

Posted in Aberrationist, Daily Rant, No Justice No Peace | Leave a comment

Soldier for Life. Danny Chen, Presente.

“What’s the orange armband for?”

In the stark sunlight of the season’s first bitterly cold day, he looked a bit like Santa Claus who took the wrong left at the last intersection and ended up at an immigrant rights rally. Tousled white hair and beard glistening against the imposing facade of the New York State Supreme Courthouse distantly behind him, he’d noticed the jagged swath of orange cloth securely knotted around the puff of coat on my arm.

“Security team,” I told him.

“Whoa!” He took an exaggerated step backward, mocking my response with both palms defensively aimed at me. “I don’t wanna mess with you,” he sang.

“Whatever man,” I sighed, already bored with his stupidity. “We’re here to protect the community that came out to participate in this march today.” We’d anticipated a number of undocumented people participating in this event, which was dubbed D18 – for December 18th, I suppose – marking Occupy Wall Street’s three-month-and-one-day anniversary. The mission included using our physical presence as a solid wall between the rally participants and the overwrought police presence, which included a smattering of ICE agents. The previous night, at D17, I’d masochistically overdosed on white “lefty” male ignorance, and quite pointedly was not prepared to tolerate any more of the same so soon afterward. Apparently, Santa disagreed and thought it proper that I be gifted with some more, lest I’d forget how utterly infuriating and disheartening it is to experience – especially within the context of a social justice movement.

“Where’s Chris?” Asked Santa.

“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” I shook my head at him firmly.

“You know, Chris, the big tall Black guy,” Santa indicated, palm overhead and perpendicular to the sparkling cold pavement, “he used to do security down at Zuccotti. Actually, I used to help out with security down there too. That’s how I know Chris.”

Well good for you, motherfucker, I watched him, arms crossed. “This team is a separate security effort specifically for today’s event,” I said, wishing I could pelt Santa’s chestnuts with  hot, heavy sacks of coal.

“Yeah, Chris was great. Now that guy was security. He was this big tall Black guy – I mean, nobody would dare mess with him!” Santa exclaimed, beaming at his fetishized memory.

“Okay so no short Asian female should bother doing security because we can’t hold our own, is that what I’m hearing?” I barked, digging my canines into the parasol-twirling geisha girl demurely bowing in his head. Santa flinched and yanked himself backward, palms up again.

“Sorry, sorry!” he yelped defensively. “I didn’t mean to be racist.”

“Watch yourself then,” I advised bitterly, eyeballing his idiocy in all of its glory. “You’re stepping over the line.”

“Well,” he said, attempting to redeem himself, “do you know Karate then?”

Feeling that tearing out his throat would have been a satisfying response, I gathered my sense of restraint and raised a palm toward his face. “My friend,” I seethed, “you are making a lot of assumptions about me. I suggest you stop.”

“Okay,” he muttered meekly before scurrying off. “I mean, I know Karate…I’m just asking.” Lefty Santa at an immigrant rights rally. The motherfucker just wanted to keep giving.

Just days earlier, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a packed crowd populated by the Chinatown community and other New Yorkers horrified by the racial harassment that led to the murder of U.S. Army Private Danny Chen. We had marched from a downtown Army Recruiting Center to Chinatown’s Columbus Park in an effort to dig the heels of our street shoes a little deeper into brass jugulars who were dragging their boots; gold-starred, steam-pressed uniforms who hoped the noisy chinamen would give up and go away so they could sweep these bones into dust. That night, with Private Chen’s family out in full force, they learned that we don’t shuffle, that we are loud as fuck, and that we do not accept the fabricated hand-out of an explanation that Danny committed suicide.

I’ve spent my life traveling through the Santa scenario in varying degrees of severity, more times than I can count. The assumption that I’m an easy target, the Bruce Lee taunts, the myriad of ching-chong chop-chop martial arts and language provocations designed to lure me into fight or flight schemes in which the entertainment quickly became based on my response. I can honestly say that I never ran from any of these situations, though it may have been wiser for me to do so. Even as a little kid, though, I knew I couldn’t go out without standing up for “that Chinese girl,” as I was often called. But I can’t imagine that this emboldened attitude is easy to summon when one’s very existence is entrenched in an institution that is fueled by racism and xenophobia. On D18 and every day before that, as many times as I’ve had to fight off the stereotypes and the harassment, I’ve never once had it nearly as bad as Private Chen did during his six months in Afghanistan.

Soldier.

There are only a few photos of Danny Chen that have been released; in one of them he is dressed in fatigues, a flurry of bold white stars hanging behind his head. There is a haunting, striking sense of unsettled determination in his face; a sense of great discomfort laboriously intermingling with sheer resolve. An ample amount of disconcerting mystery hangs in that Army portrait of Danny, some of which seems partially explained by Danny’s cousin, Banny Chen.

Surrounded by local politicians, his family, and all of us outraged strangers, Banny Chen, a slim kid with a funky haircut carrying the unwieldy new burden of loss, described Danny as his first friend. He spoke of his aspirations to be as funny as his cousin who was known as a class clown, and of how he won’t be able to toss their smaller cousin across the bed anymore, because Danny won’t be there on the other side to catch him. When Banny reads to us the letters that Danny sent home, the familiar sting runs through the nerves of all of us who have experienced violence via bullying and harassment:

“Feb. 27, 2011: Since I am the only Chinese person here, everyone knows me by Chen. They ask if I’m from China a few times a day… They also call out my name Chen in a goat-like voice sometimes for no reason. People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time. I’m running out of jokes to come back at them.”

In the Army, there is no space for refuge. No home base wherein to refuel and strategize

DISRESPECT: This is one of at least five NYPD officers who accompanied the permitted march for Danny Chen and liberally swung their batons during the entire time we marched. Out of all the OWS actions in which I've participated, I've never seen NYPD openly swing their unsecured batons during an unequivocally peaceful action. Yet another example of local PD disrespecting military officers, and a community.

with people who know and care about you. Racial epithets crowd one’s breathing space twenty-four seven. No comrades, no allies. While he may not have fired a single shot in the field (I will hope this much is true), life was constant combat for Danny Chen, who found himself at the whim of fellow soldiers and superiors who surmised that they’d complement the verbal racism with physical abuse. Superiors forced him to perform pull ups with his mouth full of water; imagine how that scene had to materialize. Danny had to be summoned, ordered to fill his own mouth with water, then comply with the orders to display the physical activity. If he did not or could not, the water was most likely forcibly placed in his mouth, and greater punishment was inflicted until he completed the task to their amused satisfaction. Apparently, greater punishment was warranted by the barbaric superiors at some point; it has been noted that Danny’s back was marked with lashes. These eminent superiors hurled rocks at Danny while they forced him to crawl on the floor, and encouraged the rest of his platoon to engage in the pleasure of his debasement. When Danny’s mother would ask whether he was being bullied, Danny replied stoically that it was to be expected. Little did she know the extent of what her only child suffered until his body was returned to the U.S.; in a wooden casket draped with the stars and stripes for which Danny volunteered to fight.

It is impossible to look at Danny Chen’s mother without experiencing a small part of her turmoil; one can almost see the melting, twisted steel of an obliterated infrastructure emerging in the inconsolable expression on her face. One can almost smell the savage embers left behind by a life extinguished before official adulthood. It’s loss that no one but parents who have lost a child to violence can know.

She stepped forward forcefully, a fresh-faced student activist who took the mic on behalf of the East Coast Asian Student Union (ECASU), and spoke powerfully against racial harassment and violence. “Stop being silent. Stand up for yourselves and fight back!” Having once spoken on behalf of ECASU myself, I experienced an odd moment of simultaneous pride and disappointment; pride that she was breaking Asian female stereotypes, and disappointment that her call to action meant that we have not progressed much at all as a community in this fight against marginalization. How many times must we tell each other that there is no shame in speaking the fuck up? How many times must we try to compel each other into believing that this fight is worth it, worth everything?

If only we could convince more Asian Americans to fight back. If only I could convince a long time friend – a very easygoing guy who will keep walking without incident, much to my deep chagrin, when someone on the street calls out to him, “Hey Jackie Chan!” – to at least call the idiot out and engage in some sort of dialogue, that would be progress. If only we could learn to love liberation a little more than tech toys and Hello Kitty.

Since Private Danny Chen lost his life during the struggle to stand up for himself, and by extension, for all Asian Americans who matriculate through the U.S.military, we owe it to his memory to do nothing less than stand up and fight – with or without fear, but always with heart; with hands or with words, but always with love.

While the Army has charged eight soldiers so far with contributing to Danny Chen’s death, they are still being unreasonably evasive surrounding the exact circumstances of his murder. Rest assured, U.S. Army, that we will not go away, we will not forget. Our boots remain on your necks, pressing steadily into your jugulars.

Posted in Do or Die. Occupy., No Justice No Peace | 4 Comments

Mic Check Your Fucking Privilege

It was D17. The infamous day when Trinity Church’s fence was ripped apart and bishops in elegant red robes were arrested by a bunch of blue shirts. It was also the third month of mic-checking business-as-usual. Later that evening, a journey commemorating OWS’s anniversary traveled quickly uptown from Duarte Square at Canal and 6th Avenue. The trip was long, much too fast, and seemingly aimless, allowing giant bubbles of empty space to discourage us from remaining a cohesive pavement-pounding force.

Predictably, one of many excitable young white guys on the march repeatedly leaped up onto whatever urban props we encountered; garbage cans and lampposts were momentarily transformed into performance spaces from which he would wave a large yellow cloth and dramatically yell out to everyone behind him, “C’mon! Hurry! Close the gap! Close the gap!” After the man had taken several opportunities to preach to those who were, at that moment, deemed followers in a leaderless movement, an exasperated woman who was helping to transport a large banner that could not possibly have been carried any faster finally yelled, “YOU close the gap!” At Christopher Street, she turned to her fellow female banner-carrier and said, utter frustration ensconcing every word, “You know, this is not why I do this.” The fellow banner-carrier called to the excitable garbage can-jumper, “Dude, relax. Nothing is fucked here. Except your leadership.”

The group was moving speedily forward; I could barely find who was supposed to be in front of us. There was evidently no regard for any participant who may have been physically challenged by the sheer haste of this demonstration; and who was leading it? A bunch of mostly white guys fueled by the adrenaline of bravado and privilege – albeit white guys who at least have the common sense to step back – way back – when marching with communities of color in East New York or Chinatown. Nonetheless, when faced with the question of whose movement this is, the answer has been made clear time and again to me and to several OWSers who identify as people of color.

After issuing yet another boisterous yellow cloth-waving command, the wiry lamppost jumper planted his feet back on the sidewalk several feet in front of me. “Close the gap!” he yelled again to us behind him. “Relax!” I yelled directly at his eyes, supremely aggravated at this snot-nosed kid’s lack of respect. “Not everyone can move that fast!” I tend to credit texting, Twitter, and Facebook with the newer generations’ aversion to direct communication – particularly when it’s done in heat-of-the-moment, flesh-and-blood style. Our previously unshakable street cheerleader locked eyes with me in mild shock, and quickly turned away to drape his arm over whatever girl was letting him do so. The yellow cloth hung limp, an unspecified extension of his arm. Onward we marched.

There couldn’t have been a better place for an inevitable melee to emerge than at the corner of 13th Street and 7th Avenue, at the doorstep of the now-defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital. Early last year, the residential and LGBT communities fought like hell to keep their doors open, but in the end, third-term thief Bloomberg could not care any less about anyone in that neighborhood having a medical emergency, and much less about any gay or trans folks who need a doctor. Our section of the march had reached the corner across the intersection from where arrests were occurring in the middle of the street. Traffic halted as erratic waves of people flooded the street, crashing onto a uniformed, blue-lined shore and stretching their video recording devices over and around other vigilant bodies in the crowd. The choppy-seas-of-multiple-blue-shirts-wrestling-with-one-arrestee scenario was getting exhaustively familiar; but at least on this night, unlike so many others, Bloomberg’s personal army kept it in their pants. Their batons in their holsters, that is.

It took a half-dozen cops to haul the last resistant arrestee to the paddywagon. Besides the institutional-white zip-ties that fastened his wrists, all that was prominent in the dark was the iridescent black ponytail brushing his shoulders. “What’s your name?!” We shrieked after him repeatedly, in vain, until he was firmly bolted into the windowless wagon.

It can be difficult getting fellow protestors in a movement that calls itself the 99% to take one seriously if one does not fit into the largely mainstream-created image of the typical OWS protestor: grungy, unwashed white male hippie/hipster. Whenever I participate in a march that is not mostly full of white people, there’s a sense that I look too clean-cut to be a protestor. Little do lots of these people know that I pounded pavement long before their student debt crisis emerged and their middle-class lives started unraveling in 2008. All this type of work takes is perseverance and passion; the carefully crafted grunge look is quite fucking optional. So mistaken are fellow protestors who automatically assume that I’m Sweet Asian Polyanna who’s out on her first scary march with all the dangerous rabblerousers.

“Here,” he said, thumbing through the contacts in his smartphone, “his name is Carlos Hernandez*.” After the donut-fueled blue wall began to dissipate, I’d begun bouncing around the increasingly disparate crowd like a metal orb flung into a pinball game blitz, asking people if they knew the names of the arrested so they could be tracked through the criminal system. An unshaven white man in his thirties, he clearly adhered to the OWS fashion guide. Though it appeared as if he’d had his white-folk dredlocks prior to OWS, the swagger with which he wore the bandana tied around his head, the weathered – but very high quality – leather jacket, black skinny jeans and black boots, let everybody know he was definitely one of “them.” A fence-rattler. An ass-kicker. An OWS protestor. Next to him, who was I? Oh, probably the local news reporter passively collecting interviews for the latest segment. As we became marginally acquainted while anticipating the group’s next move, a number of non-OWS passersby shot me looks of disdain. I wondered aloud why that was, and my new acquaintance swung the back of his leather toward me to reveal a hand-made black patch that he fashioned and fastened to his jacket. “OWS Bitch,” it read in hand-scrawled white ink. The passersby saw the patch and, while white dred man was occupied with flipping through his smartphone, readily directed their silent aggression at me by association. I considered their derision a badge of honor. “Yeah, it’s my patch they’re looking at,” white dred man said. “You don’t look like you belong with us.”

Perhaps because I sensed in this guy a penchant for failing to comprehend any experience  outside of that of the white male, I agreed to walk with white dred man to Union Square, where it was said that all the D17 marchers – some of whom had gone ahead to 34th Street and Times Square – were reconvening. While I was truly curious about how stupid he was going to get, I was also convinced that he had great capacity to get dumber, and that I probably would not be disappointed.

Our stilted utterances, which could not qualify as conversation, soon turned to what OWS calls “working groups” – committees that are formed to work on specific tasks or address particular concerns. He was in the Direct Action Working Group, which appealed to him because “people are willing to risk arrest.” Are you in any working groups? he asked.

“I used to be in People of Color Working Group,” I answered.

He focused his blue eyes on me as we walked north on 6th Avenue. “Are you colored?” he asked.

Cue the Tribe: “Fallin’ out between the dome of the white man’s mouth.” Because indeed, a white man protesting inequality as a part of OWS in the twenty-first century should learn to use his language better than this.

Incredulous, I peered into his face, with all intended venom and ire. “Well, I’m not white.

Heading East on 14th Street, we momentarily ducked into McDonald’s after his increasingly urgent declarations of needing to pee and get a sandwich. While standing with him in line for the toilet – curiosity about the bounds of his ignorance still sufficiently piqued – he eyeballed the economical black puffy nylon coat that cozily skirted my knees. “That looks really warm,” he said, his tone implying that it might be expensive.

“It is,” I said.

“This isn’t so warm,” he indicated his sturdy leather, “but I like it ’cause it looks cool.”

Although white dred man was becoming more entertaining by the moment, I contemplated making a run for the train and extricating myself from this nicely-spun little cobweb of OWS contradictions. But when he emerged from the toilet after completing what I’m sure must have been one of the longest urinations of his life, my feet were still planted outside of the bathroom door, like a loyal dog.

“God I really had to pee!” he exclaimed in relief as we pushed through the glass doors.

“Well good for you,” I deadpanned.

Within a long few minutes, we reached Union Square, which was in its usual bustling state. A trio of approaching Asian folks politely veered to the side to allow us room as they passed.

“I love that,” said white dred man. “They’re like, ‘I’m not gonna mess with that guy!'”

Don’t flatter yourself, I seethed. You wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in my ‘hood, in the Mission back before your hipster brethren took over and flipped it with their riches and privilege.

Like the singing of angels, chanting protestors coming from the North end of Union Square saved me from this mess of a person of whom I was increasingly growing very tired. I jumped into the fray and began yelling, ditching white dred man in an instant. Shortly after, it became clear that the group was unclear about how to proceed, and in that moment it was decided that we would wait in the park until the rest of the marchers returned. We settled at the edge of the park area, some of us nestling around a concrete ledge and indulging in a hot beverage. Just as I was beginning to recover from white dred man’s idiocy, he reappeared in the corner of my eye, heading straight toward me with his OWS swagger.

“You know, I thought I saw you, like, three times,” he managed to sputter, half a sandwich in his hand, the other half apparently in his mouth. “Asian girls really like this type of jacket.”

“I think all girls in the winter in New York City like this type of jacket,” I said, though I much rather would have just punched his teeth in.

“Oh right, the black jacket and all,” he sputtered some more.

“Oh right yeah I know what you mean ’cause all short Asian girls in black jackets look alike, isn’t that right?” I said, making an incision, bobbing my face in his. Suddenly, white dred man lost the ability to make eye contact. “Oh, yeah, uh huh yeah well um,” he chuckled stupidly. I’d finally succeeded in making him go away permanently.

At the end of my D17 night, after having my thumb twisted while trying to break up a fight between two male OWS protestors who were too stuffed full of their own egos to step back and give credence to why September 17th happened in the first place, I realized why I was here; the reason why I didn’t leave Stupid by himself in the toilet at McDonald’s. It was to discover through another protestor that my friend DJ was in the hospital.

DJ is a long-haired white man who slept out at Liberty Square and kept the community vibrant with his art. His unassuming charisma encouraged people turned to him for advice and direction as though he were the mayor of the west side of the Square; as far as I’m concerned, he indeed was the mayor. He never used my clean-cut appearance, my race, or my gender as tools to denigrate my presence; he actually made efforts to protect it – more so than anyone else I encountered during those 59 days in Liberty Square. Despite tendencies to fly into passionate, seemingly specious diatribes over attacks on his art, DJ is quite a reasonable guy; he just had an uncompromising aversion to disrespect. We both hated meetings, and agreed that the GAs (General Assemblies) were becoming unwieldy. During his tenure in the park, he’d endured so much that he is now the hospital; with what, no one is sure, but whatever it is, it requires physical rehabilitation.

The OWS conversation is dominated by discussions of next steps as cold weather descends. These discussions occur via GAs, or what has come to be known as Spokes Council meetings. Even now I only have a vague idea of what the latter is, but that’s because I have concluded my interest in OWS meetings. OWS is not an inherently democratic or safe space for everyone, and they are geared, by nature, to accommodate people who have the time to attend. And they include people like white dred man who don’t understand the poison of the notions to which they cling. Until these types of people mic check their own privilege and misinformation, or at least take a proactive role in attempting to do so, I will not attend their meetings. But I will continue to wholeheartedly support their actions, and participate in as many as I can, while using this gorgeous momentum of the collective to engender an individual contribution – by digging deep and doing my part to refashion the status quo in such a way that might enable us all to effectively occupy this life.

******************************************

* Name has been changed.

Posted in Do or Die. Occupy. | Leave a comment

Occupying Disenchantment

Here we go again with the ho-ho-ho-ing and the fake snow blowing. With the shiny happy velvety red, cutely-clad motherfuckers that I’d see joyfully dashing about in every torturous 90-second commercial slot if I still watched TV. Here we go again with the utter lunacy that seizes us who really cannot afford to spend extra money on more useless, corporate crap; but we do, just so that it can’t be said that we weren’t good people during the holidays.

Amid the wreath-hanging, bell-jingling, pine-scented terrorism that prettily gift-wraps its iron grip around our Jack Frost-bitten necks at this time of year, we’re instructed to take inventory of our year’s comings and goings, victories and missteps, with the underlying task of measuring our worth against the status quo. Did I make enough money? Am I finally dating The One? Will I finally marry this year, even if s/he is not The One because I don’t really care anymore, I just want to be married? Am I on the fast-track to my ideal house in the ideal city with my 2.5 kids? Did I kiss enough ass at work? Will I finally make it to middle management this year? Is my diet plan working? Am I any closer to looking like Charlize Theron? These questions would be enough to make me want to drizzle my slit wrists all over every White Christmas if I gave a shit about the answers to any of them. Through corporate media and incessantly brazen glossy advertising, these are some of the questions that constantly harass what little sense of peace we may be able to grasp. Like frightened grunts who are too afraid to forcefully blow the whistle that would awaken us all, merrily along we roll, consumed by Macy’s and the Kardashians, looking like a prostrate army of these immaculately identical, suited skulls.

All Hail the American Dream

All Hail the American Dream

Somewhere between my art-saturated earlier years and this moment, I feverishly bought the idea that aspirations to be one of these suited skulls would wildly fling open the gold-plated doors to unceasing bliss. Like the record-breaking Takeru Kobayashi with his hot dogs at Coney Island during the first few years of the new millennium, I simultaneously devoured stability and predictability as if I were going to be rewarded some shiny trophy for finally choosing to embrace the norm. As if that would be a lasting proposition for such a deeply disenchanted misfit like me. For all the predictability I’ve built around myself, I’m still waiting for Vanna White to hand over my fucking prize.

It’s decidedly unlikely that the sequinned game-show siren will be wheeling a sparkling new Maytag into my apartment any time soon, but I’ve long given up on expecting any reward for my disingenuous pursuit of what’s called the American Dream. It’s time to occupy the disenchantment, and craft it into something that works for me and everyone around me.

How many times have we seen soul-depleted, spirit-weary office drones declare with fatigue and resignation that, while they may get kicked around like country mice lost in the traffic of the big city, “At least I got a job.” Hello! I am one of those people.

My situation could be much worse; I realize this. As proof, just pull the cord and elicit my monotone auto-response: “I’m grateful to have a job. I’m grateful to have a job.” While I work on navigating the maze of possibilities toward an exit without descending into a trap that finds me in yet another ninth circle of heave-ho grunt work hell , I spend eight hours a day luxuriating in fluorescent rays and inhaling the infinitely recycled air that is on endless loop between me and a number of unhygienic lawyers who are notorious for taking a dump and heading straight for the restroom’s exit, without so much as an obligatory hand rinse just for show. Since a decent number of lawyers in our office have, at best, a perfunctory regard for sanitation, it’s reasonable to conclude that our resident thieves are not the same people as the dump-and-dashing lawyers. Our thieves, lawyers or not, are unlikely to willingly bypass hand-washings; thus the anonymous Post-It plea for folks to refrain from stealing what’s left of the dollar-store soap in the kitchen.

We have an active band of thieves; or at least one thief who keeps him or herself quite busy. In the past few months, among the nifty possessions that have been coveted are iPods (yes, plural), a digital camera, a piggy bank full of coins, and a Christmas envelope that the thief apparently discovered only contained a coworker’s infant grinning maniacally from a glossy postcard.  Company-issued laptops have disappeared with consistent frequency for years, but management has not thought to implement some sort of record-keeping procedure that would prevent their most costly inventory from going AWOL. Instead, they issue pathetically ineffective emails asking for the laptops’ return, but this is probably indicative of the usual upper-management brilliance one would find in anyoffice in AnyTown, USA. Add to this a workforce punctuated by substance abusers and sex offenders – who are supposed to be helping substance abusers and sex offenders – and by unapologetic racists posing as liberals, and you have my office. A place that encourages “women, people of color, and gays, lesbians, and transgender people to apply.” That hiring line had always been uplifting for me, until, after I’d seen and heard plenty in this joint, I finally learned to infer the poisonous thorns that accompany that warm and rosy feel-good text. They’ll encourage the likes of you being hired so they can get a pat on the head for being conscientious employers, but once you get in, you ladies, queers, and you minority folks, don’t you dare count on being safe, or on them protecting your non-white, non-straight male ass. Just like the schoolyard, once you get in, you better know how to fight, or at least be willing to learn. Quickly.

In honor of my wholly dysfunctional and ethically deficient workplace, and the thousands across the country just like it, on this December 25th, I am Occupying Disenchantment. Like a devoted wine connoisseur who embraces the full bodies of the spirits poured from the bottle, I raise my glass to upending the ho-ho-ho status quo, and to these lovely Christmas lights, which will burn out faster than I ever will.

Posted in Do or Die. Occupy., Holiday Humanity | Leave a comment