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.

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4 Responses to Soldier for Life. Danny Chen, Presente.

  1. Sandra says:

    Where were all of you before this took the turn that it did? As stated in your article, racism has been a part of your entire life, so how could a community that already knows what is horrific in the world stand by and allow this to get to this point?

  2. that88girl says:

    I’ve been an independent activist for many years, starting back in college. Outside of that, I’d ask you to be more specific in terms of asking me “where have I been.” For a partial answer, I invite you to read other posts on this site. My most immediate response to that is, well, I’ve been in a lot of efforts where I’ve hardly seen any other Asian faces at all. These include protests against police brutality, the appointment of Cathie Black, against SB1070, and against LGBT hate crimes. So your question is ironic in that, all these years, I’ve been wondering, where the hell have all my Asian “brothers and sisters” been?? I began my activism by working with Asian Am orgs, but became frustrated with their insular nature, and I never fit in. I made an early choice to combat racism on my own, at every turn, even if it meant risking my physical safety – and that’s a promise that I can honestly say I’ve kept diligently.

    There is no way I can be responsible for an entire community – just as no other single person can be – so that last question of yours might be good to ask yourself. It takes collaborative effort, and decades of pushing for change. As for how could we let it get to this point, you’re implying that the AA community is responsible for Danny’s death. You’ve got it terribly twisted if this is what you’ve intended to imply. Danny was murdered by a racist, xenophobic machine that purports to uphold American values and freedoms. Asian Americans can further the fight against racism by being more socially active, aware (get your face out of the phone, just for a second), and questioning EVERYTHING instead of being obsessed with the next iPhone and other status quo bullshit. There already are those of us out there who do just this, but not nearly enough. Too many Asian Americans are happy chasing the “American Dream” formula, and that has got to change – because the formula is what’s killing us.

    You’ve asked some good questions here, but they would be even better served if you turned them on yourself. Ask yourself what you can do to help the rest of us out here who are so incredibly frustrated that little has seemed to change since the days of Vincent Chin. Ask yourself how you can get involved in the fight to make sure this shit never happens again. OCA-NY’s Liz OuYang has done an excellent job blazing a trail of action with Danny Chen’s murder in this regard. If I can make a suggestion, if you haven’t already, get to know Grace Lee Boggs’s writings really well. Here is someone who has dedicated her entire life to fighting racism, war, and to the uplifting of ALL communities. Are you going to ask her – someone who’s spent her whole life in the fight – how she could let this happen? Of course not, because she’s not responsible. No one person is responsible. ALL OF US ARE. Until people truly understand that every single one of us is responsible for contributing to what’s going on around us, our progress will be slow and arduous. I would say this to anyone who’s rightfully outraged but given to pointing fingers: Keep being outraged, but put your finger down and join hands with the struggle. Until you get in the fight, you have no right to criticize it. If you’re already in the fight, put your finger down and let’s converse, plan, organize. The blame game is useless.

  3. Sandra says:

    Hello That 88 girl,
    I guess my post was not clear as I was not really responding to the author of the article in specifics, but to the asian community you referenced, and the asian community that has been in the news as of late. Yes, I can be thinking that the asian community contributed to Danny’s demise along with the Army soliders. I also believe his parents let him down by not teaching this young man how and when to protect himself. While I’m sure this is not what you will agree with with, I have been in a similar circumstance to Danny’s Chen’s and it’s why I’m asking the questions I am asking. I have been an activist since my biological brother was murdered by the local police force before his nineteenth birthday.
    I really don’t feel like my post was playing the blame game, but the who’s responsible game? For example: Danny’s parents have been American citizens for at least nineteen years, yet they do not speak the english language. Why is this? How did this not put the majority of the responsibility of the language barrier with any type of authority figure on Danny while he was growing up rather than the parents where the responsibility belongs? This speaks to their lack of responsibility for raising their son. Is this one reason why Danny felt as other posts have reported more affected by the taunts than most would? Sorry, but I’m not in agreement with your specific take on the racial xenophobic machine murdering Danny, They were there last, but I believe his parents and his community did not prepare him to face the realities of life, and there is blood on their hands as well. The asian community is making ton’s of noise now, but again why not when the letters were being sent home by Danny. He did not have to die. This is another example of evil exists where good men do nothing.

    • that88girl says:

      Sandra, it would be nice to meet you in person someday. Being that you’re an activist, I’m surprised we haven’t met already – or maybe we have? Particularly at actions that are not specifically geared toward the Asian Am community, it’s easy for me to find another Asian face, because there are usually only a very few of us.

      I vehemently, but respectfully, disagree with you that that the Asian Am community bears equal responsibility with whomever pulled the trigger. Making such an assumption means that there’s an equal distribution of power between AAs and the System that killed him. By System, I mean the racism that dominates and dictates most things in this country – a country, by the way, that I want to improve because I have a vested interest in it – thus my criticisms. I actually understand your anger toward his parents and community, because that’s where I used to be. Danny’s parents were not the kind of immigrants that come here because they’ve got credentials that can get them jobs in white collar professions. Mom was a seamstress, and dad was a waiter – they were working long hours, just to make ends meet and provide for Danny. Anyone familiar with working-class Chinese immigrant parents operating barely above poverty level will know that as far as they were concerned, they were being the most responsible parents they could. America, despite its rosy rhetoric, does not welcome everyone equally. Parents such as Danny’s had no opportunity to learn English outside of the Chinatown enclave because they were too busy trying to survive. Ask any ethnic enclave full of working-class immigrants – Russian, Puerto Rican, Indian – and chances are you’ll find a number of families in the same situation Danny Chen had. We’d have to get into a deeper discussion about how America profits off of immigrant labor by keeping them working and uneducated. We know about the letters now, but back then, they were not public knowledge . When Danny’s mom asked if he was being bullied, I think Danny said something to the effect of, “That’s to be expected.” I can only imagine how painful it must have been for his mother – who’s barely had time to become acclimated with American nuances, whose only son in thousands of miles away at war – to process that.

      I agree with your frustration toward the AA community. Hell, I’ve spent my whole life loving and being terribly frustrated with fellow AAs – for the same reasons you state here. When shit hits the fan, then everyone is up in arms. But as long as nothing too awful happens, we’re content to just roll with the tide. That’s why I asked those questions in my post. How many times do we have to tell each other to fight back? To wake the fuck up? Every time we choose to stay silent, we’ve failed again. How many times have people looked at me like I was crazy for being the only one to speak up? More times than I can count. Also, no need to apologize. I don’t write so that people can agree with me. We can agree to disagree. As far as I’m concerned, the U.S. military thrives on racism and xenophobia. That’s another discussion that would take more space than I have here.

      Finally, given your obviously passionate thoughts about this, how are you contributing to change? Do you currently work as an independent activist or with an org? We agree that AAs need to be proactive in a lot of ways. How are you helping to wake people up – your peers, your family, the strangers who may give you a hard time? How do you envision us achieving full, outright consciousness as a people? I’m curious, just because I like to know that there are other ideas percolating out there.

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