“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.
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
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.