By Guest Contributor Esther Choi, cross-posted from Some Thoughts …
I can’t stress enough that the following article only represents my opinions as an individual, and are not to be affiliated with any other person, organization or community.
December 15, 2011
Tonight was the march and vigil for Private Danny Chen, who was killed in the army on October 3, 2011. We don’t know how he died. The army is withholding all evidence, which it owes to the family, that could answer this question. What we do know is that he did not die in combat. We know he was constantly harassed and discriminated against by his fellow soldiers for being Chinese. We know some really twisted, violent hazing was committed against him by his superiors, right before he was found dead. We decided to hold a march and vigil because the army is currently carrying out an investigation, and we have to show them that the public is watching and that they cannot get away with another cover-up.
Just yesterday, board members of OCA-NY along with Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and Council Member Margaret Chin went to the Pentagon to meet with high-ranking army officials, where they made demands that may fundamentally transform the way that hazing and bias crimes are dealt with in the military. We need them to know that the public and the media are watching, and that if they do not meet our demands, we will redirect our campaign to focus on our young men and women who are thinking of enlisting. These young people need to know before they enlist, the Army will not protect them from harm by fellow soldiers.
Before the vigil, we reached out to many organizations to support, and 36 signed onto our cause. We also reached out to Occupy Wall Street because justice and government transparency are in its mission, and we thought we could use the numbers and networks in OWS to bring out more support for our vigil, and we also wanted to show our solidarity with OWS.
So imagine my surprise when protesters from OWS showed up with OWS signs, not to stand with others lining up for the march to Columbus Park in support, but to stand in front of everyone, trying to direct them. These people, who had not, until that very moment, put in one bit of effort into organizing this action, who had no idea what the plan was, who had no idea who we were or who the family was, decided that they were going to make this an OWS event.
Conflict erupted when one of the OWS-affiliated protesters came with a giant Communist Party of China flag. This white man decided that he was entitled to represent us, at this protest for an American soldier, with a flag that has been used by this country to vilify the Chinese American community. When people began asking him not to demonstrate that flag because it was not the purpose of the event and we were in no way representing China or political parties, he began screaming at us about how we were ANTI-COMMUNIST and trying to take away his first amendment rights. We told him that Danny Chen was an American soldier and we wanted to respect the family and their wishes, but he continued screaming violent accusations at us at the top of his lungs and disrupting the event, until one of Danny Chen’s family members, on the verge of tears, finally convinced him to leave.
Then I overheard another OWS protester, who had earlier been trying to direct the protesters, give a video interview, and heard him saying, ever so solemnly, “They don’t want me here.” My question is: who are we and who are you? How do you expect to be welcomed as one of “us” when you have, from the beginning, made every effort to set yourself apart? Why do you think that you as an individual should be primary in this march for Private Danny Chen and his family? Why are you here giving video interviews?
Another white OWS protester began trying to use the human mic to direct the protest, and told me that I shouldn’t be using the blowhorn because the cops were going to take it away. I told her that, no, we had a parade permit and sound permit, which was why the police were there clearing the streets for our march. She looked confused and stopped yelling.
OWS protesters often make it seem like they are the birth of social justice activism, that they are here to teach us how to protest because none of us know what the fuck we are doing and need their wealth of experience to help us out. I was not at all surprised when that woman so naturally assumed that she, as a white woman, knew better than me – she thought that I had found a blowhorn somewhere and decided to play around with it. It didn’t occur to her that we had been planning this for weeks and thinking critically about every step, that it was led by a civil rights organization that has been at work for decades, that we had applied for 4 different kinds of permits so that our event could safely and effectively achieve its purpose.
The actions of these OWS protesters showed that they were at the march and vigil, not to show their support for Danny Chen’s family or the ongoing work on their case, but to provoke and garner attention for themselves and their brand, and then try to turn our strategic work and planning into a nonsensical, self-righteous tantrum. They acted like tourists on vacation in the social justice world, and our efforts and long-term goals were expendable in light of their self-interested pursuit of an interesting experience.
This is the problem I’ve always had with OWS—that it was a movement that came to earth as Christ himself, here to save us, to make the history of struggle, and the ongoing social justice work in this country by marginalized communities, irrelevant, and then to take the moral high ground and act as if we were the face of THEIR oppression when we took issue with their tactics.
I understand many people who came to the vigil from OWS were there with the right intentions, and it was great to have their support and solidarity. But these incidents of ignorance from OWS have been way too frequent and predictable to be isolated events. These incidents show that the OWS movement, while creating new opportunities to change the unjust world we live in, is, in many ways, the beloved child of our racist, sexist, intolerant capitalist society.
As marginalized people in this country rise, new forms of oppression are at work – those who have not experienced systemic oppression are claiming it anyway, turning social justice on its head and diluting the messages and movements that have been our hearts and souls. I think this quote from the New Jim Crow sheds a lot of light on why OWS emerged the way that it did: “Following the collapse of each system of control, there has been a period of confusion—transition—in which those who are most committed to racial hierarchy search for new means to achieve their goals within the rules of the game as currently defined. It is during this period of uncertainty that the backlash intensifies and a new form of racialized social control begins to take hold.”
I tried to love the movement. Since I wrote about OWS last, I’ve been attending OWS meetings and marches. I reached out to OWS about this action. I tried so hard to understand the movement, to check my own biases and question any negative feelings I had towards it, to engage with it as much as time would allow. I had so many conversations with people in OWS spaces, which usually just left me feeling perplexed, as the basic factors involved in social and economic inequity always seemed to be news to the people I was speaking to or a curious piece of trivia to be quickly passed over, and people would instead start talking to me about things like herbal medicine as if I had any fucking clue, or would say really ignorant things that would leave me feeling attacked.
I deal with ignorant bigots every day and am willing to do so as part of my own commitment to my work, but when bigots come posing as allies and then very dramatically play the martyr when we call out their bullshit, it really derails our ability to do our work.
I now realize that my time cannot be wasted trying to work in spaces that are paralyzed by ignorance. I will continue to engage in my activism using my experiences and empathy to guide the way I choose to live and work. But I’ll choose to do it in spaces where bigotry, drama, and ignorance do not masquerade as the thing I love. And I’ll choose to work with people who join community actions to respect and support those communities, not to objectify and use them as ornaments for their movement bereft of genuine compassion and understanding.
Besides the oppression brought by some OWS protesters, the march and vigil were beautiful. Over 400 people came out, and the interactions were passionate and heartfelt. I am proud to be an Asian American and glad to be involved in the struggle for a military and a world that does not ruthlessly exclude and exterminate those who are different in any way. I feel blessed to have a fierce mentor who, during the meeting with the Pentagon, told the Assistant Secretary of the Army to sit back down when he tried to leave their meeting early, and he actually listened. I think that our capacity for resistance is growing and we are finally feeling empowered and entitled in this country. We have taken far too much shit, and we are unapologetically asking to be seen as fully human. I am excited for the future of our communities and look forward to growing with each other and our true allies, and despite the importance of building relationships with the more enfranchised, we should never have to tolerate that kind of oppression, least of all in the spaces where we are trying to fight it.
Photos courtesy of Kwong Eng
Click here for coverage about the march and vigil.
Editor’s Note: Shortly after this one, Esther wrote a second piece. She wanted to center Danny Chen and the struggle for justice and not OWS. Also, in the time between the articles, eight soliders were charged in the death of Danny Chen, meaning that some progress was made. Click here to read “Private Danny Chen and threats to justice everywhere.” Next time the Chen case surfaces up in the news cycle, we’ll post the full piece here. – LDP