By Aline Reynolds — Downtown Express, May 30, 2012
It was an outpouring of emotion prompted by tragedy and set against the backdrop of the chilling headshot of an only child who died far too young.
Some 400 Chinatown residents and students gathered at Pace University High School, at 100 Hester St., last Thurs., May 24 to commemorate the late U.S. Army Private Danny Chen, a 2010 graduate of the school.
Were Chen still alive, he would have celebrated his 20th birthday over Memorial Day weekend.
The event, arranged by the New York chapter of Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA-NY), consisted of poignant performances by drummers, spoken-word artists and dancers whose art called for justice for Chen and offered emotional catharsis to those who knew him and learned of him after he passed.
The acts ranged from tribal-sounding percussion numbers to classical pieces and rock songs to contemporary dances. Interspersed throughout the ceremony were readings of a handful of the estimated 9,000 birthday cards in Chen’s memory from people around the globe, along with heartfelt speeches made by Chen’s advocates and family.
Chen, an Asian-American teenager born and raised in Chinatown, was found dead in a guard tower in Kandahar, Afghanistan last October, where his military unit was deployed at the time. Military officials have since concluded that Chen shot himself after fellow soldiers bullied and physically abused him because of his ethnicity.
Yalini Dream, a spoken-word artist based in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, was inspired to perform at the birthday event after hearing about Chen’s death late last year through OCA-NY. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, Dream participated in sit-ins advocating Asian-American studies at the college, which led to the arrest of several of her classmates.
“I knew there was a lot of anger and a lot of pain,” she said of Chen’s suicide. “I think it’s really important that we come together and celebrate people’s lives, and harness the power of healing and love to push forward and motivate us as we fight for justice.”
It’s crucial that the government examine how the U.S. military is functioning in order to prevent future acts of hazing, said Dream, whose brother’s two friends are enlisted in the army.
“This incident isn’t the first incident of violence I’ve heard of,” she said. “There needs to be systematic change.”
With respect to army reforms, the anti-hazing legislation introduced by Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is now awaiting Senate approval. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has also introduced a bill calling for stricter enforcement of the military’s anti-hazing rules.
As the Downtown Express previously reported, the commencement of the courts-martial of the eight soldiers implicated in Chen’s death have been postponed until August.
The trial of Staff Sergeant Blaine Dugas is now set to begin on Thurs., Aug. 16 — three months later than the start date the army previously announced, according to OCA-NY President Liz OuYang. An army spokesperson didn’t confirm the exact start date by press time.
The mid-May trial dates had conflicted with a memorial service the military hosted in Alaska for Chen and fellow soldiers from his unit who died in combat during their Afghanistan deployment, OuYang told the Downtown Express.
“They had scheduled both at the same time, and we told them it’s not fair to have the family choose between which one to go to,” she said. “But it turned out that the defendant’s attorney had requested a delay anyway, so it worked out.”
At the Pace birthday event, Chen’s 16-year-old cousin Alex Wong recited a solemn poem saying Chen is “dearly missed” and that, while time won’t heal the wound, “we will learn to accept [what happened].”
The event meant a lot to Wong, who regrets not having gotten to know Chen better.
“From what my cousins were telling me, he was a great person,” he said.
Some of Chen’s former classmates were also present, including Umme Begum, a junior at Pace University High School who is active in student government.
“He always kept to himself, but I realized he was actually a really smart kid,” said Begum.
Apart from hosting the May 24 event, the high school has held moments of silence for Chen and talked about the soldier in class, Begum said, in addition to lighting candles and posting pictures of Chen in the hallways.
Seated in the auditorium’s front row that evening were Chen’s parents, Su Zhen Chen and Yan Tao Chen, who stoically watched the performances and, later, somberly addressed the crowd.
As they strode to the stage, the Chens were greeted by a standing ovation and were accompanied by a city employee who translated their speech into English.
“Without your support, I would not be able to live until today,” said Chen’s mother in a high-pitched tone as she wiped away tears. “My husband and I wish what happened to my son does not happen to someone else.”
The event comes on the heels of OCA-NY’s card-writing campaign honoring Chen’s birthday. In just over a month, the organization received the thousands of birthday cards from 25 states around the country and nine different countries worldwide, including Hungary, Denmark and Germany.
OCA-NY, joined by a handful of other civil rights groups, hand-delivered the cards to Congress in Washington, D.C. the day before the Pace birthday ceremony.
“We sent a strong message that we do not want them to forget Danny,” said OCA-NY staff member Mackenzie Yang, who spoke at the event.
“Danny’s legacy is our legacy,” declared OuYang. The aftermath of Chen’s suicide affects America’s future generation, she said.
“The outcome of these upcoming trials, and what the U.S. does to address these serious issues, will further determine your legacy,” she said.
The abuse Chen endured in the army has frightened children such as eight-year-old Clara Shapiro, who read aloud her birthday card on stage.
“Dear Danny…We are so upset and sad that those other soldiers who are on your side were so cruel to you,” the youngster wrote. “I don’t want to ever join the army, because it is a violent place where you can be tortured by someone on your side.”