Twenty years ago this past week a 27-year old Chinese-American man and a few of his friends walked into a Detroit bar to celebrate his bachelor party. A few hours later Vincent Chin was dead.
Who and what killed Vincent Chin on June 19, 1982? Was it uncontrolled anger? Drunkenness? Racism? A baseball bat run amuck?
Just a fight in a bar?
Two white men – Ronald Ebens and his twenty-something stepson Michael Nitz?got into a fight with Chin, were expelled from the bar, and eventually pinned him down at a nearby McDonald’s where Ebens cracked Chin’s skull with a baseball bat.
Vincent’s last words were “It isn’t fair.”
At the time Detroit residents were confronting automobile layoffs in the face of more fuel-efficient, affordable, and popular Japanese cars. One of the bar’s dancers said she overheard Ebens blaming “Chin’s kind” for the slump in American car manufacturing.
“It’s because of you little motherf—— that we’re out of work!” Ebens reportedly yelled.
In court, Ebens and Nitz got off with a manslaughter plea, three months probation, and a $3,780 fine.
From tragedy to movement
Chin’s death sparked the development of the Asian-American Civil Rights Movement. Lily Chin, his adoptive mother and a factory worker, summoned the courage to attend rallies and softly yet determinedly demand justice for her son.
Asian-American students were galvanized into action by Lily Chin (who recently died on June 9 at 82) and many community advocacy organizations were founded in the aftermath of her son’s death.
During a subsequent civil rights trial, Vincent Chin became the first Asian-American whose case resulted in a hate crime conviction, although Ebens was later acquitted during a retrial in Cincinnati.
Twenty years later college campuses and local communities in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle were commemorating the start of a movement that continues to this day.
“I didn’t do it on purpose.”
In Little Tokyo in Los Angeles June 19 the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) and Visual Communications screened the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena.
Among the things that make this documentary remarkable are the candid interviews with Ebens, his wife, and step-son. They assert that race had nothing to do with Chin’s death.
It was bad luck. They had too much to drink. “I didn’t even do it on purpose,” says Ebens.
The film shows a deep-seated ignorance that can prevent some people from understanding how what they think, feel, and do can be rooted in racial prejudice.
Remembering Vincent Chin
So is Vincent Chin’s case still relevant today?
Hate crimes?criminal acts directed at a person based on the victim’s actual or perceived race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or gender?have been on the rise since September 11.
“It’s good to remind youth what’s happened in the past in order to plan for the future,” said UC Irvine graduate Michelle Daus, 21.
“This is a landmark case I want to know about,” added her brother Allan, 26. As a Filipino-American, he’s been noticing that race, and how one looks, dresses, and speaks has become more important since 9/11.
Cal. State Northridge and Pasadena City College professor Glenn Omatsu observes a new and uncertain global era for Asians. North Korea has now been named an “axis of evil” country by President Bush. Ongoing U.S. intervention in the Philippines will keep trying to root out terrorism with unknown consequences.
But the legacy of Vincent Chin was a “very powerful movement for justice,” said Omatsu, that reached out and made linkages with African American, Latino, and immigrant communities.
It is striking that Vincent Chin’s untimely death and his mother’s quest for justice still matter to so many people twenty years after the fact.
To learn more about the story of Vincent Chin, click here.