By Ti-Hua Chang, AsAmNews Staff Writer
JUNE 1982 TWO WHITE AUTO WORKERS BEAT VINCENT CHIN TO DEATH WITH A BASEBALL BAT, BUT NEVER SERVED ONE DAY IN JAIL.
In Detroit this Thursday to Sunday June 19th; activists, family and filmmakers will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin. His brutal death, subsequent lack of justice for the victim and his family and steadfast activism spawned the rise of the first national pan-Asian American civil rights movement.
In a chilling and prescient parallel to today’s explosion of post-Covid anti-Asian hate crimes, Chin’s killers thought he was Japanese and blamed Japan for the then auto recession. Chin was Chinese American. Many Asians realized then, like today, attackers often mistake any Asian ethnicity for another. That realization helped create and expand a national movement,say activists from the 1980’s.
FAMILY ANNUAL SADNESS
For Annie Tan, Chin’s second cousin, this anniversary will be especially hard for her and dozens of family members who will attend the commemoration at Vincent’s grave Sunday. He is buried next to his beloved adoptive mother Lily Chin.
“My great Auntie (Vincent Chin’s mother) fought like hell and lost … (but) our legacy is not just that we fought and lost. We won so much more as a community that would not exist without our great aunt Lily fighting that fight,” Tan told AsAmNews.
On June 19, 1982, 27-year-0ld Vincent Chin celebrated his upcoming wedding with a bachelor’s party at the Fancy Pants strip club in Highland Park, Michigan. He got in an argument with two White auto workers, Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michel Nitz. One of them said to Chin, “it’s because of little motherf**kers like you that we’re out of work.” It was not the first time Japan was blamed for the then recession and not the first time Chin had been mistaken for being Japanese. He was, though, Chinese American.
After a fistfight, which some researchers believe Chin won, they were all thrown out of the club.
Ebens and Nitz then spent 20 minutes searching for Chin. They caught him outside a McDonald’s on Woodward Avenue. While Nitz held Chin down on the ground, Ebens took four full swings with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat and smashed Chin’s skull. With blood pouring out of his ears, Vincent’s final words were, “It isn’t fair.”
400 people, who had planned to attend Chin’s wedding to Vicki Wong attended his funeral instead.
The resulting justice was not fair either. Judge Charles Kaufman reduced Ebens’ and Nitz’s sentences to manslaughter and fined them $3780. The maximum fine for killing a dog in Michigan was more.
ASIAN AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT BORN
After the lack of punishment for the killers, in 1983 a small group of young Asian Americans began a campaign along with Vincent Chin’s mother Lily to bring federal charges against the killers. The organization American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) was formed. It was led by Helen Zia, an activist reporter, and lawyers Roland Hwang, Jim Shimoura, Liza Chan and Harold Leon. Most had been active in college against the Vietnam war a decade earlier. The heinousness of the crime and the anguish expressed by Chin’s mother, described as the soul of the group, helped unify the small Asian American community in the Detroit area.
Shimoura, an organizer of this commemoration, said another factor was the many connections from the 10-year-old Asian Arts and Culture Food Festival in Detroit. He said the festival established a base for the Vincent Chin coalition.
“We were one of the few places in the country to have that kind of connectivity of different factions of the AAPI community, which allowed us to get on the phone meet people we knew on a personal basis for years and work together and trust each other. …(It ) allowed us to bring this coalition together,” he told AsAmNews.
Roland Hwang, another organizer of the commemoration, recalls that much of the evidence used to push for federal civil rights trials was obtained by ACJ members who tracked down witnesses not interviewed by the police.
NATIONAL MEDIA COVERAGE
Another key factor was Helen Zia convincing a New York Tlmes reporter to write about Vincent Chin. That got it national attention. She also orchestrated appearances on national talk shows like Phil Donahue and PBS.
FAILED FEDERAL CIVIL RIGHTS TRIALS
After two federal civil rights trials, Nitz was found not guilty in the first, Ebens not guilty in the second. In 1987 after 38 years in America, Mrs. Chin returned to China feeling there could not be justice for her son or Asians in America. She later returned to America to treat her cancer dying in 2002.
CIVIL RIGHTS STRUGGLE CONTINUED
But ACJ continued fighting. Roland Hwang along with Parker Woo and Nati and Jeff Jencks continued a slow three-decade process of work in Michigan. As Roland Hwang explained to AsAmNews, the Michigan communities did win major battles even if Ebens and Nitz remain free.
Hwang noted that because of the Chin case, “The Michigan justice system now has mandatory minimum sentencing. The probation and fine sentencing loopholes used for Chin’s killers have been addressed and a victim impact statement is now routine. All because of Vincent.”
As Helen Zia explained at a press conference in Detroit Wednesday this 40th commemoration is a remembrance and rededication of and for Vincent Chin. It is designed to help communities join forces to fight against a dangerous wave of hate in America. She predicted, “Detroit is about to experience a great convening of cross-generational community leaders, local leaders, as well as national leaders celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander history and solidarity with other communities as vitally important lessons for all of us today from that legacy.”
Lily Chin and most of ACJ considered Zia to be the key leader of the Vincent Chin movement in the 1980’s. She emphasizes that Detroit, and its small AAPI communities, was the epicenter of this first pan-Asian American civil rights movement.
AsAmNews is a proud community partner of the Vincent Chin 40th Commemoration.
For more information on attending this commemoration in person or virtually go to VincentChin.org All events are free.
Documentary film makers will convene
There will be an in person film showing
2nd day of Documentary film makers meet
Showing of Oscar nominated, remastered “Who Killed Vincent Chin
National Conversation on Asian Americans, America and Democracy
Remembrance at Vincent and Lily Chin’s grave site in Detroit.
Here is a link to a video story slam about Vincent and Lily Chin. Writer Ti-Hua Chang delivered it at the Asian American Journalism Association convention in 2017. Turn up the volume to hear it better.
Disclaimer: Writer Ti-Hua Chang worked as an activist for justice for Vincent Chin from 1983 to 1989. Chang, then a television reporter, never covered the Chin murder for television, because of his activism.
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