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June 5-13, 1997

Remembering Vincent Chin

Fifteen years later, a murder in Detroit remains a turning point in the APA movement

Happier Times: For Vincent Chin, a bachelor party meant to celebrate his upcoming wedding turned into an ugly confrontation in a suburban Detroit bar, and later into a fatal beating outside of a fast-food restaurant. His death remains a milestone in the APA civil-rights movement.

by Alethea Yip

It was an unlikely place for a pivotal point in Asian American history. A young draftsman named Vincent Chin was attending his bachelor party at a suburban Detroit strip club called Fancy Pants. With the party in full swing, Chin and Ronald Ebens, a white autoworker, began trading insults across the bar. "It's because of you little motherfuckers that we're out of work," witnesses later remembered Ebens yelling at Chin.

Chin struck Ebens, and an altercation ensued. Ebens' stepson, Michael Nitz - who had been recently laid off from his job at an autoplant - jumped in. But it was soon broken up by a parking attendant. Chin and his friends left the bar and went their separate ways. Twenty minutes later, Ebens and Nitz caught up with Chin in front of a fast-food restaurant. Ebens grabbed a baseball bat and delivered a blow to Chin's leg. Nitz held the wounded Chin, while Ebens struck his head with the bat, bashing his skull in.

Before he slipped into a coma, Chin murmured to a friend, "It's not fair." Four days later - and five days before his wedding - Chin died as a result of the injuries he sustained during the beating.

The incident on June 19, 1982, seemed an almost perfect metaphor for anti-Asian sentiment in America. It was ignorant; Ebens and Nitz presumed Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American, was Japanese. It was economically motivated; the two autoworkers blamed the Japanese - and, mistakenly, Chin - for the ailing U.S. auto industry and the consequential loss of jobs. And it was horribly violent; the use of a baseball bat as a murder weapon was a brutal act and an equally brutal reminder of Americana.

But if the beating itself was emblematic of the racial prob-lems in America, the subsequent trial challenged many Asian Pacific Americans' faith in the American way.

Ebens and Nitz were charged with and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. For this, they each received a sentence of three years probation and a $3,000 fine - a sentence that many APA community leaders perceived as a slap on the wrist.

Later federal civil-rights cases brought against the two defendants were appealed, and the juries acquitted each of them. Neither served a jail sentence.

The first judgment against Ebens and Nitz outraged a group of APAs and motivated them to form American Citizens for Justice (ACJ), a pan-Asian American activist group that mobilized to demand a retrial against the two men.

It was the first time, according to APA advocates and academics, that people who traced their ancestry to different countries in Asia and the Pacific Islands crossed ethnic and socioeconomic lines to fight as a united group of Asian Pacific Americans. They were Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino; they were waiters, lawyers, and grandmothers who were moved by the incident that heightened their awareness of discrimination and racism directed toward the APA community.

Vincent Chin became a contemporary martyr of the APA movement. Fifteen years later, his death remains a turning point for many Asian Pacific Americans.

"I think that the Vincent Chin case ... was a watershed moment for all Asian Americans," said Helen Zia, a longtime community activist and ACJ co-founder. "Previously, there were mostly college and progressive activists who had taken up the name 'Asian American,' but as far as the average person in the Chinatowns, Japantowns, Koreatowns, they considered themselves their own ethnicity.

"For the first time, we considered ourselves as a race, a minority race in America that faced discrimination and had to fight for our civil rights. The Vincent Chin case marked the beginning of the emergence of Asian Pacific Americans as a self-defined American racial group."

For William Wei, who started teaching a course in Asian American history at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the 1980s, the Chin case offered his students a tangible example of anti-Asian violence.

"It was understood in an abstract sense that people could, throughout the study of history, read about these problems - stereotyping, the problem of violence, and scapegoating," Wei explained. "But [Chin's] murder made it real for people. ... The kids can relate to it more readily than to the violence that occurred in the 19th century. We have lots of examples from that time period, but none hit home more or had the depth of information than the Vincent Chin case.

"It continued to inform the consciousness of Asian Americans in classrooms and in the community that it was a symptom of a larger problem - racism and its violent expression. And in spite of our self-congratulatory image as the model minority, in the final analysis, Vincent Chin was simply a gook to those men."

The five-year legal battle that followed the shock of the initial verdict was conducted by APA advocates who had little experience dealing with national civil-rights cases, said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Asian American Legal Center, which was organized the same year the Chin case went to court.

"It was really a wake-up call in the legal community as to what we needed to do - to fight for justice in an effective way," said Kwoh, whose organization served as a co-counsel for ACJ. "Anything you could think of that could go wrong in the criminal justice system went wrong. ... People did a good job, but people didn't have the civil-rights experience and it was hard to anticipate what was going to happen."

In the first trial in Wayne County Criminal Court in 1983, the prosecutor of the case did not show up for the sentencing hearing; there were no advocacy groups present; and neither Lily Chin, Vincent's mother, nor any of the witnesses was called to testify.

With only the defense lawyer making a case for his clients, Judge Charles Kaufman handed down his verdict of a $3,000 fine, $780 in court fees, and three years probation for each of the men. Kaufman reasoned that Ebens and Nitz did not have criminal records and were not likely to violate the terms of their parole. And at the same time, Kaufman ignored the pre-sentence report that identified Ebens as an alcoholic with a history of alcohol-related problems. The report also recommended that in addition to incarceration, Ebens undergo detoxification and counseling for his problem.

The decision sent shock waves throughout the national APA community. Civil-rights leaders interpreted Kaufman's decision as judicially condoning anti-Asian violence.

"It was an intense time," said Henry Der, a longtime community activist and then-executive director of San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA). "Here these murderers were sitting out there literally smirking at the whole situation.

"Before Vincent Chin, people dealt with hate violence at the local level. But Vincent Chin galvanized the political consciousness among Asian Americans - that's the only way it can be described. The lack of a meaningful penalty for the murder was egregious. It was something that could not be ignored."

ACJ, with help from several other APA groups - including CAA, Japanese American Citizens League, Organization of Chinese Americans, Filipino American Community Council of Michigan, and Korean Society of Metropolitan Detroit - staged rallies, organized demonstrations, and launched a massive letter-writing campaign. They wrote to politicians, the press, and the U.S. Department of Justice demanding that the two men be charged with violating Chin's civil rights.

Lily Chin, who barely spoke English, traveled the country raising money to pay the costs involved in bringing about a civil suit. Many credit her appeal to the APA community for bringing forth seniors and immigrants - who could identify with her - into the movement.

After an FBI investigation that was ordered by the Department of Justice gathered sufficient evidence, federal charges were filed and a federal grand jury indicted the men in November 1983 on two counts: one for the violation of civil rights, the other for conspiracy.

In June 1984, Ebens was found guilty only on the first count and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He also was told to undergo treatment for alcoholism, but was freed after posting a $20,000 bond. Nitz was cleared of both charges.

But in September 1986, Ebens' conviction was overturned on a legal technicality; one of the lawyers for ACJ had been accused of improperly coaching the prosecution's witnesses.

The Justice Department ordered a new trial in April 1987, but this time in a new venue: Cincinnati. But while the change in venue was meant to increase the chances of a fair trial, in some important ways it made that almost impossible.

Cincinnati was, in the early '80s, a city that had had little exposure to Asian Pacific Americans. Out of 200 prospective jurors interviewed, only 19 said that they had ever encountered an Asian American. They were quickly dismissed.

According to Zia, the actual jury had little if any understanding of the hostility people in Detroit harbored against Japanese cars and Japanese-looking people. The nation's trade imbalance with Japan had been blamed for the closing of or cutbacks at many auto plants in Detroit.

"The whole mood was total anti-Japanese," Zia said about Detroit, where she lived when Chin was killed. "People who had Japanese cars were getting their cars shot at, and it didn't matter if they were white. And then if you were Asian, it was assumed that you were Japanese just like Vincent and there was personal hostility toward us.

"So, when Vincent was killed it was a confirmation to all Asian Americans there in Detroit, the antagonism that we were feeling. I felt totally like a moving target."

In May 1987, the jury of 10 whites and two African Americans acquitted Ebens of all charges. He never served a jail term for his crime.

The whole experience had taken its toll on Lily Chin. Disheartened, she left the U.S. and returned to her native village in the Guangzhou province in China.

Later in 1987, a civil suit ordered Ebens to pay $1.5 million to Chin's estate. But shortly before the verdict, Ebens had disposed of his assets and fled. He has been evading officials for the past 10 years.

The manner in which the case was prosecuted still bothers many who were involved with it. "One of the things that we realized was that had we had an experienced civil-rights attorney working on the case throughout the case, the result could have been different," Kwoh said of the three trials. "It's kind of a haunting notion. But no one knows for sure. ... I have a suspicion that we didn't do a good enough job as we could have had we had people experienced with civil rights."

Today, things are different, said Roland Hwang, current board member and former president of ACJ. Now the APA community has national lobbying organizations based in Washington, D.C., and several agencies throughout the country that investigate and follow hate crimes against APAs locally.

"Asians and Asian Americans have always been subject to hate crimes, going back to the lynchings in the 1870s and Chinese being run out of towns in the West, the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act [of 1882], and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II," said Hwang, an attorney for the state of Michigan. "The progress has been in organizing and networking. The incidents still occur."

In fact, the number of hate crimes against APAs is on a steady rise, with violent hate crimes against APAs up 11 percent in 1995 compared with the 1994 rate, according to the 1995 Audit of Violence Against Asian Pacific Americans compiled by the Washington-based National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC). The most recent report from the consortium, which is scheduled to be released within the next few months, showed a similar rise in overall hate crimes in 1996.

Cases that are currently on the radar screens of national APA advocacy groups include the recent assault on a group of APA students outside of a Denny's restaurant in Syracuse, N.Y.; the fatal shooting of a Chinese American man in Rohnert Park, Calif., by a police officer; and the stabbing death of a Vietnamese American man in Los Angeles.

"Now, anytime an Asian American is killed under suspicious circumstances that possibly involve race, Asian American groups are there - immediately investigating the case, alerting the police department to be sensitive to race, the district attorney, politicians," said Renee Tajima-Peņa, a filmmaker who produced the documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, which chronicled the Chin story and its legal battles and included interviews with witnesses of the beating. "That didn't happen when Vincent Chin was killed. The prosecutor didn't show up for the sentence hearing, there was no translator for Lily Chin, and no advocacy groups were present. People were caught off guard.

"Now there are national lobbying groups in Washington and people on the Internet, and there is this consciousness now that Asian Americans are a distinct race and have been victims of racist violence. That consciousness didn't necessarily exist 15 years ago."

The case helped spawn a number of APA organizations devoted to tracking and investigating hate crimes, including ACJ, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence in New York, the National Network Against Anti-Asian Violence in Washington, Asian Americans United in Philadelphia, and Break the Silence Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence in San Francisco.

Although these groups have been effective in dealing with hate crimes on a local level, Zia said that Asian Americans still lack a national organization of the stature of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the Anti-Defamation League.

"That is the one piece of unfinished business," Zia said of the need for a strong national APA organization that deals with hate crimes. "Otherwise we are reinventing the wheel in different regions where hate crimes occur. So in Rohnert Park, Coral Gables, Florida, and Syracuse, we have to start all over again.

"They just end up being local cases and there is no national group to call a press conference to say that we see the incidents as part of a chain of events and that we won't stand for it. We don't have a vehicle to say that. And I think it is very much needed."

Nonetheless, in recent years a whole generation of APA civil-rights lawyers whose inspiration was the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the Chin case have come of age.

For Karen Narasaki, who was in law school when Chin was killed, the case helped her decide to use her law degree to fight for civil rights.

"It was such a powerful story that brought home how fragile our existence here as Asian Americans is and the need to be vigilant," said Narasaki, executive director of NAPALC. "I know that the incident shaped a lot of people who are currently involved in civil rights, including myself."

Liz Ouyang, a staff attorney at the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who was also inspired by the incident to work in the civil- rights field, felt a personal connection to the Chin case.

"When I heard about Vincent Chin, it made me think of my brothers," said Ouyang, who was a senior at the University of Michigan in 1982.

Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Ouyang recalls the neighborhood bully taunting her brothers with racial slurs. One day the bully attacked one of her brothers, tying a lasso around his neck and dragging him down the street when he tried to flee.

When the Chin case drummed up memories of what happened to her brother, Ouyang knew what she had to do.

"The legacy of Vincent Chin has left very deep impressions on my work today," she said. "It clearly has influenced me in what I am doing today, representing victims of anti-Asian violence and police brutality. And I tell my clients, 'I will represent you like you were my brother,' because, in a way, they are."

Despite the gains made since Chin's killing, Asian American studies professor Wei warned that the lessons learned from the Chin case must not be forgotten, that the community must continue to remind and teach future generations about Vincent Chin because it is such a significant milestone in the APA community's quest for political empowerment, racial equality, and social justice. It gave the struggle context, a face.

"It was an important event, but I do worry about whether in the passage of time it will become abstract for succeeding generations," Wei said. "For our generation, it was a real event. At some point it becomes history. It's not as real. It's no longer today's news, it becomes a historical footnote."

The Trials of Vincent Chin

June 19, 1982 - Vincent Chin attends his bachelor party at Fancy Pants, a strip club in suburban Detroit. Autoworkers Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, enter the bar. Ebens taunts Chin, who he mistakenly thinks is Japanese and blames for the ailing U.S. auto industry. A fight ensues. After the fight is broken up, Chin leaves the club. Twenty minutes later, Ebens and Nitz find Chin in front of a McDonald's. Ebens knocks Chin down and beats him with a baseball bat.

June 23, 1982 - Vincent Chin dies as a result of his injuries.

March 16, 1983 - Wayne County Judge Charles Kaufman finds Ebens and Nitz guilty of manslaughter after a plea bargain and sentences each of them to three years probation, a $3,000 fine, and $780 in court fees. The prosecuting attorney is not present and neither Chin's mother nor any witnesses is called to testify.

November 1983 - The U.S. Justice Department, following an FBI investigation, files charges and a federal grand jury indicts Ebens and Nitz on two counts - one for violating Chin's civil rights, the other for conspiracy.

June 1984 - Ebens is found guilty of violating Chin's civil rights but not of conspiracy. He is sentenced to 25 years in prison, but is released on a $20,000 bond. Nitz is cleared of both charges.

September 1986 - Ebens' conviction is overturned by a federal appeals court on a legal technicality; an American Citizens for Justice attorney is accused of improperly coaching prosecution witnesses.

April 1987 - Under intense public pressure, the Justice Department orders a retrial, but this time in a new venue: Cincinnati.

May 1987 - The Cincinnati jury clears Ebens of all charges.

July 1987 - A civil suit orders Ebens to pay $1.5 million to Chin's estate as part of a court-approved settlement. However, Ebens disposes of his assets and flees the state. He has not paid any of the settlement.

September 1987 - Disgusted with the country's legal system, Lily Chin, Vincent Chin's mother, leaves the U.S. and moves back to her native village in Guangzhou province in China.

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