On June 19, 1982 in Detroit, Ronald Ebens, an autoworker, beat Chinese-American engineer Vincent Chin with a baseball bat.
The soon-to-be-married Chin was at the Fancy Pants strip club celebrating his bachelor party when he got in a heated argument with Chrysler plant supervisor Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz. Chin’s friends testified that Ebens egged Chin on with their racial remarks, mistaking Chin as Japanese. And then when Chin got into a shoving match, Ebens threw a chair at him but struck Nitz instead. All parties were asked to leave the club, which should have been the end of the incident.
Chin went with his friends to a nearby McDonalds. Ebens went to his car to retrieve a baseball bat. Ebens claims that his anger got the best of him and he drove with Nitz to find Chin. They searched the neighborhood for 20 to 30 minutes and even paid another man 20 dollars to help look for him. When they arrived at McDonalds to confront him, Nitz shoved Chin to the ground and then held him by the shoulders while Ebens swung the baseball bat, cracking his head. Chin died on June 23, 1982– four days before his wedding.
His death alone is not the reason why I still remember Vincent Chin. His killers, Ebens and Nitz, were convicted in a county court for manslaughter, after a plea bargain brought the charges down from second-degree murder.
They served no jail time, were given three years probation, fined $3,000 and ordered to pay $780 in court costs because, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail… You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal,” according to Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman.
Supporters of Ebens and Nitz would argue that this was just a bar brawl gone wrong. The Asian American community knew otherwise. The unemployment rate in the early 1980’s was at its highest since World War II, with “Japan Inc.” threatening to upset Detroit manufacturing. Imported cars were a hated symbol of foreign encroachment. Witnesses said that Ebens and Nitz used racial terms including “chink,” “jap” and “nip.” The crucial line, above all, was “it’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work.”
The killing catalyzed political activity among Asian-Americans. “Remember Vincent Chin” became a rallying cry and brought together Asian-Americans of every background in protests across the country. For all that Asians had been through — racial exclusion, the ban on Chinese migrant labor in 1882; the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II; the legacy of America’s wars in the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam — no single episode involving an individual Asian-American had ever touched the hearts of so many different Asian ethnicities.
I first learned about Vincent Chin during my sophomore year of college. Professor Sumi Cho was teaching my Introduction to Asian American Studies class- a course which I had taken out of sheer curiosity, but eventually inspired me to minor in AAS. In one of the very first classes, she showed our class the film, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”
I remember being fascinated by the interviews conducted with Ebens, who despite manslaughter as well as civil rights charges, never served prison time for a murder he freely admits to committing and regretting. I will never forget Vincent Chin, or the stir in my heart and call to activism that I had never felt before as an Asian American. Instead of being ashamed for my heritage or foreign appearance, I felt pride in the amazing civil rights work by fellow APA’s, including my hero Helen Zia. Anyone who would tell me that because it happened so many years ago, it has lost its significance needs only to look at events as recent as the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. Even decades later, chants of No Justice, No Peace bring chills to my spine.
Despite this blog’s sea of posts about fashion or lipgloss, I am bittersweetly grateful as June 19th approaches each year because it reminds me of the things I truly value and a time when I was brave enough to stand up for them. Rest in Peace, Vincent Chin. Thanks to you and all of the APA activists who fought for justice — you’ve made me proud as hell to be Asian American.