June 7, 2010
Twenty eight years ago this month a hate crime galvanized the Asian American community. The killing of Vincent Chin and the subsequent trial of his killers heightened the awareness of discrimination and racism directed toward the Asian Pacific community. Chinese American Vincent Chin was having his bachelor party in a Detroit bar. Thinking he was Japanese two white who had recently been laid from Chrysler started a fight and beat Chinese several time with a bat leaving him brain dead. He died four days later. The judged fined the defendants $3,000 and ordered them to pay $780 in court fees.
At the time–and not unlike today–Michigan and its automotive industry were in a severe downturn. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were involved in an altercation at the Fancy Pants in Highland Park where Vincent Chin was with three of his friends celebrating his bachelor party. During the altercation, Ebens reportedly said “because of you m—– f——, we’re out of work.” After both Ebens and Nitz, and Chin and his friends were bounced out of the Fancy Pants, Ebens and Nitz pursued Vincent Chin and his friend Jimmy Choi. They enlisted Jimmy Perry to find the “Chinese guys,” and caught up to Vincent on Woodward Avenue in front of McDonald’s Restaurant. While Nitz held Chin, Ebens beat Chin with a baseball bat. Two off-duty Highland Park Police officers saw the beating. Vincent Chin died on June 23, 1982 when he was disconnected from life support.
The Michigan Judge didn’t place much value on an Asian man’s life. The ruling seemed a throwback when Chinese, like Blacks and Indians, were not allowed to testify against whites in court. The case became a rallying point for the Detroit community, Journalist Helen Zia and lawyer Lisa Cheuk May Chin led the fight for federal Civil Rights charges. Only one of the accused was convicted and his charges were later overturned on appeal. However, a civil suit was brought on behalf of Chin’s mother awarding her a $1.5 million judgment which she has since had difficulty enforcing.
The case became a defining moment for civil rights advocacy in Asian Pacific American communities from coast to coast and helped spawn a number of Asian Pacific American organizations devoted to tracking and investigating hate crimes, including Asian American Citizens for Justice, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence in New York, the national Network Silence Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence in San Francisco.
During times of economic distress immigrants often become targets of a few of the irrational majority. Today it’s common to read about hate crimes committed against minorities and Latino immigrants in particular. Vincent Chin should not be remembered just by the Asian community, but by all Americans. Vincent Chin’s death is a call to support all local and federal hate crimes legislation.