Friday, June 19, 2015

33 years ago

Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American raised in Metro Detroit. A week before his wedding, June 19, 1982, he went to the Fancy Pants strip club in Highland Park with a few buddies for his bachelor’s party. There, they encountered two autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, who, like many at the time, blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s troubles. At the time, the American auto industry was in a crushing recession and much of the hostility was directed at Japan. Mistaking Chin for a Japanese American, two white autoworkers began to harass Vincent with racial epithets and a fight broke out. Even though Chin was not Japanese and worked in the auto industry himself as a draftsman, Ebens was heard saying, “It’s because of you little m—f—s that we’re out of work,” as well as other anti-Asian racial epithets.

The men were thrown out of the bar, and the fight continued in the parking lot and into the night. Ebens and Nitz searched for Chin and his friends, and upon finding them after a half hour pursuit, Nitz held Chin in a bear hug while Ebens struck Chin’s head four times with a baseball bat, cracking his skull.

Vincent Chin died four days later on June 23, 1982. His wedding guests attended his funeral instead.

On March 18, 1983, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz pleaded guilty to killing Vincent Chin. Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced them to 3 years probation and fined them $3,780. Explaining the light sentence, Judge Kaufman stated, "These aren't the kind of men you send to jail . You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime."

Neither man spent a single day in jail for beating Vincent Chin to death.

The brutal murder and light sentence outraged the Asian American community. In Detroit on March 31, 1983, Asian Americans founded the American Citizens for Justice to lobby for a federal trial for Chin's murderers. The campaign was spearheaded by journalist Helen Zia, lawyer Liza Chan, and Lily Chin - Vincent Chin's mother. Rallies in Detroit, San Francisco, and Los Angeles awakened sleeping Asian American communities and attracted national media attention.

The national API mobilization succeeded in winning a federal trial. On June 5, 1984, federal prosecutors charged Ebens and Nitz with violating Vincent Chin's civil rights. After 23 days of deliberation, a Detroit federal jury acquitted Nitz but found Ebens guilty of violating Chin's civil rights. At last, after 2 years of struggle, justice came for Vincent Chin.

Defense lawyers won a federal retrial for Ebens and Nitz in Cincinnati. On May 1, 1987, the jury acquitted Ebens and Nitz of violating Vincent Chin's civil rights. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz never spent a full day in jail for the murder of Vincent Chin. Crushed by the failure of the justice system, Lily Chin left America and returned to China.

Although the movement for a federal trial did not gain justice for Vincent Chin, it was far from a failure. The movement gave a resonant political voice to previously silent Asian American communities across the nation. The murder of Vincent Chin was the seminal event that sparked the Asian American civil rights movement. In his death, Vincent Chin was immortalized as a symbol of the Asian American struggle for acceptance.

Significance of Vincent Chin case today:
Asian Pacific American coalitions critical
Multiracial coalitions critical
APA Victims and Civil Rights movements started
Families can now testify during sentencing
Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines
Danger of changing venues understood
Hate crimes prosecuted at federal level
Education and awareness beforehand key
American Citizens for Justice formed 1983

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