Remembering the Historic Importance of the Vincent Chin Case of 26 Years Ago
By Roland Hwang, American Citizens for Justice, Special to IMDiversity
I never met Vincent Chin before he died on June 23, 1982. But his death was felt by so many of us in the Detroit Asian Pacific American community nonetheless. We felt the outrage when we as concerned citizens met at the Chinatown On Leong Hall to voice our objection to the probation and $3,000 fine sentence given to Vincent’s killers and ultimately form American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) as a coalition group for justice for Vincent.
We also felt the sense of loss of a family member when we held meetings at Vincent’s mother’s — Mrs. Lily Chin’s — house, meeting over her home-cooked meals. Mrs. Chin left America for China after the federal trial and acquittal of Vincent’s killer, Ronald Ebens, of federal civil rights charges in the case in 1987. After that, we felt thankfulness and sorrow at the same time when Mrs. Chin brought back to us her self-knit blankets for our kids, and sweaters for us adult activists, all knit during her time spent in China.
It is a different perspective, however, for remembering this anti-Asian baseball bat beating death case that lead to the formation of a pan-Asian civil rights group in Detroit, ACJ, that runs the Asian American Center for Justice. The case became a defining moment for civil rights advocacy in Asian Pacific American communities from coast to coast. To this day, many in the Asian American community believe that there was a civil rights violation, as exemplified by thirteen commemorations about the case held last year for the 25th anniversary of the case.
Here are the facts. Michigan and its automotive industry were in a severe downturn in 1982. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were involved in an altercation at the Fancy Pants in Highland Park on June 19, 1982. Vincent Chin was with three of his friends at his bachelor party. He was celebrating his upcoming wedding.
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 State Case
The first case was the state criminal case, State v Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz. In that case, the second degree criminal case was pled down to manslaughter. Ebens plead guilty and Nitz plead no contest to the reduced charge of manslaughter. Sentencing was before Chief Judge Charles Kaufman.
At the time, the Wayne County Prosecutors Office did not have a policy of attending the sentencing proceeding. Occurring before the days of victim’s impact statements at sentencing, the victim’s family was not given an opportunity to speak at sentencing. Chief Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced the men to 3 years probation and a fine of $3,000 for killing Chin.
The lenient sentence caused outcry in the Asian American community and gave rise to American Citizens for Justice, an Asian American civil rights organization as part of a larger movement. ACJ held a rally at Kennedy Square and sought reconsideration of the sentence based upon misrepresentations. ACJ retained Thomas Brennan to argue for reconsideration in front of Judge Kaufman and at the Court of Appeals. The Detroit Association of Black Organizations, New Detroit, the Anti-Defamation League, and many other organizations came in support of the case.
As Phil Donahue said on his show on NBC, there were “federal opportunities” to review the case for possible federal civil rights violations. So given the perceived miscarriage of justice at the state level, ACJ examined the possibility of having the Department of Justice bring a federal civil rights suit. ACJ hosted picnics, runs, and a debate between Wayne State Law Professor Robert Sedler and Civil Rights Director of Research Jeffrey Jenks about whether Asian Americans were protected under the federal civil rights laws. The FBI investigated the case and the DOJ decided to press civil rights charges.
The Federal Case
The case was heard by Hon. Anna Diggs Taylor. The jury found Ebens guilty. Ebens was sentenced to 20 years. The jury found Nitz not guilty of any federal civil rights violation, ostensibly because he did not say anything racial.
Question: If a mob kills an individual, but only one person says something racial, is only one person guilty of a civil rights crime?
Defendant Ebens decided to appeal to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, after a change of venue to Cincinnati, a Cincinnati jury found Ebens not guilty of depriving Vincent Chin of his civil rights.
A Movement Looking to the Future
ACJ believes that we — all of us in the APA community — should be exploring ways to reach younger APAs about the continuing relevance of the Vincent Chin case to today’s race relations environment, and to continue the work of the Justice 2007 Committee that undertook Vincent Chin remembrance events in cities from coast-to-coast last year.
ACJ is seeking its own revival with the addition of new board members and initiatives, and is encouraging remembrance and action by others.
How can you help?
Just to start, you can reflect on the Vincent Chin case — its legacy, its relevance to today’s civil rights climate. In the broader view, the Vincent Chin case continues to be relevant as many of the economic factors and conditions of 1982 exist today as America competes in a globalized economy. A discourse on the case can lead to a wider public discourse and an examination among APA brothers and sisters about the condition of APA civil rights.
Are we better off in terms of understanding race relations and achieving tolerance than the time of Vincent Chin death 26 years ago?
If you struggle with the answer to that question, or if you are unfamiliar with the case’s background, issues and historic importance to the Asian American movement, take the opportunity to see the movie “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” by Renee Tajima Pena and Christine Choy, and the upcoming film “Vincent Who?” by Tony Lam — coming to a venue near you this year.
Up to Us
Mrs. Chin passed away in 2002. She died without ever realizing justice for her son. Memories linger of those meetings and of her kindness to us activists in the midst of her dedication to her son’s case. In many ways, it is up to us to carry on remembrance of the case, because the work, by way of race relations education, and advocacy for the Asian Pacific American community is not yet done.
Other Readings of Interest from the Asian-American Village Archives
Roland Hwang is President of American Citizens Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the Asian Pacific American communities of Metro Detroit, Michigan, and the Midwest, and to fighting for the civil rights of all Americans. Mr. Hwang is an attorney with the State of Michigan, is active in the Michigan Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and has mentored APIA activists and professionals in a wide range of community endeavors. He teaches Asian Pacific American History and the Law as an adjunct instructor at the University of Michigan. Images of Vincent Chin here and on the homepage are used courtesy and with permission of the Vincent Chin estate.