Vincent Chin's murder, 35 years later
Source: Who Killed Vincent Chin?
Vincent Chin is getting married in nine days.
A 27 year old Chinese immigrant, Chin works at an automotive supplier in Detroit. Anxious to kick off his bachelor party, Chin meets up with Robert Sirosky, Gary Koivu and Jimmy Choi at a strip club, the Fancy Pants Lounge. He and his friends are enjoying their night, tipping the dancers and taking turns swigging two bottles of vodka.
From across the bar, two white men scream “Chink!” and “Nip!” at the group. The two men are Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, now three years out of work after a layoff from Chrysler. They slur insults about Japanese car imports to the group of Chinese men when Ebens says, “It’s because of you little mother fuckers that we’re out of work.”
Chin gets out of his seat and walks toward Ebens. The doorman and the parking attendant break up the ensuing fight, so Chin tells Ebens and Nitz to meet him outside. Ebens takes out a baseball bat from Nitz’s hatchback. Chin runs, and Ebens and Nitz pursue, throwing a glass bottle at Choi and chasing off Koivu and Sirosky. Choi manages to find Chin, and they hide behind Choi’s pickup truck near a local McDonald’s.
Meanwhile, Eben and Nitz pay a man $20 to help catch a “Chinese guy” so they can “bust his head.” And when they find Chin, Nitz holds him while Ebens beats Chin unconscious with a baseball bat.
Four days later, the Chin family removes a ventilator keeping Vincent Chin breathing at Henry Ford Hospital, and he dies five days before he is supposed to marry Vikki Wong. It is June 23, 1982.
Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz are convicted, but a retrial clears them of all charges. They never go to prison, and never pay a settlement to the estate of Vincent Chin.
Photo: Marcela McGreal
Vincent Chin's murder inspires activism
Vincent Chin’s murder could have easily been swept away in the news cycle. The early 1980s were not good to Detroit, which faced an unemployment rate of 16 percent. And the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press published plenty of news stories about Detroit’s decline due to Japanese automobile success-- the success that led Ebens and Nitz to murder a man they thought represented their difficulties.
But Vincent Chin’s death brought even more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) to the forefront. As the New York Times wrote in 1983:
This led to a rare outcry from Asian-Americans, who charged racial discrimination. The defendants would have gone to jail, they say, if the victim had been white. The sentence, in effect, offers “a license to kill [...] provided you have a steady job or are a student and the victim is Chinese,” said Kin Yee, president of the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council.
Vincent Chin’s murder galvanized Kin Yee and other AAPI activists, who agitated an otherwise superficially simple murder into one that would mobilize the entire AAPI community. Though it only made up 1.5 percent of the population at the time, the AAPI community rallied and marched in cities across America, protesting Vincent Chin’s death and the lenient sentence Ebens and Nitz received.
Organizations like the Bay Area’s Asian Americans for Community Involvement and the Asian Americans Journalists Association not only condemned Chin’s murder, but actively protested against incorrect and unfair media portrayals of the incident.
Other organizations, like the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), became directly involved in Vincent Chin’s case, making Chin the first Asian American victim prosecuted under the federal hate crime law.
Vincent Chin’s legacy in 2017
35 years later, Vincent Chin remains a catalyst for the AAPI community. Disparate Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and so many other communities united as a Pan-Asian civil rights and advocacy movement, partnering even with other non-AAPI groups to create a united front in the fight for civil rights.
It’s hard to overstate how important this united front was in 1982 and still is 35 years later. Instead of siloing themselves, the groups that form what we now call the AAPI community traverse language and cultural barriers, creating intersectional dialogue and coalitions that protest and prevent civil rights violations and hate crimes.
In fact, organizations like the APALC, now the nation’s largest legal and civil rights organization for AAPI, continue to be active today. And even more organizations have sprouted up out of the aftermath of Vincent Chin’s murder. 35 years later, it’s not just legal and community organizations that have emerged for the AAPI community; that same Pan-Asian civil rights movement now enables everything from Pan-Asian magazines to Pan-Asian television shows.
Photo: Corky Lee
The work continues
Still, the work of the APALC and other organizations hasn’t ended. Hate crimes against minority groups continue. In 2016, the New York Times reported that hate crimes against American Muslims are at an all-time high, including those against “Muslim-looking” Asian Americans. This past weekend, 17-year-old Muslim American Nabra Hassanen was chased and abducted near a McDonald’s, murdered by a man with a baseball bat. The local police call it a case of “road rage.”
But unlike with Vincent Chin’s murder 35 years ago, Muslim Americans are hard-pressed to protest. Instead, it’s anti-Muslim marches that happen, and hate crimes that continue to occur-- if they’re even classified as hate crimes in the first place.
For the AAPI community, hate crimes like that of Nabra Hassanen’s murder are a grim reflection of 1982. But they’re also reminders that just as disparate AAPI groups united to protest the murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin, minority groups should unite to protest any unfair or unjust action.
The call has been answered. Always fighting, the APALC released a hate crime tracker this week that will be translated into three Asian languages to assist civilians in identifying and recording hate crimes, regardless of whether law enforcement recognizes them as hate crimes.
And legal organizations like the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association call on lawyers to report hate crimes and to provide pro bono legal services to victims.
Still other organizations, such as the Asian American Federation, provide outreach to the Muslim community, drawing parallels between yellow fever and Islamophobia that encourage AAPI to help a community whose pains mirror those of AAPI in 1982.
How can I help?
Vincent Chin only lived to be 27. But in the 35 years since, the AAPI community, along with its diverse coalitions with other minority groups, has emerged strong. Vincent Chin’s murder inspired a generation of AAPI advocates to fight injustice and inequality in the United States, and the time is ripe to continue his legacy. Keep the fight alive by helping APALC report hate crimes, or calling your representatives to let them know where you stand. Finally, consider donating to the ACLU to help those facing injustice fight battles in court.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1965, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So while the fight for justice and equality may not be over, we’re not letting up yet.
Asakawa, Gil. “Vincent Chin’s Slaying 35 Years Ago Galvanized a Pan-Asian Movement.” AARP, 19 June 2017, blog.aarp.org/2017/06/19/vincent-chins-murder-35-years-ago-galvanized-a-pan-asian-movement. Accessed 21 June 2017.
Cummings, Judith. "Detroit Asian-Americans Protest Lenient Penalties for Murder." The New York Times, 26 Apr. 1983, www.nytimes.com/1983/04/26/us/detroit-asian-americans-protest-lenient-penalties-for-murder.html. Accessed 21 June 2017.
United States, Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. United States v. Ronald Ebens. 11 09 1986. No. 84-1757.