Part II: The Long Arm of Asian American Activism, The Seeds That Were Sown by Vincent Chin Inspired Activists and The Why

By Susan Park

Anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise and hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased since Trump took office. Anti-Japanese sentiment was peaking on the night Vincent Chin was murdered. Anti-Japanese sentiment was stoked by the American government, the big three American automakers, and YT-Stream media.

On June 23, 1982, when 27 year old Vincent Chin was murdered while celebrating his upcoming nuptials with a bachelor party at a strip club in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. He died four days after he was bludgeoned by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz. He died four days before his wedding date. He was buried on the day he was to be married.

Witnesses claim Ebens, who was jealous of the attention Chin was getting from dancers said, “Don’t pay any attention to those little fuckers, they wouldn’t know a good dancer if they’d seen one” and called Chin a “Chink”, “Nip”, and a “fucker”. Then said, “It’s because of you motherfuckers that we’re out of work”. A white man felt sexually and otherwise impotent. Chin clapped back. Ebens and Nitz were left sprawling on the floor. How dare a Chinaman fight back? A fight ensued. Anti-Japanese sentiment was smoldering and festering in America because American automakers where making bad business decisions, while scapegoating Japanese automakers and by extension Japanese Americans. Yellow Peril abroad means Yellow Peril at home in America for Asian Americans. It’s an American tradition.

Ebens and Nitz

Ebens was not out of work. He still had his job as a supervisor at a Chrysler plant. At the time, Asian Americans made up much of the engineering workforce at the big three American auto manufacturers. Ebens was losing status as a white man in his life and on that night. After Ebens and Nitz were thrown out of the club, they went hunting for Chin and his friends with a baseball bat. They looked for them for a full 20-30 minutes, enough time to cool down and also enough time to meditate on murder. They found Chin and his friends outside a crowded McDonald’s and snuck up on them. Violence ran in the family as Nitz held Chin for his stepfather, Ebens, to repeatedly bludgeon Chin’s head with a baseball bat like he was “hitting a homerun every time,” said one of the two off duty policemen working as security guards who witnessed the murder.

This was a moment of reckoning for East Asian American Activism. Ebens and Nitz killed Chin because they thought he was Japanese. Chin was Chinese. Chin looks like one of my cousins in that photo. I’m Korean. I was 12 years old at the time and Vincent Chin’s murder galvanized my Asian American political identity. I understood that Asian Americans shared the same otherness. Our commonality was a negative space. A critical mass of East Asians mobilized as Asian Americans, rather than being divided by national origin and old regional gripes. We refused to be divided and conquered by America’s racial hierarchies.

This article is from 1987. The media’s complicity in gaslighting was outrageous.

“Defense lawyer Frank Eaman said in his opening statement that the defense would show that the killing did not happen because of Chin’s race and that ″statements about race in this case have been made up.″

Earlier, federal prosecutor Floyd Clardy said Chin was brutally beaten with a baseball bat ″because he was a Chinese-American and enjoying entertainment in a public bar.″

Asian-Americans are monitoring Ebens’ trial and cite the case as an indicator of whether discrimination against Orientals will be tolerated in this country.”

Asian Americans make the case for Vincent Chin again and again to say that we will not tolerate your intolerance. Please note that the article above from 1987 is heavily sprinkled with the word “Oriental”.

While systemic racism may not hurt East Asian Americans as much as other POC, we are not seen as fully human as whites either. In other words, white supremacists are not actively, for the most part, enacting laws to harm East Asians like they do Black Americans. However, institutionalized racism lets Asian Americans slip through the cracks of justice. A couple of decades of the Model Minority Myth only obfuscated this fact even more and still does. Ebens and Nitz never denied their actions. Their primary defense was that their actions were not about race. Why does this matter? So what if it’s not about race? He still murdered Vincent Chin. It was a retrograde effort to deny Chin full rights as a human being by denying that Civil Rights applied to Asian Americans.

The injustices kept mounting. Nobody helped Chin in that crowded McDonald’s, not even the two police officers who were there and were eyewitnesses. The state criminal hearings were a farce as the court argued about Civil Rights violations, rather than an act of murder. An Asian American person’s life was deemed worth a few thousand dollars and no jail time for two cold blooded killers. The following federal civil rights suit ended in an acquittal for Nitz and later, a successful appeal by Ebens against a guilty verdict overturned a 25 year prison sentence. Ebens has never spent time in jail for cracking open Chin’s skull with a baseball bat. A civil suit for unlawful death was filed by Chin’s estate, which resulted in a $1.5 million dollar settlement for Chin’s estate. An amount that was supposed to represent projected lost income from Chin’s job as an engineer.

While the American legal system did not break Ebens, Chin’s estate and the long arm of Asian American activism have hammered and chipped away at Ebens for 37 years. In 2015, Ebens sought to remove a court lien on his modest house. Chin’s estate challenged the lien and won. Ebens’ attorney, Kenneth Roberts said, “We were surprised”. Ebens’ house is worth about $150,000. The $1.5 million dollar settlement has swelled to over $8 million. Geraldine Tomich, attorney for Chin’s estate told NBC News, “We don’t have an exact figure. Every day is a ticking meter.” The value of an Asian American life is no longer quantifiable. The unpaid settlement accrues interest and fees at a daily rate.

A ticking meter, a dark cloud has hung over Ebens ever since that summer night in June, 1982. He apologized in 2012 with a very selective memory. He’s sorry but doesn’t quite remember. Ebens knows he killed Vincent Chin, he just doesn’t remember how. He claimed he’s not sure if he held the bat. Thirty years later, Ebens is still trying to get off on technicalities. The long arm of Asian American justice will never let Ebens conveniently edit his narratives. Chin will never be forgotten in a narrative of convenience.

The long arms of Asian American justice turn slowly, but they grind exceedingly small. Though with patience we stand waiting, through patience we grind all. We will not rest until Ebens’ name is ash. We can never write too many commemorations to Vincent Chin.

Lily Chin, Vincent’s mom, said to Stewart Kwoh, ‘Stewart, there’s nothing I can do to bring back Vincent, but I don’t want any other mother to go through what I’ve gone through,’’’ he recalled. “I was so touched about what she said. Vincent was her only child. He was all she had.”

Over the years, three documentaries were made about Chin including the Academy Award winning, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”; a dozen or so popular culture references; and at least a few commemorative articles are published every year since Chin’s murder. Chin became a “Never forget. Never again,” rallying cry for a generation of Asian American activists and attorneys. Speaking and writing about Vincent Chin are acts of collective memory for Asian American Activists and a platform to monitor anti Asian sentiment in America and hate crimes against Asian Americans. We are monitoring America’s pulse on hate.

Kwoh, the executive director of APALC, “It was May 1983. Stewart Kwoh, who had just co-founded the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), was reading the Los Angeles Times when he came across an article about the state court sentencing in the Vincent Chin case. I had never heard about the June 1982 murder of Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American man in Detroit by two white auto-workers Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz – who thought Chin was Japanese.  During that time, many Americans blamed the Japanese for the ailing U.S. auto industry.

“I was outraged the killers only got probation and a fine,’’ he said.

He picked up the phone and called the attorneys listed in the article. He told them of his civil rights background and offered his help.

Kwoh flew to Detroit, and APALC became involved in the case.  Kwoh suggested to the team of attorneys that they focus their efforts on getting the U.S. Department of Justice to bring a civil rights prosecution on hate crime charges.

 APALC was the only out-of-state co-counsel to the Detroit-based organization American Citizens for Justice (ACJ). Both organizations co-wrote an investigative report aimed at calling federal authorities’ attention to the crime.

ACJ launched a grassroots campaign to pressure the government to file charges. Vincent’s mother, Mrs. Lily Chin, traveled across the country, advocating for justice for her son. In the summer of 1984, she came to Los Angeles. While speaking in a crowded Chinatown restaurant, Mrs. Chin fainted. Kwoh and others helped her to her feet.”

Vincent Chin’s re-enactment trials at Harvard. Chin’s trials have become models for Asian American attorneys to seal the cracks in America’s justice system that allowed for Chin to fall through the cracks.


Full reenactment transcript of Vincent Chin’s trial from The Asian American Bar Association of New York

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