On June 19, 1982, an American Chinese man named Vincent Chin went with friends to a strip club in Detroit to celebrate his upcoming marriage. That night, two white men who apparently thought Chin was Japanese beat him to death. At the killers’ trial, the men were each fined $ 3,000 and no prison terms. The light sentence sparked national outrage and fueled a pan-Asian American rights movement.
Chin was born in the Chinese province of Guangdong and raised in Detroit with his Chinese American adoptive parents. In the summer of 1982, he was 27 years old and working in computer graphics, and his hometown – formerly known as an auto manufacturing capital – was in decline. Many American auto workers blamed the Japanese automakers for the drop.
In the evening Chin went out with his friends, Chrysler foreman, Ronald Ebens, 43, and his 22-year-old stepson, Michael Nitz, who lost his job at Chrysler were also at the club. Reportedly, a dispute arose between groups of men over a male stripper. A club dancer later remembered that Ebens had shouted at Chin, “It’s because of you, shit, that we’re out of work.”
After the fight moved outside, Ebens grabbed a baseball bat from his car and began chasing Chin, who fled. Ebens and Nitz then drove for about 20 minutes in search of Chin. When they found him, Nitz held Chin while Ebens beat him to death with the baseball bat. Chin died in hospital four days later from his injuries.
Light sentence triggers outrage
Although the murder did not make the headlines in the national newspapers that summer, it deeply affected Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans in Detroit. Curtis Chin, producer of the 2009 documentary, Vincent Who ?: The murder of a Chinese-American man, was 12 years old at the time. He describes Vincent Chin as a family friend and says that some of his relatives were at Vincent Chin’s wedding.
“It only became a big story after the judgment,” he said, referring to the trial of Ebens and Nitz several months later. “It was a local story before. And obviously, within the Sino-American community and the Asian-American community, it was already a great story … People were very worried, very scared. If it could happen to Chin, it could happen to anyone of Asian descent.
On March 16, 1983, Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman ruled that the murder was the result of a bar fight and found Ebens and Nitz guilty of manslaughter. They were each fined $ 3,000, $ 780 in legal costs and three years of probation. Neither was sentenced to prison.
“These are not the kind of men you send to prison,” said Kaufman in defense of sentencing. “We are talking about a man who has been in responsible employment for 17 or 18 years, and his son is employed and studying part-time. You don’t adapt the punishment to the crime, you adapt the punishment to the criminal. “
Kin Yee, president of the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council, argued that the sentences amounted to “a license to kill for $ 3,000, provided that you have a stable job or that you are a student and that the victim is Chinese”.
Activists fight over federal civil rights case
Unlike Chin’s murder, the sentences of Ebens and Nitz made national headlines, triggering protests across the country. Although there were cases of Pan-Asian American activism before Vincent Chin, his assassination marked a turning point for Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and other communities who had not previously considered “Asian Americans” with common interests.
“People knew from personal experience that we were grouped together [by non-Asian Americans], “says Helen Zia, a Chinese-American journalist who participated in civil rights activism in Detroit after the murder trial for Chin. “But in terms of identifying as Pan Asian, the key thing was that a man was killed because [his murderers thought] he looked like a different ethnicity. Not only that, “his murderers were released on probation – in other words, without a scot.”
“It really galvanized the anger,” says Christine Choy, film professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and co-director of Who killed Vincent Chin? And since the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 lifted long-standing restrictions on Asian immigration in 1983, there was now a larger population of people who could identify with the new Pan American community and protest violations of their civil rights.
Two weeks after the sentencing of Ebens and Nitz, Zia and other activists in Detroit formed a Pan-Asian civil rights organization called American Citizens for Justice, or ACJ. Over the next few months, ACJ and other groups across the country have protested the conviction and have asked the United States Department of Justice to investigate the murder of Vincent Chin as a civil rights violation – this that he has done.
“It was the first time that Asian Americans were protected in a federal lawsuit for civil rights,” said Renee Tajima-Peña, professor of American-Asian studies at UCLA and co-director of Who killed Vincent Chin? “Before that, Asian Americans were considered not to be a protected class.”
In 1984, the United States District Court sentenced Ebens to 25 years in prison for violating Chin’s civil rights. Ebens appealed and received a new trial which cleared him of all charges in 1987. Also in 1987, Ebens and Nitz settled a civil action out of court. Nitz was ordered to pay $ 50,000 to the Chin estate over the next 10 years, which he did. Ebens was ordered to pay $ 1.5 million, which has risen to approximately $ 8 million because he has remained unpaid and has accumulated interest for decades.