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On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin was at his bachelor party at Fancy Pants, a strip club in suburban Detroit. Two white out-of-work autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, began trading insults at Chin from across the bar. “It’s because of you little *expletive deleted* that we’re out of work,” witnesses say Ebens yelled at Chin.
At the time, anti-Japanese sentiment was high. Many blamed the decline of the U.S. auto industry on Japan – I remember the pressure to buy products with a “Made in America” sticker or patch on them, even though I was just a boy. Vincent Chin, a 27 year old Chinese American draftsman, was not Japanese, and had nothing to do with the auto industry.
After the altercation, Chin and his friends parted ways, but Ebens and Nitz weren’t done. They went looking for Chin, reportedly paying a friend $20 to help look for him. They found him at a McDonalds, dragged him outside, and one of them held Chin down while the other brutally beat him with a baseball bat. Four days later, Chin died – five days before his wedding.
Both Ebens and Nitz got three years’ probation, a $3,000 fine, and $780 in court costs. To this day, neither of them have spent a day in jail.
I will repeat that: Ebens and Nitz sought out an unarmed man, held him down, and beat him to death in front of witnesses, and to this day they haven’t spent a single day in jail.
How does one make sense of that. In a few days, it will be the 30 year anniversary of his murder, and still, thinking about Vincent Chin is like ripping open an old, raw wound. Even after years of struggling for change, of witnessing terrible injustice after injustice, of trying to educate yourself about institutional racism, how do you make sense of this.
How do you reason with people who *still* don’t think racism exists.
Sure, there have been many much less visible incidents of horrific racist violence against Asians before Chin. And unfortunately, many after him. That just makes it worse. It is a reminder to all of us, that our lives simply aren’t worth as much as a white person’s.
The race of the perpetrator is important, absolutely. But so is the race of the victim. Statistics show that in the U.S., if the victim of a crime is white, the perpetrator is far more likely to endure harsher punishments, including the death penalty, than if the victim is a person of color or Native American.
But still, even armed with this disappointing knowledge: no jail time served for the brutal murder of an Asian American man.
I’m not even a vindictive person. Punishing Ebens and Nitz won’t bring Chin back. Nor will it even the scales for all of the people of color who have suffered from the racism in our legal and penal system.
You can talk about how this all started at a strip club, and how we should be critical of all men and their patronage of such places. Just as long as you ask yourself, do all men regardless of their race fear death by baseball bat by going to a strip club. Is that a reason to murder anyone.
The fact that he was Chinese American and had nothing to do with the auto industry – it still would have been horrible if he had been Japanese and worked for Honda.
And still – Fong Lee was killed in 2006, in a case that is highly suspect, by a police officer with a history of violence both while on duty and at home in his personal life – he was given a Medal of Valor for shooting and killing Lee, a teenager.
Lili Wang was murdered in 2002 by her classmate, Richard Anderson, who had stated he had a “preference” for Asian women. Richard shot and killed Lili, a married woman, after he was allegedly frustrated that she had turned down his advances.
In 1992, 10 years after the murder of Vincent Chin, 16 year-old High School student Yoshi Hattori was looking for a Halloween party with his friend. They knocked on the door of 30 year old Rodney Peairs and his family. No one answered so they began to walk away. Bonnie Peairs, Rodney’s wife, looked out her window, spotted “an Oriental person,” and called out to her husband, “Honey, get your gun.” Rodney Peairs shot Yoshi Hattori point blank in the chest, killing him. His defense was that Yoshi, a Japanese exchange student, had an “extremely unusual manner of moving”, one which any reasonable person would find “scary”.
Peairs has also never spent time in jail for the murder of Yoshi Hattori.
There are also the countless Arab, Muslim, and South Asians who have been harassed, beaten, and murdered, both prior to 9/11 and afterwards, including 78-year-old Gurmej Atwal and 67-year-old Surinder Singh, gunned down and killed while on an afternoon walk in Sacramento.
It’s not just us Asians. 25 year old Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez was brutally beaten and killed by two white teenagers – who were acquitted of all serious charges and face 7 to 23 month sentences. Trayvon Martin, a teenager, was killed by George Zimmerman – it was a long time before Zimmerman saw the inside of a jail cell.
Justice is not even on our side when we act in self defense. CeCe McDonald, a local transgender African American, defended herself when she and her friends were verbally and physically assaulted outside Schooner’s in South Minneapolis. She faces three years in a men’s prison for defending herself.
I’m not saying that I like the prison-industrial complex of this country. However, I do believe it is worthwhile to look at the inequalities. Koua Fong Lee was driving a car that malfunctioned, and another family was killed in the accident. He did not flee the scene – and his own family was in his car – and yet no one believed him when he insisted it was an accident. His own family was in his car – why would he endanger their lives as well? He spent three years in jail before the Toyota recall put his allegations that the brakes malfunctioned into a new light, and he was freed.
Contrast that to Amy Senser, who killed Anousone Phanthavong in a hit-and-run, knocking him nearly 50 feet, fled the scene, and did not turn herself in until days later, after she had consulted her lawyers. She was not jailed during the trial, and though she is convicted of two counts of vehicular homicide, and though there was expert testimony that Phanthavong was flung onto her car and there was no way she could not have known she hit a person, the jury inexplicably sent her a note saying they believed her.
Who you believe says a lot about you.
And the list goes on. John T. Williams. Oscar Grant. Chonburi Xiong. Michael Cho. Cau Thi Bich Tran. Tycel Nelson. And these are just the more well-known names. How many more dozens, or hundreds, of nameless brown people are killed twice: once by murder, and again by a racist judicial system.
30 years later, and we can’t forget Vincent Chin. And we shouldn’t.
There is no way for me to make sense of this case. I try to write intelligently about it, and all I have is unbridled, bottomless anger. I feel provoked, to my core. That one of my earliest memories is that kids were calling me chink and I had to ask my dad what it meant. To have a lifetime of micro-aggressions and not-so-micro aggressions directed at you, stacked on top of people telling you your experience and insisting that racism doesn’t exist towards your people, and to top it all off, that people can murder you in the street in front of McDonalds and get a slap on the wrist for it. And though Vincent Chin’s tragic murder is relatively invisible, it’s horrifying to think his case is actually one of the more visible, known cases of anti-Asian violence. I feel that there is no room for love, or reason, in a world like this. I feel tired, and defeated. Stupid and useless.
Of course, if there is any bright side at all to this, it is that the memory of Chin and the blatant injustice has galvanized many Asian Americans to activism. I asked some respected Asian American activists and community workers to talk about this case for my blog.
I asked them two questions: What do you remember about the first time you heard about Vincent Chin? Why do you think this case is still important, 30 years later? Their answers follow. I thank them for their time, and energy.
I do not remember how or where i first heard about Vincent Chin, the white men who murdered him, and the justice system that supported them to walk free -but it wasn’t until my college years. I do remember feeling awful that so many years of my life had passed before his story made its way to me. This was something i should have learned in elementary school and discussed throughout my adolescence along with Emmett Till’s case.
This case will be forever important and forever relevant. Here I offer questions. What is acceptable for this country to mourn and permissible to bury? What is convenient about the collective unconsciousness surrounding Vincent Chin’s case? Asian Americans are still seen as perpetual foreigners, another axis in how People of Color are racialized. How have devastating instances of brutality and injustice upon Asian Americans been confined? How even our struggles are “outsiders within”? How in celebrating our strength and power we are welcomed?
Eva Song Margolis is a Minneapolis-based activist.
The gruesome Chin murder forced us to ask deeper questions and seek more complicated answers. It is elementary to answer the question “Who Killed Vincent Chin;” Ron Ebens and Mike Nitz killed him. But a more complicated answer is white America’s creation of the “Yellow Peril” stereotype killed Vincent Chin. The anti-Japanese and anti-Asian fervor in the U.S. reached levels not seen since Pearl Harbor. Corporations, elected officials and celebrities alike were drawing comparisons between the sudden rise in Japanese automobiles to the invasion of Pearl Harbor. The Chin case forced us to ask questions about how as a community we interfaced with the state and the courts when our civil rights were violated. Have we successfully and faithfully applied these lessons since his murder?
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, have we failed to ask the deeper and broader questions that the Chin murder case taught us to ask? Where was the massive public outrage over the 1,400+ Arab, Arab Americans, Middle Easterners and other “non-whites” being detained without regard to their civil rights? How critical have we been to the steady flow of legislation being passed in the name of “homeland security” that violates our basic civil rights?
Daren Rikio Mooko is an activist and Associate Dean of Students at Pomona College
The first time I heard about Vincent Chin was in 1995. Ping Chong’s company presented a performance piece that included baseball bats and a dramatization of Vincent Chin’s murder. I was shocked, especially because I grew up in Detroit and knew nothing of the case even though it happened in my own city. Either my parents shielded me from the murder because I was a child or because they didn’t think it was important to share what happened with me. I found out years later that the Asian-American community was gathering in basements right across the street from my elementary school, to discuss what to do…and I never knew it was happening.
The case is still important because these kind of hate crimes still exist today, in our own backyards: in Chicago, in Tulsa, in Minneapolis. Vincent-Chin-violence happens today, yesterday and unfortunately as an Asian-American woman, I know incidents will continue to happen tomorrow. Because we, as Americans, as a global community, are not “post-race” by any means. Understanding racism is a lifelong commitment. Race is not easily understood; the actions of violence that have continued since Vincent Chin’s murder 30 years ago only further amplify the need to address the complexities of race in the United States if we want to evolve as a nation.
Sun Mee Chomet is an actor, playwright and collaborator who lives in the country of St. Paul, Minnesota.
The first time I learned about Vincent Chin to any great extent, was when I first watched the film “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” directed by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena. I had been invited to perform in an Artist Exchange event at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia as part of the 20th Anniversary remembrance events of Vincent Chin’s murder. What I remember most is the interview of Lily Chin, Vincent Chin’s mother, in the film. She recounts the last moment she had spoken to Vincent—had seen him alive—before he went out that night to his bachelor party. She talks about how she was entreating him to stay home because he was getting married the next day. And in both reassuring her and dismissing her, he had responded to her not to worry or to make a big deal out of because it would be “the last time.” And his mother says that she told him, “Don’t say ‘last time’—it’s bad luck,” and as the fatal import of that last exchange with her son comes rushing in on her, and she breaks down at the end of the interview, sobbing uncontrollably. In that moment as I watched this part of the film, I saw my own mother. I could hear my own mother in her story—that could have been my brother. That could have been any Asian/Asian American man. In that moment, Vincent Chin’s murder became personal to me.
I believe the Vincent Chin case is still important because it reminds us that racial violence continues to be perpetrated against members of our community, particularly young Asian American men, as was the case in Fong Lee’s murder in Minneapolis in 2006. It also reminds us that in such cases, we still face a tremendous and disheartening battle in trying to acquire justice. Finally, it demonstrates the urgency for us as a community to develop a consciousness in which Asian/Asian American people believe in true solidarity and coalition. For this belief to be realized, people in our community need to recognize the importance of learning our own history from our own perspective, to be proud of our own culture, and to resist internalizing racist and sexist images of ourselves.
Michelle Myers is spoken word poet, activist, and educator in Philadelphia, PA.
Pan-Asian Voices for Equity, Minnesota (PAVE-MN) are organizing a local community event honoring Vincent Chin. The event includes local artists, activists, and spoken word artists, as well as a live-stream of a national panel of Asian American civil rights leaders. More information here:
Heads up, poetry people. Vietnamese American spoken word artist and friend to the blog Bao Phi has a new book of poems, Sông I Sing, due out this fall. Described as a “rhapsodic exploration of immigration, race and class,” it’s currently available for pre-order from Coffee Hour Press. I’ve been a fan of Bao’s for a long time. I haven’t read the new book yet, but here are some kind words about Bao and the book:
“If you see Bao Phi coming, you better do a gut check, and set your motherboard to receive. Anyone who has been lucky enough to experience his work knows he means to re-adjust our minds, unseat our comfortable assumptions, and teach our hearts to weep and sing. He is our grief-stricken brother howling, moaning, and wailing in remembrance of those who suffer because of inadequate representation. He is our ecstatic shaman, manifesting through his work the oldest sources of passion, imagination, and cosmic joy. Sông I Sing is a gift. Thank you, Bao Phi.” - Li-Young Lee
Makes you want to read some poetry. If you order Sông I Sing from Coffee House Press before September 5, you’ll get 25% off and they’ll send you a copy signed by the man himself. You can also pre-order the book from Amazon at 32% off the cover price. Bao’s website is currently under construction, so for more information, go to Bao Phi’s Facebook group, F.O.B. (Friends of Bao).
“Sông I Sing will cleanse and free your mind; it is an American original. Phi’s voice is singularly strong, rhythmic and rooted in the particularities of the Vietnamese American experience, in the urgencies of hip-hop and the cold raw edge of the poet’s urban Midwestern roots, where being a ‘colored boy’ makes finding the rainbow almost impossible.” - David Mura
“Phi knows tenderness. Isn’t bruised flesh tender? He knows love, too-it is ‘like a brick through glass: / first a riot / then fire / then nothing.’ This explosive collection mourns their proximity to hate and insists we all do better, including Phi, himself. That’s the jagged song he sings til his throat goes raw.” - Douglas Kearney
“Jagged yet tender, Bao Phi’s poetry mixes rough-edged critiques of racism and imperialism with resolute optimism in the power of love and community. Deeply grounded in Asian American Studies, it eloquently calls for the forging of new ties and lives out of the ruins of America’s ‘war zones’ - both here in urban America and in Southeast Asia.” - Yen Le Espiritu
“Bao Phi is a careful observer and a sweeping documentarist, the bard of Vietnamese America. In Sông I Sing he paints vivid portraits of the pride, pain, and perseverance of a people. A remarkable debut from a sure and important voice.” - Jeff Chang