A week before his wedding on a summer night in 1982, Vincent Chin was enjoying his bachelor party at a suburban Detroit strip club. As the party continued on, Chin came across two laid-off autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz. Tensions ran high as they traded insults.
"It's because of you little m—f—s that we're out of work," Ebens was heard saying. Like many others during that time, Ebens and Nitz blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry's decline. Its impact was particularly noticed in Detroit. Chin, a Chinese-American draftsman, was the scapegoat.
A fight ensued. The wedding party and the autoworkers were thrown out of the bar. But that wasn't the end of it. Ebens and Nitz searched the area for Chin; they reportedly paid $20 to a friend to help search. The two found Chin at a nearby McDonalds. They dragged him out. Nitz held him down as Ebens clubbed Chin four times with a baseball bat.
"It's not fair," Chin spoke his last words to a friend. Chin slipped into a coma and four days later, he died in a hospital.
Thirty years after his death, Asian Americans across the nation are paying their respects to Chin: a man who died needlessly and whose death sparked many Asian Americans to argue for their civil rights throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
"I remember being shocked when I learned what had happened," Ron Chew, a prominent community organizer in Seattle, said. "In my mind, it harkened back to the anti-Chinese violence of the late 1800s and the attitudes which fueled the Japanese American internment."
In 1983, Ebens and Nitz were found guilty of manslaughter and charged three years of probation, a $3,000 fine, and $780 in court fees. For the next five years, journalist Helen Zia and lawyer Liza Cheuk May Chan contested the outcome and led the fight for federal charges.
"I remember when suddenly we all realized that it wasn't just one person we knew who seemed to have been a victim of hate crime, that it was a larger issue," said Connie So, a senior lecturer in the American Ethnic Studies department at the University of Washington.
For the first time, the Asian American community crossed ethnic boundaries and fought together for justice. Groups such as Chinese for Affirmative Action, Japanese American Citizens League, Organization of Chinese Americans, Filipino American Community Council of Michigan, and Korean Society of Metropolitan Detroit staged rallies and organized demonstrations. They demanded in writ to politicians, the press and the U.S. Department of Justice for rightful punishment for the two men violating Chin's civil rights. The Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) took initiative and spoke up.
"We tried to develop a campaign to get us and the American Citizens of Justice to bring a federal civil rights prosecution against the two killers," Steven Kwoh, president and executive director of APALC, said. Together, the APALC and American Citizens of Justice (ACJ) sent a memorandum outlining the case to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 1984, all of these efforts led to a federal civil rights case. The court found Ebens guilty of violating Chin's civil rights; he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but posted bail for $20,000. Nitz was cleared of charges. However, an appeal in 1986 overturned Ebens' conviction—because the federal appeals court discovered an attorney improperly coached witnesses. The retrial in 1987 in Cincinnati, Ohio cleared Ebens of all charges.
The generalized disparaging view of Asian Americans and a skewed justice system—a system that placed a retrial in a city where out of 200 potential jurors, only 19 had ever encountered an Asian American—made many Asian Americans take initiative.
"I think the whole pan-Asian civil rights movement began with Vincent Chin," said So. "It was a movement that had a lot of people thinking beyond just being Chinese, just being Japanese, just being South Asian or Asian Indian, because a lot of people saw that these issues impact everyone.
"Hate crimes is one that pulls people together. The Vincent Chin trial showed that it's pan-Asian. People really don't separate."
Organizations became stronger to protect communities.
"We were outraged that the court system failed in getting justice for the family," Kwoh said. "So, we have tried to strengthen our organization to help out more families. We helped initiate the Asian American Justice Center to work nationally to fight against crimes and civil rights cases. That started up in 1990. At the legal center, there's a hate crimes monitoring system we still track."
The Vincent Chin case opened up this nationwide issue to the public eye. Hate crime victims such as Navrose Mody in New Jersey and Jim Loo in North Carolina were given the due process of law because of the case.
Yet even with these civil rights protections, the Asian American community needs to be watchful. Existing social stigmas still aren't in favor of Asian Americans.
"When it comes to things like model minority, a lot of Asian Americans may think it's very positive, but actually, it's all yellow peril," So said. She added that the stereotype of Asian Americans as foreigners taking American jobs, plus the shift of military and economic rivalry from Japan to China contributes to the consistent viewpoint.
"In fact, every Asian group inherits each of these because people don't tell Asians apart," So said. "What we show is that it still continues on."
In the past three years, data released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation show a rise in hate crimes directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In 2008, 3.4 percent of race-related hate crimes were targeted toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. That percentage rose to 3.7 percent in 2009 and then to 5.1 percent in 2010. This resurgence is because of numerous aspects, most notably the economic state of the U.S. and the rise of the East.
"The hatred and distrust of Japan that we saw in the 1970s and 80s is mirrored in some of the growing public attitudes about China—and this has implications for Asians here in this country," Chew said. "It's important to be reminded of the Vincent Chin case because we need to be constantly vigilant against attitudes of intolerance fed by stereotypes and cultural differences during times of economic stress."