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Detroit honors Vincent Chin, whose killing 40 years ago galvanized Asian Americans

Woman holding photo of son
Lily Chin holds a photo portrait of her son Vincent, 27, in 1983, a year after he was beaten to death in Detroit.
(Richard Sheinwald / Associated Press)

Decades before Chinese immigrant Yao Pan Ma was attacked while collecting cans in New York and Thai American Vicha Ratanapakdee was fatally assaulted in San Francisco, Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat in Detroit by two white men who never served jail time.

Forty years later — and amid a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans — Detroit has partnered with the Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance & Rededication Coalition on a four-day commemoration to honor civil rights efforts that began with Chin’s death and to declare the city’s commitment against such violence.

“Although hate crimes existed, Vincent Chin did bring out a flash point for Asian Americans,” said Stanley Mark, senior staff attorney at the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Mark called Chin’s death “a seminal moment among Asian Americans.”

Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese immigrant, was at the Fancy Pants Tavern strip club in the Detroit enclave of Highland Park for his bachelor party June 19, 1982, when a fight erupted. Federal authorities said two autoworkers blamed Chin for layoffs at car factories because of Japanese imports. After Chin left the club, the two men tracked him down at a fast food restaurant and attacked him, authorities said. Chin later died at a hospital.

The Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance & Rededication commemoration starts Thursday.

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It comes as crimes against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have increased, fueled in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some in the U.S. say bigots have been emboldened by former President Trump, who often disdainfully referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.”

It’s infuriating that it takes such tragedy and hatred to draw sustained attention to the collective African American and Asian American struggle for justice.

This recent spike of anti-Asian violence because of COVID and anti-China rhetoric deals with geopolitical things,” Mark said. “The rhetoric is: China is the boogeyman.”

From March 19, 2020, through the end of last year, people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent reported 10,905 incidents of racial animus, from taunting to outright assaults, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition based in California.

Ratanapakdee was the target of one of those assaults. He was on a morning walk when he was shoved to the ground and his head hit the pavement. The 84-year-old died two days later.

Ma, 61, was knocked down and repeatedly kicked in the head in an attack last year. He died Dec. 31.

The Atlanta shootings and other attacks against Asian Americans have spurred some to have difficult conversations with their elders.

Last month, three women of Asian descent were shot in a hair salon in Dallas’ Koreatown. The suspect’s girlfriend later told investigators that he had delusions that Asian Americans were trying to harm him.

President Biden last year signed the bipartisan COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which expedited Justice Department reviews of anti-Asian hate crimes. His administration has spent recent weeks in meetings with Asian American leaders to discuss the violence. K-pop sensation BTS visited the White House last month to speak with Biden about combating the rise in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.

Helen Zia, an activist in Detroit at the time Chin was slain and now executor of an estate named after Chin and his mother, Lily, said the anti-Asian racism of the 1980s is similar to what is happening today.

“This is a common thread for the history of Asians in America whether it’s an economic crisis or somebody to blame for the World Trade Center being destroyed: It’s Asians, yellow and brown people that have historically been scapegoated and blamed for these things,” she said.

Gravestone of Vincent Chin
Vincent Chin’s gravestone at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit.
(Corey Williams / Associated Press)

“It goes to a threat that is more than a couple of hundred years old — blaming a group that is seen as the forever-enemy alien,” Zia said.

To the horror of Zia and many others, neither of the two men accused of beating Chin received any jail time. Ronald Ebens pleaded guilty to manslaughter, while his stepson, Michael Nitz, pleaded no contest.

Each was sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $3,700.

“These men are not going to go out and harm somebody else,” Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman, who has since died, explained at the time. “You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”

Since before pandemic lockdowns and closures hit California, racism and violence have been targeted at people of Asian descent here, around the U.S. and beyond.

The declaration shocked many.

“The sentence put a target on every Asian American’s head,” said Zia, who is now an author living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Ebens and Nitz also were later acquitted of federal civil rights charges.

Federal prosecutors had said Ebens blamed people of Asian descent for problems in the U.S. auto industry and killed Chin because of his race. The defense admitted that Ebens killed Chin, but said he was drunk and had been provoked.

The Associated Press was unable to reach Nitz for comment this week.

“There was a full expectation [that Ebens and Nitz] would receive the full wrath of the criminal justice system,” Zia said. “I think the family — people — thought the justice system was going to work.”


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