Call it a cosmic coincidence that Rodney King–a victim of the most infamous
police beating caught on video tape–died on Sunday. His death comes just a few
months after the 20th anniversary of one of the main outcomes of his case–the
six-day people’s uprising in Los Angeles, one the worst race riots in U.S.
history. King’s death is also just days before the 30th anniversary of the
horrific beating death of Asian American Vincent Chin.
That’s a lot of social injustice to recall in one paragraph, let alone one week.
Bad enough that some still ask Vincent Who? Perhaps more distressing is how many
people, both young and old, are beginning to ask Rodney Who?
It was before Twitter. Pre-iPhone. Pre-UFC levels of violence. March 3,1991. VHS
times. The police were attempting to stop King who had been driving on an LA
freeway. A high-speed chase ensued. When he got out of his car, King resisted
arrest. The officers used a stun gun and then wailed away with their batons
until a bloodied King was left with multiple fractures. Seeing the video again
in news reports, I had forgotten the level of brutality used. The video allowed
everyone to witness how people of color, but blacks in particular, could be
dealt with by law enforcement.
So damning was the video that when the four officers, Sgt. Stacey Koon, Theodore
Briseno, Timothy Wind, and Laurence Powell, were acquitted a year later of the
state’s charges, the outrage was such that six days of rioting ensued. King
would come forward and publicly utter, “Can we all get along?” But the violence
and looting even turned against innocent Asian Americans, when Korean Americans
were forced to take arms to defend their stores and businesses.
Koon and Powell were ultimately convicted of federal civil rights charges and
served more than two years in prison. King did receive a $3.8 million dollar
payout from the city of Los Angeles and its police department. But money isn’t
everything, as King found out. Nothing can alleviate the sadness and pain
brought on by the revelatory videotape of King’s beating.
Nothing short of a transformation of law enforcement and society.
But can anyone honestly say of the King incident that it could never happen
If only the Vincent Chin beating had the benefit of video, maybe the anniversary
date of his brutal killing this week wouldn’t be so sad. At least in King’s
case, the video led to two officers imprisoned and a multi-million dollar civil
In the Chin matter, no one served any time. Nor was there a penny paid out to
Chin’s surviving family.
Those facts always stun any audience that hears a simple re-telling of the case.
It always elicits people’s stunned gasps.
But the Chin case didn’t involve police, just normal citizens.
On June 19, 1982, Ronald Madis Ebens, a then 42-year-old white Chrysler
autoworker, along with his stepson accomplice Michael Nitz, then 23, took a
baseball bat and bludgeoned Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American, to death on
Woodward Avenue in Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit.
The crisis actually began in the Fancy Pants strip club where Chin was attending
his own bachelor party. Ebens and Nitz were there as patrons and commented on
Chin and his friends. Ebens reportedly told a stripper, “Don’t pay any attention
to those little fuckers, they wouldn’t know a good dancer if they’d seen one.”
Ebens claimed Chin then threw a punch at him. But another witness testified that
Ebens got up and said, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out
They saw Chin, a Chinese American, and thought he was Japanese.
Chin and his friends prevailed inside the club and then left. Ebens, bloodied,
left with Nitz, retrieved a baseball bat and continued pursuing Chin. They found
Chin in a McDonald’s parking lot.
Some witnesses say Nitz held down Chin. Some say he didn’t. Everyone says he was
there and did nothing to stop Ebens, who ferociously struck and beat Chin
repeatedly, with two savage blows with a baseball bat to the head, leaving Chin
For their admitted role in Chin’s death, they served no time.
Ebens is now 72. His accomplice Nitz is 53.
Ebens and Nitz were allowed to plea bargain in a Michigan court to escape
mandatory jail time for second degree murder. Ebens pleaded guilty; Nitz
pleaded nolo contendere. Both men got this sentence: three years’ probation, a
$3,000 fine, and $780 in court costs.
While three-strike felons are doing life in California for non-violent crimes,
Ebens, who has admitted to his role in the killing of Chin, is living a life in
the sunshine. I actually found him far from the Detroit area. He’s remarried and
lives in Nevada.
He’s lucky that he’s generally far less remembered than Vincent Chin himself,
because how Ebens got justice only adds salt to the wound.
By plea bargaining in the original case, Ebens’ sentencing hearing was seen as
little more than a formality. No one representing Chin was notified or even
showed up. So no one could object when the judge unexpectedly granted both Ebens
and Nitz 3 years’ probation.
The light sentence set off such a response that a second trial, on civil rights
charges in federal district court, was inevitable. But it was an angry, strident
affair with a conclusion to match. Nitz was acquitted, but Ebens was convicted
to 25 years in prison.
Ebens always called the federal trial a “frame-up” and appealed to the Sixth
Circuit Court of Appeals for a new trial. That court saw the failure to change
venues and the coaching of witnesses by a community activist as reason enough
for a new trial.
At that point, the new case was put in Cincinnati, Ohio, far removed from
Detroit, its media, the auto industry, and five years after the night of the
attack. It was advantage Ebens, who on May 2, 1987 was found not guilty on the
federal civil rights charges.
Wrote the Associated Press, Ebens “broke into tears at the verdict.”
“I’m still very sorry about the death that occurred, but I’m very relieved it is
over after four years,” he said back then.
Thirty years later, sorry still isn’t enough. We mourn an anniversary, but
celebrate little change. As in the King case, do we really believe another
Vincent Chin couldn’t happen again?
The anniversary also comes at a time when Asian Americans seem to lose sight of
what brings our disparate group of ethnicities together in America. On issues
like affirmative action, the political umbrella under which we stand can at
times seem shaky and frayed.
Vincent Chin reminds us that more often than not, our community has a common