Can we all get along? Recalling injustice from Rodney King to Vincent Chin
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 again?
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 case settlement.
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 of work.”
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 unconscious.
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 face.