Emil Guillermo: Four decades since five days of pain–a way to remember Vincent Chin and forget, not forgive, his killer
This weekend is a confluence of historic moments on one day, June 19th, that should make every Asian American and everyone, not just members of the BIPOC community, pause for meditation.
Sunday is Father’s Day, and for so many of us, we are here because of an action our parents and forebears took to leave their ancestral lands. They gambled on freedom and opportunity. And even with some success, there are still moments when we realize our struggle never ends.
June 19th is already about historic delay. In 2021, Juneteenth finally became a new federal holiday. On that day in 1865, slaves in Texas were finally told that slavery had ended with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.
Let that sink in. Slavery ends in 1862, and no one tells you until June of 1865? Until the U.S. Army came in with the news, Texans had slaves working overtime.
Just shows how long it takes to get the truth out to eradicate an evil and immoral chapter in American history.
Justice moves slowly. Asian Americans know that from another important June 19th event, the first day of the iconic hate crime against Vincent Chin.
The official record will say Chin died on June 23rd, 1982. But his ordeal began the night of the 19th, when Ronald Ebens, a white auto worker, took a baseball bat and clubbed Chin unconscious in a fast-food parking lot in suburban Detroit.
Chin was in a coma at the Henry Ford Hospital on the 19th, the 20th, the 21st, and the 22nd. Then on June 23rd, Chin didn’t wake up.
But an entire generation of Asian Americans did.
For those born in the civil rights era, Chin was the call to social justice, an awakening. It was just the first wave. If you didn’t think you had a right to speak or cry out in anguish, Chin’s death let every Asian American know this was the time.
Since then, the Asian American population has grown from just under 4 million to more than 24 million people. And now, a new generation is discovering the impact and the importance of the Chin case, in a time when the twice-impeached former Republican president scapegoated Asian Americans for the pandemic by using slurs like “Kung Flu” and “China Virus.” From March 2020 to Dec. 2021, more than 11,000 hate incidents have occurred in the Covid era, ranging from mere epithets to physical violence, including death.
That’s more than 11,000 Vincent Chins.
In 2022, the 40th anniversary of Chin’s death, Asian America doesn’t need a federal holiday.
But we do need time to reflect and understand what the Chin case and the last four decades have to say about the state of Asian America.
I’ve proposed for the last eight years a national period of meditation each and every year between June 19 to June 23 to ask ourselves some basic questions. Questions like, “What does it mean to be an Asian American today?”
What does it take to stand up for a sense of ourselves?
Our community? Our personal and public identity?
What does real equality, real justice mean today?
Those are the things worth thinking about now and in the future.
I CAN’T TALK TO VINCENT CHIN, ONLY HIS KILLER Regrettably, there’s no way to talk to Vincent Chin. But one way I found some healing was to confront Chin’s killer.
Twice I’ve talked to Ronald Ebens. Once just before the 30th anniversary of Chin’s death in 2012, and then again 3 years later in 2015.
The first time, I just wanted a sense of closure, for me. Chin has been a haunting influence ever since his death in 1982.
Vincent Chin and I were both Asian Americans who grew up around the same era. We were the same age. Even shared a hairstyle.
Although Chin was an immigrant, and I was a native-born son of immigrants, we still all get treated the same.
That’s not the kind of equality we sought. But that happens when any Asian American isn’t considered American enough.
At the time of Chin’s death, I was also a member of the Asian American Journalists Association and a young reporter working at the NBC affiliate in San Francisco.
If anything, my reporter’s perspective hindered my activism. I stayed super objective whenever discussing the story. Just the facts. No feelings. I stayed neutral even though the guy looked a lot like me.
It wasn’t until I moved into the columnist ranks, after my days as a host of “All Things Considered” at NPR, that I began to see Chin for what he was for many in the community. More than just a clarion call for justice, Chin symbolized the struggle of all Asian Americans to be full participants in society. There was a lot more to Chin’s death than a mere recitation of the facts.
It’s the reason why I pursued Ebens 30 years after, when others had put it off as old news.
There was still something unresolved for me. I felt the need to hear from the murderer himself.
After my first phone conversation with him, I could hear that Ebens was going through a kind of rationalization process, using selective memory that allows him to live with himself.
“I’m as much to blame,” Ebens admitted. “I should’ve been smart enough to just call it a day. After they started to disperse, it was time to get in the car and go home.”
But instead, Ebens took a drive to the Highland Park McDonald’s where he delivered the blow to Chin’s head that ultimately killed him. When I talked to him, Ebens wondered about hitting Chin with the bat. “I went over that a hundred, maybe 1,000 times in my mind the last 30 years. It doesn’t make sense of any kind that I would swing a bat at his head when my stepson is right behind him. That makes no sense at all.”
And then he quickly added, almost wistfully, “I don’t know what happened.”
But we all know the result.
Another time in the interview, he admitted his memory may be deficient. “That was really a traumatic thing,” he told me about his testimony. “I hardly remember even being on the stand.”
He admitted that everyone had too much to drink that night. But he’s not claiming innocence.
“No,” Ebens said. “I took my shot in court. I pleaded guilty to what I did, regardless of how it occurred or whatever. A kid died, OK. And I feel bad about it. I still do.”
He should feel even worse because he got away with murder.
At the state murder prosecution, Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, were allowed to plea bargain to second degree murder, given 3 years’ probation, and fined $3,720.
The first federal prosecution on civil rights charges did end in a 25-year guilty sentence for Ebens. But the subsequent appeal by Ebens to the Sixth Circuit was granted, and the second federal trial was moved from Detroit to Cincinnati.
And that’s where it all ended in Ebens’ acquittal.
Add it all up, and it seems a far cry from justice. One man dead. Perps go free.
Ebens told me when he thinks about Chin, he said no images come to mind.
“It just makes me sick to my stomach, that’s all,” he said, thinking about all the lives that were wrecked, both Chin’s and his own.
I’m not his judge. But after talking to Ebens, I still feel that if Chin were not Asian or a person of color, Ebens wouldn’t have felt the rage he did. Nor would he have extended the fight beyond the Fancy Pants into the street, and then later to the McDonald’s. Ebens beating a white guy? He would have seen himself. Not some “other.” He would have stopped the violence. But we all know, he didn’t.
For me, that’s when discussions of hate crimes become relevant.
Ebens may have warded off hate crime charges. But there was enough hate present in my legal system.
Ebens can also insist the incident was not about race. But the facts remain: Ebens killed an Asian American man and got away with it.
That’s the criminal matter. In the civil case, Ebens continues to claim poverty to avoid the huge wrongful death judgment against him.
A LAST CONVERSATION My second conversation with Ebens took place three years later on the 33rd anniversary of the Chin murder.
I wanted to know when he was going to pay the money a judge awarded the Chin estate for the wrongful death of Vincent Chin. I got him by phone.
“I’m doing fine,” Ebens said.
He was quick to add, “I had a good Father’s Day with my kids.”
That’s something Chin, who was killed the day before his wedding day, could never say. Ebens took care of that.
I asked Ebens if he did anything special to mark the anniversary date.
“Like what,” Ebens replied. “I never forget it.”
“Of course not.”
But then he said, “I’m just tired of all that after 33 years.”
It’s our job to make sure to remind him and the public of his actions, including his dodging of the Chin estate.
In our conversation, Ebens admitted he had been a beneficiary of a friend’s estate that received a portion of a $4 million personal injury settlement in 2013.
Did Ebens get any money?
“Nope,” said Ebens. He acknowledged his friend’s wife received the huge settlement, in which the friend’s estate got 3 percent. But any significant money to Ebens himself?
“Not really,” he said. “But whose business is this?”
The estate of Vincent Chin, of course.
In 1987, a civil suit for the unlawful death of Chin was settled and Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million, representing Chin’s projected lost income as an engineer. Even conservatively estimating an income of $50,000 for 30 years, Chin’s life was woefully undervalued at $1.5 million.
But Ebens has avoided payment by moving to Nevada, where he says he lives off his Social Security. Meanwhile, what’s owed to the Chin estate has only ballooned with interest.
Ebens actually did receive a slight windfall that year. The amount may have been as little as $10,000, which hardly makes a dent in what he owes the Chin estate.
But at this stage more than three decades after Chin’s death, some still feel every penny should have gone to the Chin estate.
Ebens has never held much regard for his financial obligation.
“It was ridiculous then, it’s ridiculous now,” Ebens told me in 2012.
Ebens’ words drew the ire of author and activist Helen Zia, executor of the Chin estate. “It shows little or no caring, and a lack of remorse,” Zia told me.
But Zia didn’t stop there.
“Ebens has seen Vincent Chin’s mother [Lily, who died in 2002] in total grief many times,” Zia said. “Never was there a flicker of ‘I’m sorry, I killed your son, and the grandchildren you hoped for.’”
Zia said Ebens has never taken responsibility for the killing and continues to deny any racial motivation.
That’s part of Ebens’ unpaid debt to Chin’s estate and to every Asian American alive. It’s also proof the system still works for Ebens, much more than it does for any of us.
And that’s why we should stop and think about this case. This year. Next year. Every year.
But this I know for sure. I don’t need to talk to Ebens ever again.
No one has to hear from the killer ever. Apology? There’s no there there.
But every year, it’s important for all Asian Americans, past, present, and future, to pause and reflect on what happened on those five days, starting on June 19th and ending on June 23rd, when we awake, inspired to take action, moved by the memory of Vincent Chin.
### NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.