Is Srinivas Kuchibhotla the Vincent Chin for South Asians?
If you still haven’t heard the story of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, don’t worry.
It’s unclear if even Donald Trump knows, remembers, or cares. Sort of like his health care promises.
In his joint address before Congress, the MCOWH (man currently occupying the White House, in case he is still #NotMyPresident) topped his speech with a diversity rap that mixed kudos for Black History Month with a denunciation of the rash of hate threats targeting Jews, and an odd reference to a ” shooting in Kansas City.”
Trump said it was a reminder that “while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
So is he going to fire Steve Bannon?
Because it was the spirit of alt-right wrongness perpetrated by Bannon’s Breitbart News that has informed Trump on matters of race, and that in turn has enabled all the hate and evil we see toward immigrants and people of color.
Even Trump’s phraseology of a “shooting in Kansas City” on speech night was a veritable whitewashing of the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla.
I bet Trump has long forgotten the Garmin tech worker, who was killed on February 22, two weeks before his 33rd birthday.
On the day he was murdered, Kuchibhotla was having a whisky with his colleague, Alok Madasani, at a bar in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, about 20 miles away.
The alleged shooter was Adam Purinton, 51, a Navy veteran, a former air traffic controller and pilot, who once worked for the FAA, and lived in a comfortable Kansas City suburb, according to news reports.
But when Purinton saw the two men, he didn’t know they were Indian, highly-educated tech workers. He saw their skin, saw them as others, and opened fire, yelling,” Get out of my country.”
Purinton shot and injured another bar patron, Ian Grillot, a white American, before fleeing. Purinton was picked up later in another bar and now faces murder charges for the one person who didn’t survive, Kuchibhotla.
Purinton’s lawyers had him before a judge last week to ask for more time.
But the Indian community finally has begun to speak out in earnest.
Some have even suggested this could be a Vincent Chin moment for Indian Americans, and for the broad group of Asian Americans affected by Islamophobia.
I tend to agree. But is Kuchibhotla Vincent Chin?
IS KUCHIBHOTLA VINCENT CHIN?
In some ways, yes. Both were immigrants, and that set off some animus in their killers.
Purinton seems to have been spurred on by anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the FBI has said it is now considering it a hate crime.
Ronald Ebens, however, told me he didn’t see Chin as a foreigner. He said the altercation that ensued began with the auto worker and his son-in-law hurling a racial epithet toward someone they saw as the personification of the Japanese auto industry.
Ebens claimed in my interview with him that he was sucker punched, declined to fight, but then eventually pursued Chin with a baseball bat. That’s when he told me, he lost it.
In my interview with Ebens in 2012: “If he hadn’t sucker punched me in the bar…nothing would have ever happened. They forced the issue. And from there after the anger built up, that’s where things went to hell.”
The punchline to the story is what happened in court.
Ebens and his son-in-law, Michael 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.
No jail time. Eventually, there was a federal civil rights prosecution that acquitted Nitz and found Ebens guilty, sentencing him to 25 years in prison. But then Ebens appealed and was acquitted in a second trial.
Ebens did lose a judgment in a civil court, which still has not been satisfied. With interest, the amount Ebens owes the Chin estate is estimated to be somewhere around $10 million.
But there was no jail time for any of the perps, and no finding of a hate crime.
In that sense, the Kuchibhotla case and the Chin case have already diverged.
Purinton is behind bars with bail set at $2 million, and the FBI is investigating the murder as a possible hate crime.
The cases do converge in the important point of serving as the final straw for many South Asians, who might have thought their success, wealth, and obvious contributions to American society would inoculate them from hate.
HATE VIOLENCE REPORT
The Kuchibhotla case coincides with a new SAALT report on hate crimes.
According to a SAALT database established after the attacks in San Bernardino and Paris in 2015, in one year up to November 15, 2016, there have been 207 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric directed at South Asian, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, Hindu, and Middle Eastern Americans.
That’s a 34 percent increase in less than a third of the time covered in SAALT’s 2014 report.
Here’s a breakdown from the report: 140 incidents of hate violence, 67 incidents of xenophobic political rhetoric, of which 196 (95 percent) were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment. And one in five instances of xenophobic rhetoric came from Donald Trump.
The report acknowledges its threshold of a hate crime may be lower than the legal definition, but points out that the 2015 hate crime statistics show a 7 percent increase in hate crimes overall, including a whopping 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims.
Taken as a whole, SAALT’s stats paint “a full picture of the xenophobia our communities face,” the report says. It concludes that while all South Asians are not Muslim, and not all Muslims are South Asian, “it is enough simply to be perceived as Muslim to be a target of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric.”
That’s seems to be what happened in Kuchibhotla’s case.
And so while some details of the Purinton shooting are very different, the effect on the South Asian community is very much like the Vincent Chin case.
It’s a story that has made a new generation woke.
NOTE: In an upcoming podcast of Emil Amok’s Takeout, I talk to a Chinese American’s early reaction to the Kuchibhotla case, and how Islamophobia affects us all.