Lessons from Vincent Chin murder 35 years after; Podcast interview with Helen Zia; and thoughts on my interview with Chin’s killer, Ronald Ebens
We have now arrived at the 35th year of these essential Asian American facts:
On June 19, 1982, Chinese American Vincent Chin, 27, who was with friends at his own bachelor party, was mistaken for being Japanese by two white auto workers, Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz, at a Detroit strip club. Ebens told me Chin sucker-punched him. The fight was taken outside, but then broken up. It would have ended, but Ebens and Nitz pursued Chin by car and found him at a nearby McDonald’s. In the parking lot, Ebens brutally beat Chin with a baseball bat.
Chin was comatose for four days and pronounced dead on June 23.
For that crime, Ebens and Nitz, his accomplice, were allowed to plea bargain. They pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, were sentenced to three years’ probation, and fined $3,720.
There was no prison time for the murderers of Vincent Chin.
The Asian American community was outraged, which led to a federal civil rights prosecution against Ebens and Nitz. Ebens was found guilty on one charge and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He appealed to the Sixth Circuit, and a second federal trial was moved from Detroit to Cincinnati. Ebens was acquitted by a Cincinnati jury that found no racial motivation in the killing of Chin.
That’s where the story has been for the last 35 years: The perps are free. And Asian Americans can still be victims of extremely violent hate crimes, like Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Asian Indian mistaken for a Muslim. This year in Olathe, Kansas, Kuchibhotla was allegedly killed by a white gunman who yelled, “Get out of my country.”
For the 35th year marker of Chin’s death, I called to get an update from the writer Helen Zia, who is also the trustee of the Chin estate.
Zia said the Chin family was awarded a $2 million judgment in civil litigation against Ebens back in the ’80s, and continues to monitor Ebens, now 77 and retired in Nevada. “The judgment has been continued,” Zia told me. She said that with interest and penalties, the judgment could be in excess of $8 million, but Ebens has “not paid a dime.”
Zia said she’s philosophical about recovery.
“The guy did what he did,” she told me. “He’s a killer. He got away with murder. But the things that need to be done on behalf of the community don’t depend on him or his death. It will bring closure. But it doesn’t mean hate crimes have ended.”
An edited portion of my interview with Zia is in my podcast, Emil Amok’s Takeout.
Besides being the trustee of the estate, Zia was right there in the thick of the Chin case in Detroit. A journalist with legal training, she wrote for the daily newspaper there, but refrained from writing about the case so she could be one of the founders of American Citizens for Justice, the group formed to fight for Chin.
It was just a handful of Asian American lawyers and activists. At that time, there were few Asian Americans in the law or in journalism. And there was no one with the expertise to do a federal hate crime case.
Thirty-five years later, Zia said that what strikes her the most are the things people don’t bring up about the case.
The human stuff, like the late Lily Chin, Vincent’s adoptive mom. “She died feeling that if she hadn’t adopted him, he’d be alive,” Zia told me. “It’s so sad to me to think about it that way.”
But the human stuff also includes the human opposition to the case within the community and the backlash that existed at the time.
“We had civil rights people who said, ‘We’ll support you because Vincent was Chinese and thought to be Japanese, but if he were Japanese, we won’t support because he would’ve deserved it,’ ” Zia said. “I said ‘What? You’re kidding?’ The Michigan ACLU and the Michigan National Lawyers Guild strongly opposed a civil rights investigation because Asian Americans are not protected by federal civil rights law. That was something we had to argue.”
Fortunately, the national offices of those legal groups prevailed and forced the state chapters to comply.
“Here were some of the most liberal activist attorneys saying Asian Americans shouldn’t be included under the civil rights law. Vincent was an immigrant. We had to establish he was a citizen, with the implication there might not have been a civil rights investigation if he had not been naturalized. All of this stuff…these were hurdles we had to overcome with major impacts today,” Zia told me.
“Can you imagine if the Reagan White House had followed the National Lawyers Guild’s Michigan chapter and the ACLU of Michigan and said, ‘Why should we look expansively at civil rights? We shouldn’t include immigrants and Asian Americans.’ And at that time, that would include Latinos too, because at that time if you were not black or white, what do you have to do with race? Those were the things people would say to us.”
Zia said after 35 years, a quick telling of the Chin case rarely discusses just how difficult it was to fight for justice. But she says those are the enduring lessons of the Vincent Chin case, because it has contributed to a modern sense of social justice for every American.
“Every immigrant, Latinos. Every American,” Zia said. “Hate crime protection laws now also include perceived gender and disability. It was the Vincent Chin case when we had to argue civil rights was more than black or white.”
Zia said the case was also more difficult because it was during a pre-digital, non-computer, pay-phone age. Communication occurred slowly.
But the case was also slow because Asian Americans were a micro-community.
We’re 21 million now and feel empowered.
In 1980, the Asian American population was just 3.7 million nationwide. And most were timid, non-boat rockers.
“In the Vincent Chin case, people were incredibly reluctant to become involved,” Zia told me. “They had never gotten involved before. And I think that’s what gets lost in the retelling of the story. Exclusion didn’t end till about 1950, and so what that meant was Asian Americans of every kind, from Chinese to Filipinos, everybody, were pretty much totally disenfranchised till the mid-20th century.”
“So when Vincent Chin was killed 30 years later [in 1982], the communities had… I think of it as stunted growth. There weren’t people running for office. If there were, it was a miniscule number. There weren’t people standing up; we didn’t have advocacy organizations, except for AALDEF in New York and Asian Law Caucus in California, with no pan-Asian advocacy groups in between.”
A right to justice, and a community’s sense of empowerment, was a difficult thing to imagine for many Asian Americans. “Not only did we not have it,” Zia said, “People didn’t even recognize it was something we could have. The idea we all came together with the Vincent Chin case and sang ‘Kumbaya’ and took over and went to the Reagan White House and the Department of Justice and got all these things to happen…that’s a mythology. And I think it’s a disservice to the n ext generations to think this.”
Helen Zia knows what was happening in Detroit in the ’80s as the fight began for Vincent Chin.
More of her thoughts on Emil Amok’s Takeout.
I don’t know what Vincent Chin’s killer did for Father’s Day.
I last talked to Ronald Ebens in 2015, around the June 23 anniversary of Chin’s death. “I’m doing fine,” he told me then, adding quickly he had a good Father’s Day with his kids.;
I asked him then if he ever thought about the anniversary. “Like what?” he said. “I never forget it.”
“Of course not.”
It was 2015. “I’m 75 years old, and I’m just tired of all that after 33 years.”
He’s 77 now, and Helen Zia doesn’t want him ever to tire or forget the truth.
“He will never spend a day of his life without knowing he has a huge debt to society and a huge debt to Vincent Chin’s family,” Zia told me. “And one day, he will pay for it.”
The very first time I talked to Ebens was in 2012, on the 30th anniversary of the Chin murder.
On the podcast, I read aloud the column that I wrote on June 22, 2012.
It has Ebens explaining himself and describing what happened that night. He was reluctant to talk to me, but he did. And during our conversation, he apologized for the murder.
“I’m sorry it happened and if there’s any way to undo it, I’d do it,” he told me in my exclusive interview. “Nobody feels good about somebody’s life being taken, okay? You just never get over it…Anybody who hurts somebody else. If you’re a human being, you’re sorry, you know.”
But Zia, who read my column at the time, has never bought that as an apology.
“I stood next to this guy in court, and I see his face, over and over, read his words, and frankly, I don’t see a shred of sincerity,” Zia told me. “He’s really saying ‘I didn’t even mean to kill, why should I have to go through this.’”
And then to me, Zia said, “It would take more than you interviewing him saying, ‘ I’m sorry, I killed him.’ Let’s see how sorry he is and set an example for future people who are thinking of killing a Muslim student in North Carolina, or a man in Kansas. These killers who kill out of hatred and go to justify their killings, it takes more than saying I’m sorry.”
Listen to the podcast, a special on the Vincent Chin case 35 years later, on Emil Amok’s Takeout.
:00 Intro, basic facts about the death of Vincent Chin, update from Helen Zia, and observations about the case. How the civil rights community was sometimes at odds with Asian Americans.
10:21 Audio portion of interview with Helen Zia
23:26 Emil reads from his 2012 column in which Chin’s killer Ronald Ebens apologizes for the murder.