WHO WAS VINCENT CHIN?
On June 19, 1982 Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat. At the time, the American auto industry was in a crushing recession and much of the hostility was directed at Japan. Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American who was celebrating his bachelor party in Detroit. On the night of the murder, he was visiting the Fancy Pants strip club with his friends. Mistaking Vincent for a Japanese American, two white autoworkers began to harass Vincent with racial epithets and a fight broke out. When the men were thrown out of the bar, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz retrieved a baseball bat from their car and Vincent Chin ran for cover. After a half hour pursuit, the men surprised Vincent in a parking lot. Nitz held Vincent down while Ebens beat his head four times with the bat. The impact cracked Vincent's skull and he died 4 days later in the hospital.
On March 18, 1983, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz pleaded guilty to killing Vincent Chin. Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced them to 3 years probation and fined them $3,780. Explaining the light sentence, Judge Kaufman stated, "These aren't the kind of men you send to jail . You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime." Neither man spent a single day in jail for beating Vincent Chin to death.
The brutal murder and light sentence outraged the Asian American community. A group of Asian Americans in Detroit founded American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) on March 31, 1983, to lobby for a federal trial for Chin's murderers. The campaign was spearheaded by journalist Helen Zia, lawyer Liza Chan, and Lily Chin - Vincent Chin's mother. Rallies in Detroit, San Francisco, and Los Angeles awakened sleeping Asian American communities and attracted national media attention.
The national Asian American mobilization succeeded in winning a federal trial. On June 5, 1984, federal prosecutors charged Ebens and Nitz with violating Vincent Chin's civil rights. After 23 days of deliberation, a Detroit federal jury acquitted Nitz but found Ebens guilty of violating Chin's civil rights. At last, after 2 years of struggle, justice came for Vincent Chin.
Defense lawyers won a federal retrial for Ebens and Nitz in Cincinnati. On May 1, 1987, the jury acquitted Ebens and Nitz of violating Vincent Chin's civil rights. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz never spent a full day in jail for the murder of Vincent Chin. Crushed by the failure of the justice system, Lily Chin left America and returned to China.
Although the movement for a federal trial did not gain justice for Vincent Chin, it was far from a failure. The movement gave a resonant political voice to previously silent Asian American communities across the nation. The murder of Vincent Chin was the seminal event that sparked the Asian American civil rights movement. In his death, Vincent Chin was immortalized as a symbol of the Asian American struggle for acceptance.