Helen Zia moved from Chicago to Detroit in 1976. She was a twenty four-year-old medical-school dropout. She had spent the previous years in Boston as an organizer, working to desegregate South End construction sites. Friends had encouraged her to move to the Midwest. “the heartland”She wanted to understand social change and found work at an automobile plant upon her arrival. These were difficult yet coveted jobs that often got passed through families, and the steady rise of the car industry in the United States meant that workers with little more than a high-school diploma could receive good benefits and healthy pensions—maybe even enough money for a vacation home, or an R.V. Detroit’s Asian American population was small and scattered, but this didn’t bother Zia as much as the lack of good Chinese food.
American automakers were experiencing serious difficulties at that time. In 1974, gas prices spiked abruptly due to the oil crisis. Consumers began looking for fuel-efficient, imported cars from Germany and Japan. Detroit’s inability to adapt—dramatized by several high-profile failures, such as the Ford Pinto and the Chevrolet Vega—exposed systemic problems that had been easy to ignore during boom times. Struggling corporations blamed workers and their unions, and workers pointed to deteriorating factories that hadn’t been modernized in decades. American jobs were shipped overseas by politicians who also pointed fingers at oil suppliers from the Middle East and Japanese automakers. “I could just see the decay and despair everywhere,”Zia spoke to me from her Bay Area home. Today, she’s a prominent journalist, activist, and author. In 1980, she was a regular, unemployed auto worker trying to make ends work. She stood in the middle of unemployment lines that surrounded city blocks, even in the winter. Homes were abandoned. If a car was left outside for too long, it would be taken down immediately. “This was the Motor City,”She spoke. “People know how to build cars, and they knew how to take them apart.”
She heard rumors that motorists were being attacked on the freeway because they drove Japanese-made cars. A local radio d.j. Detroiters with anger could take their frustrations to the radio OutA Toyota with a sledgehammer. It wasn’t unusual for politicians or business leaders to reference Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima when talking about trade tensions with Japan. Foreign cars were prohibited from entering the parking lot of the United Auto Workers’ headquarters.
Zia was looking through the headlines in Detroit on July 1, 1982 when she saw something new: an Asian face. It was the tragic story of Vincent Chin, a twenty-seven-year-old draftsman who had been out at his bachelor party the previous weekend. He got into a “scuffle”A strip club with a white man aged in his 40s and his twentysomething stepson Michael Nitz. Afterward, Ebens and Nitz chased Chin to a nearby McDonald’s parking lot, where Ebens beat him unconscious with a baseball bat. Chin died four days later. Two off-duty officers were among the dozen witnesses to the attack. “We’re not sure exactly what happened,”A local detective stated the same at the time.
Zia cut the article. “There was nothing about his race,”She also mentioned that Chin worked part-time in a Chinese restaurant. “But there was a picture of him.”
Ebens was a foreman at a Chrysler factory and pleaded guilty. Nitz was working at a furniture firm, however, pleaded no contest. They claimed that Chin started the brawl by punching Ebens. There were no prosecutors present at the sentencing to speak on behalf of Chin. Judge Charles Kaufman, the presiding judge for Wayne County, ordered Ebens and Nitz to each pay a three-thousand-dollar fine along with court costs and serve three years’ probation. “We’re talking about a man here who’s held down a responsible job with the same company for 17 or 18 years and his son, who is employed and a part-time student,” Kaufman told reporters. “These men are not going to go out and harm somebody else.”
Many were shocked at the lenient sentence. Zia sought out leaders from Detroit’s Chinatown and local lawyers to support Lily, Chin’s grieving mother. “There was absolutely no national voice for Asian Americans back then,” Zia said, and Detroit’s Asian American population was fractured according to ethnicity and nationality. Zia and a group of community leaders—including Kin Yee, a Detroit Chinatown fixture, and Roland Hwang, a local attorney—formed American Citizens for Justice to pressure the federal government to investigate Chin’s killing as a civil-rights violation. A.C.J. was represented Liza Chan by an attorney. Zia, who soon thereafter secured a job at a local newspaper, was concerned that her advocacy might jeopardize the journalistic career she had. To generate interest, she wrote a piece about the case under a pseudonym at a different publication.
“There was a lot of hesitation about coming together initially,”Zia described an early A.C.J. meeting of Detroit’s Asian American community at Ford’s world headquarters, where someone had access to a large dining room. Young professionals from the suburbs, old conservatives, and Marxist activists all attended to learn more about what was possible. A representative from the Department of Justice explained how civil-rights cases are based on the burden of proof. They would need to prove that the attack was motivated by racism. Legal experts were skeptical at the time that civil-rights law could be applied to the beating of an Asian American.
After the D.O.J. After the D.O.J. representative left, attendees debated their options. Everyone agreed that the culprits were allowed to go because they were white. Ebens and Nitz had spent half an hour searching for Chin. One point they even paid a third person to help them find him. This suggested that this was more then a heat-of the moment dispute. Judge Kaufman stated that Ebens was not Nitz. “aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”Some people expressed concern about bringing up racism at the meeting, fearing that their community would be labeled as troublemakers. Zia mentioned a older man, a General Motors engineer originally from Hong Kong, who spoke up. “I have worked at this company all my adult life,”Zia recalled him saying. “I have trained every supervisor I’ve ever had . . . all of these young white guys. I had to train them to be my boss. And I knew more than every one of them put together. They never once considered me. It hurt, but I never said a thing. This time, I have to speak up. This time, we all have to speak up, because this could be any one of us being killed.”
Vincent Chin’s death, forty years later, remains a pivotal turning point in the lives of Asian Americans. A.C.J. hosted a month-end party. A.C.J. hosted a Four-day commemoration in Detroit, honoring Chin’s life and the movement that arose to seek justice for him. Chin was an iconic figure in almost any discussion about Asian American history, regardless of political or geographical borders, even before the recent spate anti-Asian violence incidents. Asian American fraternities Restaged aspects of the attack against ChinAs a way of forging brotherhood, and law student reënact the subsequent trialas a way to shed light on the blind spots in jurisprudence. In recent years, interest in Chin has surged, not just as context for the attacks on Asian Americans but as a ripped-from-the-headlines story that artists and content creators are eager to revisit. Numerous Chin-inspired scripts circulated in Hollywood. One of them was produced last year by the producers. “Hold Still, Vincent,” faced controversy when they released a podcast version of their script without contacting Chin’s estate, which Zia now oversees. Chin has become a symbol of Asian Americans’ origin stories, but it also represents a myth that gains resonance when it is stripped of details.
The filmmaker Christine Choy was reading a newspaper in New York’s Chinatown in 1983 when she learned of the campaign that emerged in protest of Kaufman’s verdict. Choy, an experienced documentarian inspired by leftist liberation movements, volunteered to make a short film for A.C.J.’s fund-raising efforts. Upon arriving in Detroit, though, she realized that the case was much more complex than she’d initially assumed. She received funding from Corporation for Public Broadcasting for a full length documentary.
The Chin campaign had a powerful impact on Asian American communities throughout eighties. Lily Chin traveled around the country telling her story. She had moved to Michigan in the second world war as the bride to C. W. Hing Chin. He had previously served in the U.S. Army. They both worked in a small laundry together. Lily was unable have children so she adopted Vincent from a Chinese orphanage. He was killed in a car accident. She was still grieving her husband’s death in 1981. She wasn’t a particularly political person prior to her son’s death, and was much more comfortable speaking Chinese than English. Her passionate pleas for justice inspired others around her.
Preparation of the federal civil-rights lawsuit revealed just how inept the initial investigation was. The police failed to interview Angela Starlene Rudolph and Racine Collwell, two dancers who were at the club that night. Rudolph, who is Black, said that the encounter began when Ebens called Chin “Chin”. “boy.” (Later, Ebens would claim that he was defending Rudolph’s honor, and that Chin and his party were disrespecting her, possibly because of her race.) Colwell, who’s white, SupposedShe had heard Ebens tell Chin, his friend Jimmy Choi, that it was “because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work,”They were being considered as targets for their race, raising suspicions. Ebens was found to have evidence. calledChin a “Chink”You can also find out more about a “Nip.”
In the 1984 federal trial, Ebens was sentenced to twenty-five years for violating Chin’s civil rights, and Nitz was acquitted of all charges. But, in 1986, Ebens’s conviction was overturned after an appeals court ruled that lawyers had improperly coached prosecution witnesses. Because of the local publicity around Chin’s case, the retrial was held in Cincinnati, where a jury Cleared EbensIn May 1987. Choy approached Ebens, holding her camera, as he left courthouse. “I think he was a little shocked to see me,”Choy shared this information with me. “And he came down and he said, ‘Oh, you’re the one who keeps asking me to be filmed.’ ”She claimed that he invited her for a “celebration”He was enjoying a nearby drink at a bar.
Choy wasn’t allowed to film the victory party, but a few weeks later she went to Ebens’s house for a sitdown. Choy finally felt at peace after four years of waiting to meet him. “completely numb,” if a little anxious—her equipment began malfunctioning just as she hit Record. He was arrogant, and he was smug. “I felt like a real jerk, being in jail, knowing the next day was Father’s Day,”Ebens explains the details to her in the footage.
After Ebens’ apparent escape from harsh punishment in both the local and federal criminal courts, Lily Chin was left with A.C.J. and the only legal recourse was a civil lawsuit for wrongful death. Nitz Reached a settlement in March, 1987, to pay Chin’s estate $65,600. In a separate settlement, four months later Ebens agreed that Lily Chin would receive $1.5 Million. This included a percentage of his monthly earnings for as long he was working. “It is my fervent wish,” Ebens TelledMichael Moore, in an article published by the Detroit Free Press “that I live long enough to pay off the entire amount.” At this point, Ebens hadn’t had a job in five years, and he hinted to Moore that he felt no motivation to find one. (“That’ll be when I’m 672 years old.”) He told Moore that he didn’t understand the supposed “plight”Asian Americans say, “The only ones I had ever met are the ones in the Chinese restaurants, and they were always nice and I was always nice to them.”
Many people consider the “plight”The challenges faced by Asian Americans was only now becoming clear. The Chin campaign was the first cross-generational, panethnic mobilization of Asian American identities. This category had only been created in the late sixties. Other victims of racist attacks would include Thong Hy Huynh (17-year-old Davis high school student), who was stabbed in a brawl with white high school students; Paul Wu (29-years-old Chinese American) who was taunted and then stabbed after a dispute in San Francisco; the defacing and harassment of Asian churches; the harassment and murder of Vietnamese fishermen in the Bay Area and Monterey; and the 1989 Cleveland School shooting in Stockton (1989), when a white man, who had resent Asian immigrants, killed five children and wounded many others. As a result of the movement that emerged after Chin, more people began wondering if these events were scattered and isolated, or part of a wave—a history unto itself.
Chin’s story became a source of inspiration for artists, writers, and activists. Jon Jang, the pianist, dedicated 1984’s album to his memory. “Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan?,”Vincent and Lily Chin “all Asian brothers and sisters who are struggling together to create a better world for all people.”The next year will be even better “The Twilight Zone”This episode was featured as Episode “Wong’s Lost and Found Emporium,”The story is adapted from William F. Wu’s short story in which a Chinese American character wanders into a mystical emporium to find his lost love. “compassion.”He explains to a fellow wanderer that it DisappearedAfter learning about Vincent Chin, he was hooked.
The case also made Asian American life more accessible to other communities. Jesse Jackson was a supporter of this campaign from the beginning. Featured alongside Lily at an event in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In 1987, David Dinkins, then the Manhattan borough president, and the civil-rights leader Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., each likened Chin’s killing to that of Michael Griffith, a twenty-three-year-old Black man who was beaten by a group of white youths in the Howard Beach section of Queens. Armed only with tire irons or bats, they chased Griffith onto a highway, where he died after being struck by a vehicle. But “people did not just magically come together,”Zia said. She recalled going on a popular Black radio talk show with Chan, the attorney, to share Chin’s story. “When we met with people in the Black community, we were asked a lot of valid questions, like, ‘Where were you when we were fighting for civil rights?’ ”She would point out the histories of connection and solidarity among their communities. “Today, we don’t even have these conversations.”