DETROIT – Decades before Chinese immigrant Yao Pan Ma was attacked while collecting cans in New York and Thai American Vicha Ratanapakdee was fatally assaulted in San Francisco, Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat in Detroit by two white men who never served jail time.
Forty years later — and amid a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans — Detroit has partnered with The Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance & Rededication Coalition on a four-day commemoration to honor civil rights efforts that began with Chin’s death and declare the city’s commitment against such violence.
“Although hate crimes existed, Vincent Chin did bring out a flash point for Asian Americans,” Stanley Mark, senior staff attorney at the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said, calling Chin's death “a seminal moment among Asian Americans.”
Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese immigrant, was at the Fancy Pants Tavern strip club in the Detroit enclave of Highland Park for his bachelor party on June 19, 1982, when a fight erupted. Federal authorities said two autoworkers blamed Chin for layoffs at car factories due to Japanese imports. After Chin left the club, the two men tracked him down at a fast food eatery and attacked him, authorities said. Chin later died at a hospital.
The Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance & Rededication commemoration started Thursday.
It comes as crimes against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have increased, fueled in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some in the U.S. say bigots have been emboldened by then-President Donald Trump, who often disparagingly referred to the virus as the “Chinese virus.”
“This recent spike of anti-Asian violence because of COVID and anti-China rhetoric deals with geopolitical things,” Mark said. “The rhetoric is: China is the boogeyman.”
From March 19, 2020, through the end of last year, people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent reported 10,905 incidents — from taunting to outright assaults, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition based in California.
The Justice Department said that in 2020, more than 8,000 single-bias incidents involved 11,126 victims — up from 7,103 incidents the previous year. Bias over race, ethnicity and ancestry was behind nearly 62% of the incidents.
Ratanapakdee was among the Asian Americans who have been attacked in recent years. He was on a morning walk when he was shoved to the ground and his head hit the pavement. The 84-year-old died two days later.
Ma, 61, was knocked down and repeatedly kicked in the head in an attack last year. He died Dec. 31.
Last month, three women of Asian descent were shot in a hair salon in Dallas’ Koreatown. The suspect’s girlfriend later told investigators he has delusions that Asian Americans are trying to harm him.
President Joe Biden last year signed the bipartisan COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which expedited Justice Department reviews of anti-Asian hate crimes. His administration has spent recent weeks in meetings with Asian American leaders to discuss the violence. K-pop sensation BTS visited the White House last month to speak with Biden about combating the rise in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.
Helen Zia, an activist in Detroit at the time Chin was slain and now executor of an estate named after Chin and his mother, Lily, said anti-Asian racism that was going on in the 1980s is similar to what is happening today.
“This is a common thread for the history of Asians in America whether it’s an economic crisis or somebody to blame for the World Trade Center being destroyed: It’s Asians, yellow and brown people that have historically been scapegoated and blamed for these things,” she said.
“It goes to a threat that is more than a couple of hundred years old — blaming a group that is seen as the forever-enemy alien.”
To the horror of Zia and many others, neither of the two men accused of beating Chin received any jail time. Ronald Ebens pleaded guilty to manslaughter, while his stepson, Michael Nitz, pleaded no contest.
Each was sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $3,700.
“These men are not going to go out and harm somebody else,” Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman, who has since died, explained at the time. “You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”
The declaration shocked many.
“The sentence put a target on every Asian American’s head,” said Zia, who is now an author living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Ebens and Nitz also were later acquitted of federal civil rights charges.
Federal prosecutors had said Ebens blamed people of Asian descent for problems in the U.S. auto industry, and killed Chin because of his race. The defense admitted Ebens killed Chin, but said he was drunk and had been provoked.
The Associated Press was unable to reach Nitz for comment this week. A voicemail message was left Wednesday at a telephone number listed for Ebens.
“There was a full expectation (Ebens and Nitz) would receive the full wrath of the criminal justice system," Zia said. "I think the family — people — thought the justice system was going to work.”
News Researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York. Williams is a member of AP's Race and Ethnicity team.
The spelling of the first name of Chin’s mother has been corrected.