Opinion: Remembering Vincent Chin in the age of Ahmaud Arbery and Black Lives MatterZachariah Chou
Jun 26, 2020
A father and son duo, both white men, spot an innocent person of color in his 20s.
They see him as a threat. They hunt him down. They kill him.
At the local level, there is initially no justice. Then, the federal government gets involved.
The case of Ahmaud Arbery, right? Yes, but also of Vincent Chin.
I, like many of my peers, learned about Vincent Chin in high school and college. His story of injustice is one of the many known collectively by our community, a tragic reminder that the model minority myth will not protect you from hate and that white killers get a better-than-fair shake in our justice system.
As the 38th anniversary of Chin’s death passes, much of our country is embroiled in the fight against systemic racism and police brutality. Given that his death was nearly 40 years ago and that Chin is a light-skinned East Asian like me, one might question how relevant his case is in today’s society.
When interacting with the justice system and generally within the eyes of white people, the Black community faces racism and prejudice at every twist and turn, much more so than myself or other light-skinned Asian Americans. However, we should acknowledge our privilege while also remembering that we are not immune to injustice.
To me, the case of Chin’s murder, considered in the context of Arbery’s killing and the Black Lives Matter movement, should remind us of how profoundly broken our justice system is and highlights why it is still so important to express solidarity with the Black community and fight alongside them in our collective struggle for justice.
A senseless killing
Vincent Chin, 27, is out with friends at a strip club in Highland Park, Michigan, on a Saturday night in 1982. It’s his bachelor party.
Chin crosses paths with Ronald Ebens, 42, and Michael Nitz, 23, at the club. Ebens is a foreman for Chrysler. His stepson Nitz is a laid-off autoworker. They are both white men.
Ebens says he was upset that Chin had given a white stripper a generous tip, but had not treated a Black stripper similarly, leading Ebens to spew a stream of profanities at Chin, calling him a “chink” and a “nip.”
Ebens also yells, “It’s because of you little motherf***ers that we’re out of work” at Chin and his friends. At the time, workers in declining automotive manufacturing hubs such as Detroit blamed the Japanese auto industry for their woes.
Chin was of Chinese heritage and an American citizen.
In response, Chin punches Ebens. A fight ensues. Everyone is tossed out to the parking lot by a bouncer. Nitz retrieves a baseball bat from the trunk of his car. Chin and his friends flee.
Ebens and Nitz drive around searching for Chin, paying one man $20 to help hunt Chin down. Ebens and Nitz say they are looking for a “Chinese guy” and hope to “bust his head.” They get their wish. The pair find Chin at McDonald’s where Ebens repeatedly smashes the baseball bat into Chin, leaving him with fatal injuries. Chin dies on June 23.
Almost four decades later, Ahmaud Arbery, 25, is out for his daily run. That day he jogs through a neighborhood called Satilla Shores in Georgia.
It is still so important to express solidarity with the Black community and fight alongside them in our collective struggle for justice.
Former police officer Gregory McMichael, 64, is in his front yard when he sees Arbery running down the road. He suspects Arbery has been behind a series of recent break-ins in the community. McMichael calls his son Travis McMichael, 31, to alert him. They grab their guns. McMichael has a .357 magnum, and his son grabs a shotgun.
The pair get in a truck, drive down the road and attempt to cut Arbery off. William Bryan, 50, a neighbor, joins in on the hunt.
The three white men chase Arbery. Bryan hits Arbery with the side of his truck at one point. Arbery, out of options, eventually confronts the McMichaels. Travis McMichael gets out of the truck with his shotgun and fights Arbery. He shoots three times, sending Arbery on the pavement, face down.
Travis McMichael says “f***ing n***er” while Gregory McMichael rolls Arbery over to see if he has a weapon. Now, he has his blood on his hands. Literally.
Incomplete police reports skewed the immediate outcome of both cases.
In Chin’s case, the police had failed to interview key witnesses such as the dancers at the club and the man who Ebens and Nitz paid to hunt down Chin. This leads to an incomplete pre-sentencing report.
In Arbery’s case, the police report is almost entirely composed of Gregory McMichael’s statements. McMichael is a former law enforcement officer.
The offending parties were not initially arrested in both cases.
After Chin dies from his injuries four days after his assault, Ebens and Nitz are initially charged with second-degree murder two days after Chin’s death. Though Arbery dies at the scene of the crime, it takes 74 days for the McMichaels to be arrested.
Events that have transpired after Arbery’s death also raise similar concerns.
For example, in the case of George Floyd’s death, the county medical examiner ruled that Floyd experienced cardiopulmonary arrest, citing underlying conditions. An independent autopsy, however, ruled that Floyd died due to mechanical asphyxiation and found no underlying conditions that contributed to his death.
The release of the incident report concerning Breonna Taylor’s death also raised many eyebrows. The report indicated that there was no forced entry, and “none” was listed in a space designated for a victim’s injuries.
The impact of law enforcement and investigator misconduct cannot be overstated, especially considering police officers have a long history of doing things like planting meth on random drivers and extracting false confessions for murder.
Our system of “justice” cannot rely on people’s ability to pay for private investigators and independent autopsies or, as examined later, federal intervention.
Blaming the victim: race and “self-defense”
In the year following Chin’s death, Ebens and Nitz are found guilty of manslaughter. They plead guilty and no contest, respectively. The local prosecutor’s office was short-staffed, so no prosecutors were present at the sentencing. Unopposed and armed with an incomplete pre-sentencing report, defense attorneys shifted the blame onto Chin for throwing the first punch.
“The only report I saw indicated that Mr. Chin threw the first punch,” Judge Charles Kaufman said. He claimed that the defendants had gone beyond what was necessary for self-defense, and had it been a case of just self-defense, they wouldn’t be guilty of anything.
Ebens and Nitz are sentenced to three years’ probation, receive $3,000 fines, are charged court fees but evade jail time. Kaufman cites factors such as the pair’s lack of previous criminal record and unlikeliness to commit future crimes as reasons why the sentencing was so gentle.
“You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal,” Kaufman says in response to criticism.
In Arbery’s case, it is the questionable invocation of self-defense that also plays a substantial role in the initial lack of jail time for the perpetrators.
As pressure mounted for the police to arrest the McMichaels in the weeks following Arbery’s death, Ware County District Attorney George Barnhill sent a letter to the police captain.
Honoring Vincent Chin means standing with the Black community as they seek justice for Ahmaud Arbery and the countless innocent lives that come before and after him.
In the letter, Barnhill says he believes Arbery was stopped with probable cause and asserts that “Arbery initiated the fight,” citing his “mental health records & prior convictions” as justification for “his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man.”
Barnhill says he does not see grounds for an arrest of anyone, cites Georgia’s self-defense code and even goes as far as to explore the possibility that Arbery may have pulled the shotgun in a way that caused it to fire with McMichael’s finger on the trigger.
To pin the blame of a killing on the victim is a tactic older than our country.
Think back to the case of Crispus Attucks, a man of Black and Native American descent, who was one of five people killed during the Boston Massacre when British troops fired indiscriminately into an unruly crowd that was throwing snowballs and debris at the soldiers.
The redcoats may not have had rubber bullets or tear gas, but they did have future president John Adams serving as their lawyer after hoards of angry people took to the streets, demanding justice. In court, Adams specifically singled out Attucks as the leader of the angry mob, saying “his very look was enough to terrify any person” and pinning the “dreadful carnage of that night” on Attucks’ “mad behaviour.”
After the sentencing of Chin’s killers, outrage brewed.
The response to the watered down sentence is a watershed moment in Asian American politics.
Asian Americans from all walks of life took to the streets of cities across the country to protest. “Justice for Vincent Chin” one banner read. The protests brought on enough publicity and pressure to spur the U.S Justice Department to ask the FBI to investigate the case.
A federal jury convicted Ebens and sentenced him to 25 years in prison for violating Chin’s civil rights, but a federal appeals court later overturned the decision due to a litany of issues with the trial. In the retrial, a mostly white, male, blue-collar jury delivered a not guilty verdict.
A different, yet similar outrage brewed in the wake of Arbery’s killing.
Arbery’s friends and family set up a Facebook page to bring awareness to the killing.
The New York Times published its initial report about the killing on April 26. Other national news outlets took interest shortly after, and politicians at all levels of government called for accountability and arrests.
After the video of Arbery’s slaying went viral, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation launched an investigation.
Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael were arrested within 36 hours on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault. Bryan was also arrested and charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
On May 25, the Justice Department launched an investigation into Arbery’s death as a hate crime.
Almost a month later on June 24, a grand jury indicted the three men with murder charges.
Federal intervention in both cases can be seen as an indictment of local judicial systems for their failures. It was only after federal involvement that evidence was gathered to reveal the racial animosity behind Chin’s beating. It was only after state and federal involvement that arrests occurred in Arbery’s shooting.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes
The circumstances of the Chin and Arbery killings are vastly different at some points yet eerily similar in many instances.
I could go on and on about the surface-level similarities between their cases, but we must examine the powerful forces lying underneath that let an untold amount of people with blood on their hands breathe easy and walk free.
Both Judge Kaufman and District Attorney Barnhill blamed the victims for starting the confrontation. Both cited self-defense on the part of the killers. Both relied on police reports that failed to interview key witnesses.
But at the end of the day, at the root of both cases is a white man perceiving a person of color to be something they were not. Chin was as Japanese as much as Arbery was a burglar. Even if they both were what they were perceived to be, it would hardly be grounds to kill them, yet somehow it still happened.
Honoring Vincent Chin means standing with the Black community as they seek justice for Ahmaud Arbery and the countless innocent lives that come before and after him. It means understanding that our justice system fails all people of color (and often even white victims too). It means calling out our fellow community members on their anti-Blackness. It means empowering members of our community to intervene in situations of injustice. It means calling out Asian American-perpetuated police brutality.
It is only then that we may genuinely find justice for all.
Zachariah Chou is a political science and journalism senior at the University of Florida.