The Role of the Media in the Vincent Chin Case and in the Birth of the Asian American Civil Rights Movement
State Bar of Michigan 34th Michigan Legal Milestone--From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry
Comments by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, American Citizens for Justice Executive Director
June 19, 2009
One of my favorite stories surrounding the Vincent Chin case is how it went from a local story about a barroom brawl to a national one about civil rights in America...at a car rental place. Helen Zia was a founding member of American Citizens for Justice and one of the lead activists, and her car was in the shop, so she had to rent a car. As she stood in line at the rental car agency, she noticed that the tall African American woman in front of her had both the Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press open to articles about the case, and she noticed that the woman was also holding a small notebook embossed with the words, "New York Times." So she leaned over and asked, "Are you interested in this case? I have some press packets right here, if you'd like." It turns out that when reporters are on vacation, if they can find some story to write about while they are there, they can get part of their expenses reimbursed. So this New York Times reporter, Judith Cummins, was in Detroit visiting family and looking for a story to do while she was here. I believe that this story caught her eye, in part, because she was African American and had some understanding that race and racism sometime play into these things. And so from the beginning, this case has been about people recognizing across ethnicity and across race that this could have been any one of us, this could have been me, that the danger of racial stereotypes is that real people and real lives are reduced to caricature.
I have been asked to speak about the role of the media regarding the Vincent Chin case and the birth of the Asian American civil rights movement, and so I will talk about the role of the media at the time of the case, what has happened since that time, and what the future holds for American Citizens for Justice and civil rights.
When Judge Kaufman sentenced Vincent Chin's killers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, to a $3000 fine and three years probation, Asian Americans came together at the Golden Star Restaurant, and in the stunned silence that followed the lawyers' conclusion that legally there was nothing more to do, counterpointed by the sobs of Mrs. Chin, Vincent's mother, Journalist Helen Zia's voice broke the silence, "But we have to say something. We can't not say anything."
Before this moment, there were many Asian Americans who thought that if they just worked hard, laid low, and taught their children good English, that they would be able to quietly assimilate into the American dream. This case taught them that they cannot make such assumptions. And thanks in part to the leadership of American Citizens for Justice, Asian Americans woke up to the importance of being involved, speaking up, being visible, forming coalitions and building networks. There were protest rallies and remembrance vigils across the country--including Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago--that brought together Asian Americans of all ethnicities. And these protests were well-covered by the media because they seemed so incongruous--The Model Minority waving protest banners?
In Asian American Dreams, Helen Zia talks about how the Chinese American scientists and engineers from Ford, GM, and Chrysler planning the protest in Detroit joked that this would be "the most precisely planned demonstration in history." The signs were all uniform, and the words were all in straight lines, and they had it choreographed down to 20-second intervals what people would chant and how they would turn.
This was the first time that Asian Americans spontaneously mobilized around a unified cause. It taught Asian Americans how to organize, network, build coalitions, fundraise. It created new organizations to watchdog and monitor civil rights issues for Asian Americans. This was the birth of the Asian American civil rights movement.
Key to this awareness and mobilization was education and media coverage--education of the Asian American community about their rights in America, education of the general public about what Asian Americans are really like, education of the legal community about whether or not Asian Americans are even covered by civil rights laws, education of elected officials about the impact of racially suggestive campaigns directed against Asian imports. Without this national mobilization, and national and international media attention, there never would have been a federal hate crime trial, and we would have been left with only Mrs. Chin's words:
"What kind of law is this? What kind of justice? This happened because my son is Chinese. If two Chinese killed a white person, they must go to jail, maybe for their whole lives & Some thing is wrong with this country."
Since then, the history of the Vincent Chin case has become a staple in Asian American Studies, Ethnic Studies, American Cultures, and law courses around the country. The Academy Award winning documentary film by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena, Who Killed Vincent Chin? has been shown to generations of college students. There have been remembrance events--vigils, dinners, conferences, poetry slams--organized around the country on the 10th, 20th, and 25th year anniversaries of Vincent Chin's death. Now there is a new documentary film produced by Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, Vincent Who? about how too many college students--who at this point are all born after 1982--do not know about this case or its importance, even as they take being Asian American and being a part of Asian American clubs and communities for granted.
I wish I could say that something like the Vincent Chin case could never happen again. However, the sad truth is that it already has. Last July, Luis Ramirez, a 25 year old Mexican immigrant and father of two, was walking in a park with his Caucasian fiance when he was beaten to death by a group of drunken white teenagers, high school football players with good grades, in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, a depressed coal-mining town. Several witnesses report that they shouted ethnic slurs before, during, and after the attack that left Luis Ramirez unconscious and foaming at the mouth, his skull fractured in two places, his brains leaking onto the pavement. He died two days later. The attackers were acquitted by an all-white jury of all serious charges, including third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation. They were convicted of simple assault, and this Wednesday, they were sentenced to 23 months in a county prison, and could become eligible for parole in as little as seven months.
However, 27 years after the death of Vincent Chin, there are striking differences. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) already exists and is taking the lead on this case. They are about to deliver a petition signed by more than 50,000 people across the country to demand that the Department of Justice press federal charges against Ramirez's attackers. Hispanic American, Asian American, Arab American, and African American civil rights organizations are joining forces, offering support, and sharing technical expertise. The internet, email, blogs, and social networking sites offer huge opportunities for getting the word out. Finally, despite the current struggles of mainstream newspapers, ethnic media and ethnic new media are on the rise and they are covering this story because they know that with this recession and the current anti-immigrant climate, it could have been any of us, and any of us could be next.
And so for the future, American Citizens for Justice will continue to educate the Asian American community about hate crimes, fair treatment, and civil rights; continue to educate the public, the legal community, and elected officials about Asian American civil rights issues; continue to build coalitions with other Asian American and civil rights groups; continue to do Court Watches and monitoring of cases that may have civil rights implications; continue to advocate and speak out against racially motivated injustice everywhere.
From a Whisper to A Rallying Cry, indeed.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is Executive Director of American Citizens for Justice, the nonprofit Asian American civil rights advocacy group founded when Vincent Chin was killed. Ms. Wang is also a freelance writer and speaker on Asian American history, identity, and multicultural parenting issues. She writes a column called "Adventures in Multicultural Living," about creating a life and walking with all the different cultures around us. This column is syndicated nationwide and available locally at AnnArborChronicle.com. She is also acting arts and culture editor for IMDiversity.com Asian-American Village. She is currently working on a book manuscript about Asian American identity in the Midwest. She team-teaches a course at the University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn on Asian Pacific American History and the Law. She is also the Outreach Coordinator of the Ann Arbor Chinese Center of Michigan where she leads a team of rambunctious young Lion Dancers. She is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She has four children. Her website is multiculturaltoolbox.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright Frances Kai-Hwa Wang 2009