Detroit officials plan to honor 1982 murder victim Vincent Chin

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — City officials Monday announced plans to commemorate the 40th anniversary next month of a death of a man beaten with a baseball bat in Highland Park that became a rallying cry for Metro Detroit's Asian community.

Vincent Chin on June 19, 1982, was fatally bludgeoned outside a McDonald's restaurant. His attackers were two men Chin had argued with and then brawled with earlier in the Highland Park strip club Fancy Pants Tavern, where Chin was celebrating his impending wedding.

Vincent Chin

There were conflicting reports about what sparked the fight between White autoworker Ronald Ebens, his stepson Michael Nitz and Chin of Oak Park, a 27-year-old Chinese-American engineering student.

One strip club employee testified she heard Ebens hurl racial slurs at Chin during the argument. The employee said Ebens had blamed Chin for Japanese automakers taking American jobs. Others disputed the claim.

Following a fight in the bar, Ebens and Nitz followed Chin outside and beat him to death with a baseball bat.

Asian Americans across the nation were outraged when Ebens and Nitz avoided jail time for the killing. They each were given three years' probation and fined $3,720 after they pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

"That was the springboard for the modern Asian American civil rights movement," said Helen Zia, a representative of Vincent Chin's estate and activist who has been involved in the case. "Detroit was its epicenter."

Zia spoke at a gathering Monday at Cass and Peterboro, the former site of Detroit's Chinatown, where city officials and others announced a four-day commemoration of Chin from June 16-19.

The "Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance & Rededication" will "honor the civil rights legacy that began with the Vincent Chin case and declare a commitment to the struggle to end hate crimes," according to a city press release.

A mural of Chin by artist Anthony Lee will be unveiled during the celebration. Cultural and performing arts events also are planned, and the 1987 documentary "Who Killed Vincent Chin" will air on WTBS Ch. 56.

"There are in your life certain events that shake your outlook," Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said during Monday's briefing. "I got deeply interested in this case. How could this happen in my hometown?

"The (criminal justice) system didn't care," Duggan said. "It was a deep lesson, something we're learning to this day, that the system acts differently depending on the color of your skin."

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, the first Asian American woman to be elected to the Michigan Legislature, said it's important to remember Chin amid a reported rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.

"It's disheartening that 40 years later there's still so much work to do," Chang said.

State Senator Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, speaks about the work that needs to be done for justice to be served equally for Asian Americans in Detroit on Tuesday, May 2, 2022. The "Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance & Rededication" will "honor the civil rights legacy that began with the Vincent Chin case and declare a commitment to the struggle to end hate crimes," according to a city press release.

On the night he was killed, Chin was celebrating his wedding, which was to be held in five days. He reportedly had just finished a shift as a part-time waiter before heading to the bar with friends.

At some point, Chin traded barbs with Ebens, a Chrysler plant supervisor, and Nitz, both of the former East Detroit, now Eastpointe. The words escalated into violence, with the combatants reportedly throwing chairs at each other inside the bar before the fight spilled into the street.

Chin and a friend fled the bar. Ebens and Nitz went looking for them, according to court testimony, because Chin had bloodied Nitz's face with a punch.

The two men found Chin near a McDonald's restaurant on Woodward. A second fight ensued. Ebens retrieved a Louisville Slugger Jackie Robinson signature baseball bat from his car and repeatedly struck Chin in the head with it.

Chin's last words before sinking into unconsciousness reportedly were, "It's not fair."

Three days after the beating, following emergency surgery, Chin died in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second-degree murder, prompting 30th District Court Judge Thomas Bayles to say at their arraignment, "I am of the opinion that the defendants in this case were undercharged. The elements of first-degree murder are here."

Bayles said there had been enough time between the initial bar fight and the bludgeoning outside the McDonald's for the two sides to cool off. "There was the willful, premeditated killing of a human being."

But after the case was bound over for trial, the two men cut a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. Wayne Circuit Court Judge Charles Kaufman said the defendants didn't deserve to go to prison.

"I just didn't think putting them in prison would do any good for them or for society," Kaufman later said of his decision.

The mock-up of the drawing that will be made into a mural in honor of Vincent Chin in Detroit on Tuesday, May 2, 2022.

The ruling rallied Metro Detroit's Asian community, which staged letter-writing campaigns and hired lawyers to try unsuccessfully to have Kaufman's decision overturned.

In 1983, Ebens and Nitz were indicted on federal charges of violating Chin's civil rights, making it the first such case involving an Asian American.

Nitz was acquitted. Ebens initially was convicted, but the decision was overturned after a 1987 appeal. Ebens last was ordered to pay Chin's family $65,600 in damages.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN