Remembering Vincent Chin

At first glance, it seems like an unlikely place for the genesis of an Asian-American civil-rights movement — inside the now-defunct Fancy Pants topless club in Detroit. It was June 19, 1982; Vincent Chin, a 27-year old Chinese-American was out to celebrate his upcoming wedding with three friends. Enter Ronald Ebens, a 43-year old Chrysler foreman and his stepson, Michael Nitz, regular patrons of the Fancy Pants who, after a few drinks, mistakenly assumed Chin was Japanese and blamed him for the unemployment caused by Japanese auto imports. A shouting match started. Witness later told police that Ebens said, "It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work." After the men came to blows Chin, Ebens and Nitz were kicked out of the bar. Ebens and Nitz got a baseball bat from their car, caught up with Chin by a nearby McDonald's, held him down and beat him into a coma. Chin died four days later — a day after he was to be married.

When both Eben and Nitz pleaded guilty to manslaughter, Wayne County judge Charles Kaufman punished them with three years probation and moderate fines. When outspoken members of the Asian-American community brought the case to the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, Chin’s death made national headlines. Eben was charged with violating Chin’s civil rights, but due to a mistrial neither man spent a day in jail.

20 years later, Vincent Chin’s story is still as surreally horrifying and socially relevant as the day it happened. In memory of Chin, local activists have organized a "Rededication to Justice: Vincent Chin 20th Year Remembrance," a three-day teach-in to promote cross-cultural awareness, contemporary civil rights and justice issues through film, discussion, poetry and activism.

The events start on Friday, June 21, with a showing of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church’s Red Door Theatre (4605 Cass Ave., Detroit). The authoritative film on the events that surrounded Chin’s death is an ideal introduction to the weekend; the film recognizes Chin’s death as a seminal event that helped spark the Asian-American civil-rights movement in the United States. It presents a stark confrontation of racism in working-class Detroit that is as uncommon as it is riveting.

Registration for the events begin on Saturday morning at the International Institute (111 E. Kirby, Detroit). There will be discussions and lectures about race, criminal justice and politics. Featured speakers include Howard University law professor Frank Wu, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Executive Director Imad Hamad and NAACP Detroit Chapter Executive Director Heaster Wheeler among many others of note.

Saturday evening’s "Stand Up for Justice: Poetry and Performance" will memorialize Chin through spoken-word performances, featuring an evening of highly regarded poets from around the country. In addition to Detroit’s own National Poetry Slam champion Matthew Scott Olzmann, there will be readings and performances by the Long-Hairz Collective, Philadelphia-based female slam duo Yellow Rage and Steve Hosik Moon.

The final events of the memorial will take place Sunday afternoon with a pilgrimage to Chin’s gravesite and an interfaith memorial service at Forest Lawn Cemetery (11851 Van Dyke, Detroit).

For more information on these events, call the American Citizens for Justice at 248-352-1020; details are also available at All events are free and open to the public. Nate Cavalieri is Metro Times’ listings editor. E-mail him at [email protected]

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