Paula Yoo. From A Whisper To A Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement. Norton Young Readers, 2021. (374 pages)
I bought this book at 3 p.m. in the afternoon. I finished it at 3 a.m. in the morning. (Well, I did have to eat dinner with the family!) In other words, I couldn’t put it down. I highly commend this read to you as an incredibly well-crafted presentation of the story and case, giving insight into yet another thread of the dynamic American fabric. @PaulaYoo has given us—and especially young readers—a gift that is journalistically beautiful, literarily captivating, and profoundly human.
Prior to this book, I had never heard of Vincent Chin (I did first read his name in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction), and am grateful to have now made the introduction. The story is tragic on so many levels, and both the crime and the punishment are brutal; the former for its barbarity, the latter for its heinous abdication of justice. A third dimension is the seeming insouciance of Ronald Ebens, the person who killed Vincent Chin.
Yet, I must confess, I’m skeptical of how much race can be attributed to this case, even if it absolutely a theme of the overall story. On the face of the material presented in this book, and the various public articles and reports that are available, arguing the case for this being a “hate” crime according to the statute based upon racial animus is still unclear, unsettled, and ambiguous. The definitions read as follows (italics mine):
Hate Crime: At the federal level, a crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. (from Justice.gov)
A hate crime (also known as a bias-motivated crime or bias crime) is a prejudice-motivated crime which occurs when a perpetrator targets a victim because of their membership (or perceived membership) of a certain social group or racial demographic. (from Wikipedia)
Even if a racial slur was used in the moment of confrontation at the Fancy Pants Club, this is not necessarily the, or a motivation for the violent attack.
The reason why I think this is important is that when certain cases get adjudicated in the court of public opinion, the precision by which we evaluate the evidence is extremely relevant to its fortitude in making the argument. In other words, if it can be reasonably argued that this was not a hate crime, and we insist on positing it as such, this could be perceived as slightly unprincipled, perhaps even unethical, a manipulation of the story to fit our agenda. This can then be used counterproductively as rhetoric to dismiss the entirety of the program of fighting hate crimes altogether. I say this with no celebration. Again, this is in the court of public opinion. I simply observe this to be a reality, which should motivate us to be robust in our work, our definitions, our evaluations, and our prosecutions. As to the Vincent Chin case, the evidence for this being a hate crime is very minimal.
[For the record, the miscarriage—in my humble opinion—is the charge of “manslaughter.” The testimonial evidence of the case suggests second-degree murder, as defined, “an unplanned intentional killing (reacting in the heat of the moment when angry); a death caused by a reckless disregard for human life.” Even if Ebens was drunk, this definition could certainly be argued given that he wielded a deadly object and repeatedly used that object to inflict great harm.]
Setting aside my armchair judicial evaluations, I do recognize the power of cases like this to galvanize real, honest, and meaningful work towards greater justice. In some ways, what I said in the paragraphs above is irrelevant. Vincent’s tragic death evolving into a vast justice movement beyond his case is an inspiring phenomenon, one that is to be celebrated and advanced.
Regardless, I hope this post, my reading of the book, and my sharing here honor Vincent’s life, @PaulaYoo’s work, and the efforts to fight hatred in all forms.
PART I: “THE LAST TIME”
[(Image Caption) People stand in line to apply or jobs at a Ford auto plant in 1977. When Vincent was killed in 1982, Detroit’s unemployment rate was twice the national average. Anger and fear over the hundreds of thousands of layoffs in the auto industry soon transformed into anti-Asian racism as competition with Japan’s import auto industry became a scapegoat for Detroit’s economic woes.] (43)
…it was not uncommon to see American-made cars in Detroit sporting red-white-and-blue-colored bumper stickers with the words DATSUN. TOYOTA. NISSAN. REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR! (43)
After the 1967 Detroit protests and the oil crisis and economic recession in the 1970s, Detroit’s population plummeted as more than 300,000 people moved out between 1970 and 1980. (43)
There was now a new “Big Three” threatening to take over America: Toyota, Datsun (now Nissan), and Honda. (47)
| These Japanese companies made more fuel-efficient cars. The cars were solidly built and, more important, cheap. They were more affordable than the expensive eight-cylinder gas-guzzlers made by Ford, GM, and Chrysler. (47)
| But for Michigan natives, buying a Japanese import car was considered treason in the state where Henry Ford had invented the automobile. It was anti-American. (47)
| In the early 1980s, racism against people of Japanese descent was at an all-time high in Detroit. “[Anti-Japanese] feeling in Detroit is running higher than I’ve seen it,” said teacher and Detroit native Elaine Prout,… (47)
As Jarod earned more about Vincent Chin’s death and the controversial verdict that polarized not just Detroit but America, he began to understand why his mother was so strict with him. She wanted to make sure what happened to Vincent didn’t happen to him. (52)
PART II: “IT’S NOT FAIR”
We’re talking here about a man who’s held down a responsible job with the same company for seventeen or eighteen years and his son who is employed and is a part-time student. These men are not going to go out and harm somebody else. I just didn’t think putting them in prison would do any good for them or for society. You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal. — Judge Kaufman
No one knows exactly how many Chinese men were killed from these explosions, but there are estimates of over fifteen hundred unnamed deaths. This horrific toll soon led to the racist expression a Chinaman’s chance in hell, meaning “no chance at all.” (65)
The basement laundry was no longer a prison. America had become her prison. (67)
PART III: JUSTICE FOR VINCENT CHIN
On the night of June 19, 1982, when Officer Morris Cotton was filling out his police report about the killing of Vincent Chin, the form contained only two boxes to mark the victim’s race.
The phrase Asian American was actually first used in 1968 by University of California, Berkeley graduate students Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka. They established a group called the Asian American Political Alliance to be inclusive for people of all Asian descent. (138)
PART IV: UNITED STATES V. RONALD EBENS AND MICHAEL NITZ
But the defense team still wondered why choi had first said there was no racial provocation from the defendants before later changing his mind. (194)
| Choi’s answer shed light on how difficult it was for Asian Americans in the 1980s to deal with racism. (194)
| “Well, there was a time, okay, for Chinese, we try not to, (194) shall I say, react,” Choi explained. “Usually, we can take a lot of things … I tried to shun all of the racial things away from me. I had a few experiences, mostly when I deal with my classmates at school, but a few times when somebody likes drives by and just told me Chink, I tried to brush it aside.” (195)
| Whether he realized it or not, Choi’s answer revealed why the Vincent Chin killing was a watershed moment for Asian America: the price for brushing racism aside may have been too high. (195)
cf. Michigan Legal Milestones 34.
PART V: BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT
It’s always a mistake if you want to avoid witness coaching to talk to all the witnesses at once. … You can hear witnesses memories evolve, like ‘Yeah yeah, no, no, now I remember him saying this!,’ and that’s very suspect. Memory is not a videotape you replay. Memory is something that your brain creates … and memory is very susceptible to influence, and you can change your memory especially when you’re in a group like that. You can hear the memory evolve as the interview went on, and the allegations and the memory continued to evolve during the trial. — Frank Eaman, Ronald Ebens lawyer
And then there was a subtle language issue that Chan believed may have given the impression that she was coaching the witnesses. Chan was born in Hong Kong and raised to speak British English. She was not familiar with America idioms and expressions. For example, when she told Koivu, Siroskey, and Choi that they needed to “get your stories straight,” she did not realize that the phrase “get your stories straight” in American English had a negative connotation—that it implied lying. “I thought it meant ‘tell me what you know, tell me your truth,'” she explained. (270)
PART VI: “REMEMBER ME ALWAYS”
But Lily soon realized it wasn’t just Vincent’s death and the acquittal of his killer that haunted her.
It was America. (286)
cf. “Manslaughter: The Price of Life,” October 1983
“Plea bargaining is supposed to speed up justice, allow prosecutors more time for more important cases, tailor punishment to the offender’s background and record, and keep courts from collapsing under the weighty volume of cases,” they wrote. But instead of unclogging the court system, the reporters learned, it had the opposite effect, because “the pleas of guilty as charged skyrocketed” and created the impression that killers were “cheating justice.” (297)
cf. Victims of Crime Act, 1984; 1982 Victim and Witness Protection Act
cf. Vincent Who?: https://mountainview.kanopy.com/video/vincent-who-1