Helen Zia, SF, 8/2/05
Recorded by Reese Erlich
.5 I’m Helen Zia. I’m one of the organizers and founders of American Citizens for Justice, the grass roots organization that led the campaign for justice for Vincent Chin, who was killed in hate crime in 1982.
.39 I’m Helen Zia, co-author with Wen Ho Lee of his book My Country vs. Me, the story of his persecution and prosecution by the government.
1.05 Asian American community in Detroit was quite small. /// First arrived in 1800s. Settled in 1940s-60s. There were several Chinatowns that kept moving because of freeway construction. Never exceeded several thousand in Detroit metro area of 1 million. Many worked in service industries.
A few worked in auto companies, engineering.
The notion of the model minority began in 1966 at time of urban rebellions and civil rights movement. Detroit hit by that revolution. Asian Americans, being in such small numbers were effected by the same discrimination but because numbers were so small, never had the same momentum.
US News and World Report and NY Times 1966 Asians were presented as model minority. Up until then, Japanese were the enemy. In 1950s Chinese were the enemy. It was Asians as the alien enemies.
The attitude was to not make waves, to stay below the radar. So lynchings, etc wouldn’t happen. There was a feeling of lying low. Couldn’t be accepted. College grads in Calif. Had no notion that they could go into a professions. Told why are you studying; there’s no way you can get a job.
After Civil rights movement, it became possible to “assimilate.” It was another reasons to lay low. Maybe we can be accepted as the good minority.
The civil rights movement had the effect of splitting off Asians from African Americans in the sense that Asians might be more acceptable as neighbors or co-workers.
By the 1970s and early 80s the idea of a model minority had pretty much penetrated Asian American thinking as well, buying into this notion that if having demonstrations and law suits and rebellions was part of being the uppity minority then the model minority behavior was to be quiet. The US News and World Report said, Here is a minority that will get ahead by begin quiet and by dint of their own hard work.
By the late 1970s, I was told growing up: don’t make waves, don’t be the nail that sticks up. You’ll be hammered down. Look what happens to people who raise their voices. By the 1970s people were unprepared overall for the second Arab oil embargo happened and Japan suddenly became the enemy again.
Pockets of resistance during Vietnam War, especially students. Saw other Asians in Vietnam were treated as the enemy. I grew up outside of Ft. Dix NJ. In my hometown, there were lots of military. Felt like we were the enemy. Organized as Asian Americans with a voice of resistance. For the broader Asian American community, that wasn’t on the radar screen.
By the mid 1970s, there had already been the Arab oil crisis, when gas went from $.19 to $2. Detroit kept making the gas guzzling dinosaurs. By the late 1970s there was another Arab oil embargo. That was the death knell of the auto industry. /// I was working in an auto plant. I was one of hundreds of thousands laid off.
It was devastating. Everyone was not only jobless but had no prospects of any work in the future. People who had worked an entire lifetime were now virtually penniless. /// The scapegoat became very quickly Japan. It was because of these fuel efficient, small imports that Japan had created. Japan had made the dent in the market. Suddenly with all of these unemployed, terribly miserable feelings out there, it was quite violent towards Japan and anyone who looked Japanese.
People took their guns out and shot cars on the freeway if they were Japanese cars. You couldn’t be sure what condition it would be if you left it on the street or a parking lot. There would be Japan car bashing events. For a dollar you could take a swipe with a sledge hammer at a car.
Anyone who looked Japanese was walking around in fear. You never know who might take out their own anguish and anger and hatred against you personally.
Remembered when news came out of Vincent Chin’s killing. On front page of newspaper.
A young Chinese man was out for a bachelor party the night before his wedding. He encountered two men who beat his head in with a baseball bat. Instead of his 600 guests going to his wedding, they went to his funeral.
My immediate reaction was that there was more to this story. Cut article out. I knew there was something more. Other Asians had same reaction in Detroit.
Vincent was killed in June. Nine months later another article came out. Two killers received probation for a brutal beating. They admitted to the killing.
The beating had been in front of a crowded McDonalds. There were at least 60 witnesses, including two off duty police officers. [USE AS SEGUEY TO POLICE FROM FILM]
These two men walked. They didn’t spend a day in jail. In fact they got a $3000 fine each, which they paid. The judge gave them very lenient terms to pay them off.
My blood began to boil. Story didn’t explain the circumstances. No indications it was a hate crime. I began to wonder about it.
Prior to that point, most people thought justice would be served. That was part of the learning experience, to realize that you can’t leave things up to the justice system. No community involvement despite deep feeling. That’s when the community began to mobilize.
With community having no experience /// organizing around hate crimes or civil rights issues. There was no organization in Detroit. Individuals contacted each other. There was no real prosecution. Every step of the way the criminal justice system had failed the victim. Eyewitnesses never interviewed.
A couple of people got together. Arranged for meeting with local attorney. Organized community meeting with 12-20 people. Mrs. Chin was there. All the Asian attorneys in Detroit were there (10). No experience in civil rights law. Once sentence rendered, nothing you can do.
Discussed outreach to African Americans, Jews and Arabs.
No advocacy group for us. Began bootstraps process. How discuss civil rights?
Up until this point /// people in these communities weren’t connected. They really weren’t geared towards organizing around civil rights. That became the first item on the agenda.
There was a strong sense that what happened to Vincent Chin was giving a free pass to anyone who wanted to kill Asian Americans. And we had to do something about that.
At first we had to do some fact finding. We couldn’t just say civil rights or racism without evidence. I felt there was enough to make a case.
We interviewed eyewitnesses ourselves. He had been at a strip joint for his bachelor’s party. Talked to staff at the bar.
Not only was he singled out, but Vincent and Chinese friends of his, only two were singled out: Vincent and his Chinese friend. One of the dancers at the bar heard very clearly /// They said things like, nip, Chink. It’s because of you mother fuckers that we’re out of work. The dancer at the bar heard that and later testified in court.
These killers had watched Vincent and friends enjoying themselves. /// Vincent was the groom to be. So he got a lot of attention. That’s what started the anger flowing from these two men, one of whom was a superintendent at a Chrysler plant, and the other had been an auto worker. Here in this climate where they were bashing Japanese cars and directing all this hatred towards Japanese people. Unfortunately Vincent was there and these killers saw red.
A lot of people who very much thought they should lie low, don’t make waves, were not that comfortable even using the word racism. We had a community meeting of 2-300 people ///. People stood up and said “if we want to bring a civil rights case forward, does that mean we have to talk about racism.” Some people said, you know what, that is what civil rights is involved. We have to talk about it. /// That then spread across the country.
Case watched closely in Japan and China. Throughout Chinese American Diaspora. Tremendous repercussions.
.18 ran into a wall unexpected from people we thought would be allies: ACLU, NLG. Because Vincent Chin was Asian American , they didn’t feel Chin should be protected by federal civil rights law. Michigan chapter of ACLU strongly urged us not to take this up. Asian Americans were seen as new immigrants and shouldn’t be protected. We thought it was not just absurd. Hard to hear it from these quarters.
Found a lot of support from African American groups, religious, Anti Defamation League.
Local ACLU and NLG took this position. Ignorance. On west coast, this created an enormous debate within NLG. California NLG put forward a proposal supporting this as a civil rights case. They did.
Even Ronald Reagan’s justice department saw civil rights law should apply.
There was a federal civil rights trial in Detroit. /// After hearing all the evidence, they decided that Ronald Ebbens, the man who wielded the bat, was guilty. They did not find there was enough to convict the other man. So there was a finding of guilty of violating Vincent Chin’s civil rights. Ronald Ebbens was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
That case was appealed. Too much pretrial publicity. It went to appeal. This time the case was moved to Cincinnati.
The defendant won on appeal and whole new trial ordered in Cincinnati. This time with just one killer because the other one had been acquitted.
As few Asian Americans as there in Detroit, there are fewer in Cincinnati. I sat through jury voir dire. 200-250 potential jurors. First question, do you know an Oriental people? Only 19 people raised hands. They were then treated as if they were criminal for having known Oriental people.
Foreperson of jury was laid off factory worker with profile similar to Ronald Ebbens. That jury didn’t believe that “It’s because of you mother fuckers” that we’re out of work had any racial content. SO they acquitted Ronald Ebbens.
The killers of Vincent Chin never spent a day in jail. That was the sad ending.
Even though there was a sad ending ///there was an incredible legacy. /// It had to be done. There is a good ending too. /// It really politicized an entire community to understand the whole notion of civil rights. In order to have our rights, we have to be involved. We must build alliances.
We began with no institutions, no advocacy groups. Now there are dozens or organizations. /// Several legal groups monitor for hate crimes. Vincent Chin was the landmark case that gave a name to that.
So many young people have come forth, immigrants from other countries look to this case as inspiration for them to commit themselves to fighting for justice on behalf of all people fighting against anti-Asian violence.
WEN HO LEE
Track 2, 12.17
I first became involved in the Wen Ho Lee case when I read front page of NY Times March 1999. Chinese American spy identified but they didn’t mention his name. Worst spy since Rosenbergs in 1950s. Rosenbergs were executed.
Chinese Americans were generating all these spies in America. This story signaled to me something is happening here. Witchunt. Unnamed sources. We had just finished 2 years of demonization of Asian Americans, espec. Chinese, in campaign finance scandals during Clinton Administration.
After watching this case /// I first came out with a publish statement. Press conference at city hall in SF. Whatever accusations there were against this man, Wen Ho Lee, he was entitled to a fair trail without pre judgment. NY Times and other media had pretty much convicted him.
I went to a press conference. Met some relatives. Through that contact later met Alberta Lee. Attend some rallies.
These were top secret allegations. People accusing Wen Ho Lee were unnamed. Very few facts about what he had allegedly done. Everything was guilty, guilty. All the organizing was give this man a fair trial. And let’s not paint everything other Asian American as a potential spy.
Big difference between the two.
We can look back now and say Wen Ho Lee was unjustly persecuted. But at the time, people really did not know who he was, what he may or may not have done. There were these incredible allegations . /// Asian Americans had experience WWII and 1950s red scares. Someone accused of being a spy or today of being a terrorist /// this was something a lot of Asian Americans were reluctant to get involved in.
Vincent Chin was /// clearly a victim of a civil rights, a hate crime. That could have been anyone. /// People really identified with the possibility that that could have been them and it was wrong. That was a classic civil rights case.
With Wen Ho Lee, was this man a criminal himself? Fighting for the rights of a potential criminal for a fair hearing was something a different degree. Not everybody could comfortably join in on that.
Was there a connection to China. Spying for China. That caused some groups to hesitate.
As the facts began to unfold, as Wen Ho Lee’s were able to launch a true defense, /// untangle this web of secrecy, it became clear that Wen Ho Lee was being singled out. People began to feel that something wasn’t right here.
Wen Ho Lee effect. If he was a spy, what about other Asian Americans. Anecdotally, people called me of people called in by the FBI. Some and so family being charged with industrial espionage.
Anyone initially reluctant began to see we have to take a stand. This is way beyond one individual.
I sat through and read all the court proceedings. ///
In the workgroup of 70 some other scientists where Wen Ho Lee worked /// and Wen Ho Lee was the Chinese American. There were a handful of scientists with the same “profile” as Wen Ho Lee who had visited China on lab business ///
None of them were taken seriously as suspects or investigated. Wen Ho Lee was the only person the government ever investigated. He was ethnic Chinese.
23.15 ****** (CD PROBLEM) USE DAT
They’ve never been able to make the case that anything was actually stolen, handed over. The miniaturization of nuclear weapons, so much is available on the internet. /// It’s scary. /// A number of America’s top nuclear scientists testified that China is perfectly capable of miniaturizing nuclear weapons on its own. /// They did not need Wen Ho Lee or anyone else. ///