TEXT ON SCREEN:Flushing, Queens, New York
SAM CHENG: Growing up in New York City, you kind of just always watch your back and I think during Covid, certainly it heightened my sense of awareness around my surroundings even more.
NARRATION: In February 2021, Sam Chengs mother was waiting in line at her neighborhood bakery when a stranger violently shoved her.
SAM CHENG: She hit her head on one of the mailboxes and she passed out. My mother wasnt the first one who has gotten hurt since Covid.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 5-6-21): NEWS REPORT: The shocking surge in attacks on Asian Americans, theyve skyrocketed in the past year as some falsely blame Asians for the pandemic.
NARRATION: When police caught Sams mothers attacker, there was clear evidence hed committed assault. But Cheng believed that his mother had been targeted for her race, and wanted the attacker charged with a hate crime, too.
SAM CHENG: I think if it’s classified as a hate crime, it’s stronger and better for a community to rally and to show that, hey, this is happening. But, how would we prove it? Where would I find the evidence if they just walked up and shove someone?
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 9-6-83):PROTESTERS: We want justice!
NARRATION: That question how to prove an attack was racially-motivated was central to a historic case 40 years ago, at another time when anti-Asian sentiment was on the rise.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 9-6-83): NEWS REPORT: Detroit, a tough town on hard times, where some blame the Japanese for the loss of their jobs.
NARRATION: In 1982, the once-great auto industry of Detroit, Michigan, was hit hard by a recession and stiff competition from cheaper, more fuel efficient cars made in Japan.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 9-30-80): NEWS REPORT: Automobiles were supposed to be our game, but this is like a foreign competitor winning the World Series. How could the key to the American economy suffer one of the worst collapses in American history?
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1-4-82): AUTOWORKER: I’m talking about 13 years of constant working, and all of a sudden my home is in jeopardy and everything.
NARRATION: As resentment toward Japanese imports grew
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-17-83): NEWS REPORT: There’s fear of the Japanese, even hatred.
NARRATION:…some Asian Americans in Detroit felt a growing threat.
HELEN ZIA (CO-FOUNDER, AMERICAN CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE): Every Asian American just had the feeling of looking over your shoulder where you went and, are people looking at me with hate, or like, theyre going to do something to me.
NARRATION: That summer, 27-year-old Vincent Chin was about to be married.
ANNIE TAN: It was June 19th, 1982. My cousin Vincent Chin decided to do an impromptu bachelor party, as one does. And he invited his friends to the Fancy Pants Club and there was two men, Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, who were across the bar. And they were having this argument.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 9-6-83): NEWS REPORT: The two men Vincent Chin fought with in the bar found him here, a few blocks away, and in the middle of the street, beat him with a baseball bat.
ARCHIVAL (PBS, 1988): WITNESS: He swung the bat as if a baseball player was swinging for a home run. Full contact, full swing.
ANNIE TAN: Vincent was in a coma. And I believe he was declared brain dead when my Great Auntie Lily pulled the plug. And so he died on June 23rd, 1982.
NARRATION: Despite the brutality of the attack, Chins killers one of whom was a foreman at Chrysler never spent a day in jail.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-28-83): NEWS REPORT: The charge, second degree murder, plea bargained to manslaughter. The sentence, a $3,000 fine each, three years probation, no time in prison.DETROIT RESIDENT: Discrimination. We dont want that! We want justice done.
HELEN ZIA: It was a moment of total outrage, total shock. How could this be? You beat a man to death and you get probation?
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-28-83): NEWS REPORT: Judge Charles Kaufman says justice was done, adding, “These men are not going to go out and harm somebody else. I just didn’t think that putting them in prison would do any good for them or for society.
NARRATION: The family and their allies pressured the Justice Department to prosecute Chins killers for violating his civil rights.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 11-2-83):LILY CHIN:I want justice for my son, I must tell to everybody, know, how they kill my son.
NARRATION: The Justice Department had brought similar charges for attacks on African Americans under a civil rights-era law, but the prosecutor in the Chin case says it was the first involving an Asian American.
THEODORE MERRITT (FORMER PROSECUTOR, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, CIVIL RIGHTS DIVISION): I argued that the ferocity of the beating was fueled by some kind of racial animus.
NARRATION: Theodore Merritt says his task of proving that Ebens killed Chin because of his race was not easy and Ebens denied it.
ARCHIVAL (PBS, 1988):RONALD EBENS: Im no racist. Ive never been a racist. I know very few Asians, very few. And the ones that I do know have always been really nice people.
NARRATION: But at a federal trial in Detroit, one of the dancers at the Fancy Pants testified.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-28-83):NEWS REPORT: She was working in the club when the argument broke out. Ebens, the autoworker, she says, started it.RACINE CALDWELL: And he had made the remark, and the Chinese, about, yeah, because you mother [BLEEP] were outta work. Thats about what he said.
THEODORE MERRITT: It’s because of you mother [BLEEP] we’re out of work and that would explain what his, uh, racial attitudes were towards Chin.
NARRATION: The jury found Ebens guilty, and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. But on appeal, Ebens who did not respond to an interview request for this story went free again.
ARCHIVAL (PBS, 1988):RONALD EBENS: Pleased? I feel great. O.K.? Anybody would.
ANNIE TAN: My Great-Auntie Lily Chin was so heartbroken that she decided to move to China because she couldnt see justice in America any more.
NARRATION: Even though the Chin case ended in acquittal, it set a precedent that attacks against Asian Americans could be prosecuted as racially-motivated crimes. And legislation soon followed.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 4-23-90):PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: And now I’m pleased to sign the Hate Crime Statistics Act into the law.
NARRATION: In 1990, the federal government began tracking hate crimes for the first time. And many states passed new hate crime laws.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 10-16-80):DAN RATHER: Matthew Shepherd, the gay college student who was so savagely murdered.
NARATION: Over time, federal hate crime law was expanded to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. But attorney Stanley Mark says that prosecutors still have difficulty proving hate crimes.
STANLEY MARK (SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY, ASIAN AMERICAN LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATION FUND): The evidence is hard to gather. Some of the victims dont speak English, they dont necessarily understand what the racial slurs are. Its easier to prosecute for, um, assault without trying to establish the motivation and intent of the perpetrator at the time the crime was committed.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 2-19-21):REPORTER: Sam, at this point, New York police are not categorizing this as a hate crime. Do we have clues as to what hils motivation was for this?
NARRATION: In the case of Sam Chengs mother, her attacker eventually admitted to a reporter that he had made a remark about her race during the attack where he pushed her.
SAM CHENG: And I was just like copy, paste it. And I screenshot it. And I send it to the D.A. I’m just like, you guys should look into this. We just kind of got lucky, I would say.
NARRATION: After that, her attacker was charged and pled guilty to a hate crime. According to the FBIs most recent data, anti-Asian hate crimes rose sharply during the pandemic.
STANLEY MARK: It’s important to prosecute hate crimes because we need accountability. Because this kind of conduct, particularly the motivation behind it, feeds into this climate of hate and fear.
NARRATION: But the legacy of Vincent Chin isnt just hate crime prosecutions. His death sparked a movement.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 9-6-83):PROTESTERS: We want justice! We want justice!REPORTER: The sentences outraged Chinese Americans in Detroit and around the country.
HELEN ZIA: When Vincent Chin was killed that was a turning point for the Asian American community. We knew that terrible thing had happened to Vincent, but it could have been my brothers, my friends. It was really a Pan-Asian movement that developed, truly a civil rights movement.
HELEN ZIA (GIVING A BUS TOUR): Were going to take you to some of the highlights where the activism took place.
NARRATION: Forty years after Chins death, family members and supporters gathered in Detroit.
ANNIE TAN: My Great-Auntie Lily Chin and activists and lawyers had to lay the foundation that hate crimes happen to us. And today we have the legacy of Vincent Chin to thank. And I know this because Ive seen the reaction in so many peoples faces and Ive heard the testimonies of so many friends of mine and allies and activists and organizers who have all told me that they became the person they are today because they heard my cousins story.