Rafu Staff Report

For some in the Asian American community, the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin brings back memories of another racially charged case from 30 years ago.

Lily Chin and Sybrina Fulton.

On Feb. 26, the African American teenager was shot in Sanford, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, by George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch captain. The shooter, who has not been arrested or charged with a crime, claimed that he fired in self-defense. Martin was unarmed and was carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea.

The incident has sparked outrage across the country. Martin’s parents attended a rally in New York City on Wednesday. Sybrina Fulton told the protesters, “My son did not deserve to die.”

In Los Angeles, a rally was scheduled for March 22 in Leimert Park.

The Department of Justice is investigating.

On June 23, 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American, was beaten to death in Highland Park, a city located within Detroit’s city limits, by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, who allegedly mistook Chin for a Japanese and blamed him for the slump in the U.S. auto industry. Ebens repeatedly struck Chin in the head with a baseball bat.

The charges were plea-bargained down from second-degree murder to manslaughter, and Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced the two men to probation and fines. He later said, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”

The Asian American community in Detroit and nationwide was incensed, and succeeded in having the two men tried on federal charges for violating Chin’s civil rights. In 1984, Ebens was found guilty on one count and sentenced to 25 years in prison; Nitz was acquitted. However, the conviction was overturned on appeal in 1986 and a retrial in 1987 resulted in Ebens being cleared of all charges.

In 1987, Renee Tajima-Peña and Christine Choy directed “Who Killed Vincent Chin?,” which featured interviews with the principals in the case, including Lily Chin, the victim’s mother, and Ebens. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature.

Tajima-Peña, who is now a professor of social documentation at UC Santa Cruz, wrote on her Facebook page, “I don’t think anything has hit me in the gut like the Trayvon Martin case since Vincent Chin was killed 30 years ago. I understand that in a legal case, there must be time to sort out the facts. But the search for truth and justice must begin now …

“As I listened to an interview with Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, I thought of another mother whose son was marked by race and paid the price. Lily Chin. ‘What kind of law is this? What kind of justice? This happened because my son is Chinese.’ All our sons are Trayvon Martin.”

She added, “Trayvon Martin is only one of many. To be young, male, and especially black or brown, is to be a child in the crosshairs.”

Asian American civil rights groups shared those sentiments. The Korematsu Institute in San Francisco said, “Lily Chin and Sybrina Fulton remind us that these tragedies affect us all,” while the Pacific Southwest District of JACL said, “It’s important to remember our history, so we don’t repeat ourselves. Like Martin Luther King Jr. says, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

A “Justice for Trayvon Martin” page has been established on Facebook.

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  1. I just revisited this article after hearing about the “not guilty” in the Zimmerman case. Thanks, Rafu Shimpo, for showing how our communities are so intertwined.