Earlier this week, I attended a screening of Vincent Who? in South Seattle. Even though I knew a bit about the Vincent Chin incident, I’m so glad that I went — the film was amazingly worthwhile and really illuminated the impact this tragic hate crime had on mobilizing the pan-Asian movement.
Vincent Chin was a Chinese American from Detroit, murdered in 1982 by two white autoworkers who mistook who him for Japanese. Disgruntled by layoffs caused by what they perceived as a Japanese takeover of the auto industry, they followed Vincent out of a club and beat him with a baseball bat, cracking his skull. At 27, Vincent had recently gotten engaged, and was the only son of Lily Chin. His last words before slipping into a fatal coma were, “It’s not fair.”
Vincent’s attackers literally got away with murder, given a fine of $3,000 and 3 years of probation, serving not a single day of jail time. Outraged, Asian American community members organized and protested, making it the first case regarding an Asian American to receive national attention, and laying the historic and unprecedented groundwork for pan-Asian and multiracial coalitions.
The documentary, made on the 25th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s death, examines the lasting legacy of his case and shows heart-wrenching footage of family members, as well as interviews with activists who were mobilized, politicized, or otherwise influenced by the hate crime and subsequent lack of justice…leaders like Helen Zia (author of Asian American Dreams), Eun Sook Lee (National Korean American Service & Education Consortium), Doua Thor (Southeast Asia Resource Action Center), Corky Lee (photojournalist), Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man), and Eric Nakamura (Giant Robot).
Curtis Chin, producer and family friend to the Chins (Curtis also co-founded the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and APAs for Progress), came up from L.A. for a post-film discussion. Curtis has been presenting Vincent Who? across the country, partly as an activist recruitment tool, and is approaching his 200th screening.
Vincent Who? opens by asking contemporary Asian American college students if they know who Vincent Chin is…dozens of them have no idea. Curtis feels that if we as an Asian American community do not know our own history, then we cannot fully realize our power and potential. He presents the film to not only illustrate a pivotal time in our history, but to re-emphasize a vision of what a pan-Asian and progressive community can be.
Given the current reality of ethnic studies being banned in Arizona and efforts to erase Cesar Chavez from Texas textbooks, this message is all the more relevant and urgent. And as far as hate crimes, they are no thing of the past. Vincent Who? draws parallels to attacks on Muslim Americans and those perceived as Muslim after 9/11. Violence against Latinos and Asians also continues, as anti-immigrant scapegoating grows about “illegals” taking our jobs or employment being outsourced to China.
Do we have to wait until the next tragedy to become more galvanized, or can we continue to cultivate a united, progressive movement, believing that our own politicized actions — no matter how small, do matter? In the documentary, Tanzila Ahmed, of the blog Sepia Mutiny, stressed the significance of everything we do being a political act, whether it’s reading political blogs or engaging in direct advocacy.
Vincent Who? was powerful and inspiring, and just might renew your commitment to social justice work and your belief in our ability, and the necessity, to make change happen. I can’t recommend enough attending a local screening — check out the schedule here, or even organize your own. And you can get a copy of the film and Vincent Chin T-shirts here at Blacklava, to help tell Vincent’s story and expand his legacy, along with our own collective power.