(The following is part of Advancing Justice-L.A.’s “30 Stories for 30 Years” series. June 23 marked the 33rd anniversary of Vincent Chin’s death at the age of 27.)
In 1983, tragic past and momentous present came together, spurring the contemporary movement for Asian American civil and political rights. That year saw the founding of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), the organizational expression of ambitions long held by its founders, individuals like Stewart Kwoh, Casmiro Tolentino, Judy Chu, and Mike Eng.
It was also the year in which the second tragedy in the story of Vincent Chin unfolded — the travesty of justice in the sentence his killers received: probation and a $3,000 fine.
In reflecting on searing moments of past injustice, like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the World War II-era internment of Japanese Americans, what had struck Kwoh and others was the need for a strong Asian American legal defense capability. Rooted in community and propelled by the passion of committed legal advocates, such a force may have made a difference in those past episodes.
The need for it in the present was clear, as suggested by shifting demographics that showed Asian Americans rapidly increasing their share of the population. Marshaling together scant resources, Kwoh opened the doors of APALC, as its first — and at the time, only — staff. The intention was for the organization to have a regional focus, indicated by the complete version of its name: Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California.
Kwoh and others also understood that they were living through another dangerous period of anti-Asian sentiment — specifically, animus against Japanese. The American economy was undergoing another downturn, hitting especially hard previously strong sectors like the auto industry. By contrast, the Japanese economy was booming. Japanese cars seemed ubiquitous, while Japanese banks were buying up American companies, accounting for the sudden appearance of Japanese corporate names throughout the U.S.
For many, politicians and underemployed auto workers alike, “the Japanese” made for an easy target for venting their frustrations — and even, in the case of Vincent Chin, homicidal violence.
“I think about her every week,” Kwoh says, reflecting on Lily Chin, mother of Vincent. “Her courage and unflagging commitment to securing justice for her son inspired and catalyzed a movement that continues to this very day.”
By now, its stature as a turning point in Asian American history secured, the Vincent Chin case is well-known. Out on the town, celebrating his forthcoming marriage with friends, Chin was hunted down and killed by two white auto workers who’d mistaken him for Japanese and taunted him with racial epithets. What’s not as familiar is the role that Kwoh played, as the only out-of-town counsel to American Citizens for Justice, the Detroit-area group fighting for justice for Lily Chin’s son.
“I still remember vividly reading a brief piece in The L.A. Times about the sentence in the initial criminal trial,” Kwoh says. Mortified, he sought permission from APALC’s board to get involved. They immediately agreed. He also recalls that the Times article named the local attorneys working on the case. He called them, asking if they could use his help. “They said, ‘Can you come tomorrow?’”
Drawing on his past experience with civil rights litigation, Kwoh examined federal civil rights (hate crimes) laws and determined that a federal criminal prosecution of Chin’s killers could be brought. The biggest obstacle lay in persuading the conservative administration of Ronald Reagan — and his Department of Justice (DOJ) — to take on the case. It would take a massive mobilizing and coordinating effort involving Asian American and ally communities.
Although the DOJ prosecution initially won a conviction, it was thrown out on appeal and a retrial ordered — and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, a community with virtually no presence of Asian Americans. Unsurprisingly, the second trial resulted in acquittals for Chin’s killers. “Neither of them would spend a single day in prison,” Kwoh observes.
While the mobilizing effort that persuaded the U.S. government to prosecute Chin’s killers was successful, ultimately, it had neither the resources nor infrastructure to bring public awareness to the case in Cincinnati. The experience reaffirmed for Kwoh the need for robust Asian American legal defense with staying power.
“In the specific case of Vincent Chin, the final outcome repeated the tragedy of his murder,” Kwoh reflects. “But the case and the intense mobilizing it precipitated set in motion forces that have been gathering in strength every year since then.”
As an example of that strong Asian American legal defense capability, APALC would rise in concert with the emergence of Asian American political consciousness — the final and most lasting legacy of Vincent and Lily Chin.