Before Fahrenheit 9/11. Before Bowling for Columbine. Before even Roger and Me, Michael Moore was shaping the framing of Vincent Chin's murder. He wasn't at the forefront of any demonstrations or lawsuits. But as I learned while doing research for a forthcoming book on Asian-American community activism in multiracial urban spaces, Moore was doing what would become his signature move -- getting Chin's killer Ronald Ebens to let his guard down and speak openly about his prejudices and resentments.
For most of the five years between the June 1982 death of Vincent Chin through the end of his trials, Ebens had often refused -- likely under advisement from his lawyers -- to give extended press interviews. And he has mostly tried to avoid publicity since then while avoiding paying the civil damages he owes the Chin family. But for a brief period of time following his evasion of a conviction on federal civil rights charges, Ebens could not resist parading through the media on a victory lap.
Then a 33-year-old writer for the Detroit Free Press, Michael Moore pursued Ebens and his lawyers through repeated calls for weeks on end. Feeling he had been burned by the media, however, an initially reluctant Ebens deemed reporters "a bunch of jerks" and said "to hell with them." "This is your chance to tell your side of the story," Moore impressed upon him.
One can just picture Michael Moore in his frumpy shirt and Olde English "D" baseball cap egging on Ebens with an early test run of his regular-Joe brand of interviewing. And his piece conveys this in words. "If he [Ebens] got through all of this without a scratch," Moore writes in reference to the mass protests and serial trials, "what harm can an interview do?"
Moore presents this as a rhetorical question. Whether he has posed it directly to Ebens, he has certainly convinced him that he has nothing to fear. Apparently pleased with the interview, Ebens says goodbye to Moore by shaking his hand firmly with one hand and giving him "a big, friendly squeeze" with the other hand. "Now, I don't look like some killer, do I?" he says.
August 30, 1987: "The Man Who Killed Vincent Chin: By Michael Moore" blares the cover of the Sunday magazine of the Detroit Free Press, the region's largest circulating newspaper. Flanked by pictures of Ebens and Chin, the cover quotes Ebens as saying Chin "was looking for trouble and got it."
Ebens will eventually find company among legions of regretful Moore interviewees. For now, by opening up to Michael Moore, Ebens, though not legally guilty of civil rights violations, has metaphorically hung himself. His expressions would be repeated on camera for local TV news reports, ensuring that his name, face, and words live on in infamy. For as much as Lily Chin's uncontrollable sobbing and steadfast determination to fight to avenge her son's death; as much as Helen Zia's strident arguments against racism and calls to organize; it is Ronald Ebens's utter remorselessness and brazen claims to victimhood that prove most memorable and lend power to the Rashomon-style fractured narrative presented in Who Killed Vincent Chin?
Inside, Moore's story bears a new headline, "The Wages of Death." It opens with his characterization of Ebens as "elated" that the "system has worked to his advantage."
"That's it, it's over!" declares Ebens in the aftermath of his federal acquittal. "Done. Finished. Over! Yeah!"
Moore intercedes, "He can barely contain his excitement, sounding like a fan whose baseball team has just won the pennant."
Later, Moore produces from Ebens the exact sort of self-contradictory statements that thousands of viewers of Who Killed Vincent Chin? will come to see as thinly veiled racism.
"Everybody has some racist feelings," Ebens states, "you, the Chinese, everyone. I can't honestly say I harbor any feelings against any ethnic group, OK? That doesn't mean I want to live with them, OK?"
Indeed, Moore writes that Ebens "wants it known that East Detroit is not the east side of Detroit." "No way," says Ebens. "We're like Roseville," referring to a nearby and then segregated white suburb in Macomb County. Ebens's quotes suggest that his "racist feelings" are not restricted to one "ethnic group." The "them" that he does not want to live with seems just as likely if not more so to refer to black Detroiters than it does to Asian-Americans.
By freely speaking his mind, Ebens serves as a useful symbol of white male suburban ideology in the 1980s, a period of time when the discourse of white victimhood and "reverse racism" crystallized politically through the ascension of Reaganism (backed by the solid support of "Reagan Democrats" like Ebens's Macomb County peers). Amid downsizing, outsourcing, and union-busting, Reagan encouraged white workers to maintain an identification with the corporations and financiers his "small government" policies favored.
Correspondingly, white workers who allied with the new right were more likely to scapegoat foreign competition, immigrants, and people of color for their economic hardships. Alongside New Deal social welfare policies, civil rights and anti-discriminatory measures were increasingly portrayed as "handouts" to the "lazy," "criminal," and "undeserving" poor and minorities whose lack of moral values were seen as undermining America. Central to Ebens's defense was the notion that the civil rights prosecution of him was an intrusive and unjust overreaching of federal government.
As we remember Vincent Chin, it is important to see how this incident and case were part of broader historical, economic, political, and cultural shifts in American society. In many ways, however, the challenges we face today are even greater than those perceived in 1982. What many once viewed as a cyclical setback has become a permanent economic restructuring that has widened and cemented racial and class divides. With reactionary ideology evolving from Nixon to Reagan to the Tea Party, we need to have a clear sense of what we are up against in our ongoing struggles.