Who are Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal?

Last night, prompted by a tweet from Angry Asian Man, I found myself finally watching the full-length Vincent Who? documentary that Taz blogged about (and appeared in) two years ago. I happened to be home and caught my little brother in an amenable mood, so we spent the next few hours watching first that and then the 1987 Academy Award-nominated documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin? It just so happened that we saw both documentaries on the very same date, 29 years ago, that Vincent Chin died. June 23.

Twenty-nine years ago, on June 19, the night before his wedding, Vincent Chin went with a few close friends to a strip-club in his town of Detroit, Michigan. There, an altercation occurred between Chin and two men. According to witnesses, Ronald Ebens, a Chrysler plant superintendent, told Chin, “It’s because of you little motherf*ckers that we’re out of work,” a reference to increasing pressure on the American automobile industry from Japanese manufacturers. Later that night, Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, hunted down Chin and beat him viciously with a baseball bat. Nitz held Chin down, while Ebens administered the fatal blows on Chin’s skull. Before slipping into a coma that he never recovered from, friends say Chin whispered, “It’s not fair.” The defendants, Ebens and Nitz, were freed after a judge sentenced them to 3 years probation and a $3,000 fine. Two off-duty officers who witnessed the beating were never even called to testify. Neither were any of the employees in the club that night. Turns out a life is worth only $3000. Who knew?

The event galvanized the various ethnic communities in Detroit and across America. Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, African-Americans and others rallied together to protest the sentencing in the Chin case. The group was able to bring up the case in federal court, charging that the two men had violated Chin’s civil rights, but lost. In a pre-hate-crime legislation era, a newly-formed group unfamiliar with civil rights law found themselves outmaneuvered and unprepared.

This brings me to two other men. Perhaps you heard of them? Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal? No?

Police found Surinder Singh, 65, and Gurmej Atwal, 78, on the sidewalk about 4:30 p.m. Friday, each with multiple gunshot wounds to the upper torso. Singh was pronounced dead at the scene and Atwal remains hospitalized in critical condition […] The victims were described as retired neighbors who went on afternoon walks together. Darshan Singh Mundy, a community leader, said fear over the shooting has left some Sacramento-area Sikhs shut inside their homes and scared to emerge for traditional afternoon walks.” The two families are shocked and this is a totally brutal killing,” he said, “for people to be walking around and someone to just be shot for no reason.” Mundy said the men may have been targeted because they wore beards and turbans and may have been confused for Muslims. [Link.]

As of today, nobody knows for certain if the two gentlemen killed were targeted due to their appearance – or if another motive spurred the killer(s). Sadly, it’s not impossible to rule out, however. Only months earlier, another Sikh man was attacked in what was later determined to be a hate crime. Watching Vincent Who?, I heard repeatedly that because of the Vincent Chin case, Asian-Americans became “Asian-Americans.” Hyphens disappeared – if only for a short time. I hear that message again from the Sacramento Sikh Temple, which has offered a reward for the recent assault of a gay man in the neighborhood..

Calling the recent assault on a gay man at Strikes bowling alley a “disgusting attack motivated by ignorance and hate,” the Sacramento Sikh Temple is offering a $1000 reward for information in the case. Seth Parker, 26, suffered multiple facial fractures June 5 after he was punched in the face by an unidentified man who witnesses say yelled anti-gay slurs at him before the attack. “In light of the recent murders of two Sikhs in Elk Grove…we are especially sensitive to such crimes,” said Darshan Mundy, the temple’s public relations officer. “We hope that our reward will help bring these criminals to justice.

Bravo! How often is it that one disenfranchised community shows support for another? Not very. Mad props to the folks in Sacramento for sharing the love — love that was shown to them by the Jewish and Muslim communities this past March. In honor of Vincent Chin, I urge us all to think outside of our own respective little boxes – if only for one day. Forget Sri-Lankan American, Pakistani-American, Bangladeshi-American, Indian-American, etc. Do yourself a favor. Google Vincent Chin. Find the original documentary. Watch it with your family. It features not only Chin’s family, but the killers and their acquaintances. Hate crimes haven’t gone away. They may never disappear. But without collaboration that keeps perpetrators accountable for their actions, they will not abate. To quote Martin Luther King Jr., “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

10 thoughts on “Who are Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal?

  1. “They may never disappear.”

    We’ll have to re-asses, when white people disappear.

  2. If Vincent Chin were my brother, those two white guys would have begged to be put in jail after I got done with them. Sometimes, the minority community needs to make the majority feel the heat when the law fails them.

  3. There is no legislative solution to spontaneous violence–you can only make yourself more dangerous. I’ve yet to see a single shred of evidence that punitive enhancements to existing criminal penalties deter any sort of violent crime directed at a protected class.

  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Shepard_and_James_Byrd,_Jr._Hate_Crimes_Prevention_Act

    basically, we’re going to have to start the stopwatch on this kind of legislation and see if there is actually an effect, re: expected vs. actual, instead of wishing on a star. Innumerable defendants have gotten off lightly (from the criminal perspective) after shooting an entirely innocent person on their own property (remember Hattori?) so, desis should start buying guns, carrying wherever legal (see Joel Rosenberg’s guide regardless of your state) and stop expecting the cops and the judiciary to care about your life, liberty and property.

  5. While I read about the Vincent Chin incident before, I had no idea how callous that judge was. Even on repeated appeals, he was unmoved and made very reckless comments. The judge is dead now. Unfortunately , he was never made to pay for his racism. I am willing to bet the prosecutors were racist too , though not to the same extent as the judge. Pretty much all the bad guys – the assailants, judge, prosecutors – got away scot free on this.

  6. “Sometimes, the minority community needs to make the majority feel the heat when the law fails them.”

    umm, yea that’s been tried before.

  7. I’ts been a while since I saw the ’87 doc, but one of the parts that still stands out in my mind–the Asian car bashing, someone using a bat to destroy an imported car, goaded on by a radio station or some other media outlet.

  8. Ok, I confess I have never heard of any of these people before, but it did shake me to read the article. So much hatred, in a world that is so technologically and otherwise advanced! Instead of moving forward, we seem to be wallowing in our ignorance and hatred, and taking steps backward. Will this ever end? I don’t think so. But can we make a difference? Yes, we can. By being tolerant and peaceful ourselves, and teaching our children to do the same.

    • “By being tolerant and peaceful ourselves, and teaching our children to do the same.”

      That alone is not enough.

      Let’s understand the agressors here. They have lost their jobs, they don’t have enough savings to last a long period of unemployment, they don’t know what the new jobs are going to be, where these new jobs are going to be created, and what retraining it would take to get those new jobs. The poorly-educated working class know full well their lack of education! And they know the government is not responsive in constructing safety nets, the capitalists even less so. Even Warren Buffett, for all his liberal, middle-class friendly speeches, has not been an advocate of safety nets that help ill-educated working class people manage change.

      Add to this the following ingredients: * The us-versus-them culture of radio speakers and newspaper columnists * A culture where all people are somewhat lonely

      It is not just a law-and-order problem. We also have to deal with a frustrated majority, and defuse their frustratation. We need more of what the Republicans call the nanny state'. Thenanny state’ is really the only defense for ill-educated folk to survive a transition.