UPDATED: 9:00 a.m., Dec. 20, 2021
Monday marks the 35th year since a group of young white male thugs violently confronted three Black men who became stranded after their car broke down and brutally attacked them with baseball bats and chunks of wood, leaving one of them dead in the Howard Beach neighborhood of New York City’s Queens borough in 1986.
The person who died, 23-year-old Michael Griffith, was chased into highway traffic, where he was fatally struck by a vehicle driven by the son of an NYPD officer.
The teens responsible had been shouting racial slurs at the Black men, one witness told the New York Daily News at the time.
The death of Griffith, a Trinidadian immigrant who had been employed as a construction worker, was compared by then-New York City Mayor Koch to “lynching parties that existed in the Deep South.” He reportedly ran into traffic on the Belt Parkway while unaware of the road and trying to flee from his attackers.
“The white guys were yelling, ‘Come here, n—–,'” John Patterson, who said he Griffith moments before he was killed.
The racially motivated attack happened in the early hours of Dec. 20, 1986, after Griffith and three friends — Cedric Sandiford, 36, Timothy Grimes, 20, and Curtis Sylvester, 20 — got in a car in Brooklyn to drive Griffith to get his paycheck in Queens. But when their car broke down in Queens, Griffith, Grimes and Sandiford ended up walking to nearby Howard Beach to find a payphone and call for help. Sylvester stayed behind with the car.
Seemingly as soon as they entered Howard Beach, a mostly white neighborhood, they were confronted by people yelling racial slurs and telling them to leave the neighborhood. Still, the Black men shrugged it off and decided to grab some pizza because they were hungry. It was shortly before 1 a.m. at that point.
That’s when a dozen white boys aged 16 to 19 armed with baseball bats, tire irons and tree limbs began waiting for the Black men outside of the pizzeria.
“What are you doing in this neighborhood, n——s?” they asked.
Once the men left, they were promptly pounced on and savagely beaten simply because of the color of their skin and their location.
“My God, I have a son like you, 17 years old,” Sandiford reportedly said to the attackers. “Please don’t kill me.”
Grimes was able to escape unharmed.
Police soon responded to find Sandiford — the boyfriend of Griffith’s mother — beaten and bloodied and racially profiled him as a suspect in Griffith’s death. Then-NYPD Commissioner Benjamin Ward, the first Black man to hold that position, reportedly “scolded the Queens commanding officer for his officers’ insensitivity toward Sandiford.”
Four of the teens — Jon Lester, Jason Ladone, Scott Kern and Michael Pirone — were charged with manslaughter, second-degree murder and first-degree assault while the rest of the racist attackers faced lesser charges. Lester, Ladone and Kern were all found guilty while Pirone was acquitted.
Lester, an immigrant from the UK who was the attack’s ringleader, testified in court that he saw the Black men and went back to a party he had been attending to alert people there that, “There’s niggers on the boulevard,” the New York Times reported. He implored anyone who would listen: “Let’s go kill them.”
The Times reported: “The attack inflamed simmering tensions between blacks and whites in New York City; sparked angry marches by protesters, who were met by local residents outraged in turn at being tarred as bigots; and, with the case drawing worldwide attention, transformed predominantly white Howard Beach into a metonym for racial hatred.”
Thirty-five years after the Howard Beach attack, similar racially motivated attacks are still happening across the country.
This is America.