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Protest Of Howard Beach Racial Attack

Carrying a huge Howard Beach banner, Black protesters chanting anti-racist slogans march during a day long demonstration of “outrage” against the Howard Beach racial attack on Jan. 21, 1988. | Source: Bettmann / Getty

UPDATED: 12:30 p.m., Dec. 20, 2022

Wednesday marked the 37th 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—–,'” said John Patterson, who saw Griffith moments before he was killed.

Howard Beach Attack Victim With Lawyers

One of the victims of the Howard Beach attack in 1986, Cedric Sandiford, speaks at a press conference with his lawyers Alton Maddox and Vernon Mason and the Reverend Al Sharpton. | Source: Bettmann / Getty

The racially motivated attack happened in the early morning 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 n***ers 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.”

It’s been thirty-seven years since the Howard Beach attack and some of the people involved in this tragic incident have passed away.

In 2017, Jon Lester, the convicted ringleader in the 1986 Howard Beach racial attack, took his own life in England at the age of 48. Lester’s sister told the New York Times that her brother was severely depressed and suffered from “guilt dreams” over the Howard Beach incident, but insisted he wasn’t a cold-blooded killer.

Alton H. Maddox, Jr., the civil and human rights lawyer who represented Cedric Sandiford and the family of Michael Griffith, died April 23, 2023 at 77 years old. Maddox was also known as “The People’s Lawyer” and respected for his commanding presence in the courtroom, legal knowledge, and advocacy for victims of police abuse and defense of the underserved.

Even though almost four decades have passed since Howard Beach, similar racially motivated attacks are still happening across the country.

This is America.


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