Twenty years after thousands of people marched with the Rev. Al Sharpton to protest the bias killing of Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old African-American New Yorker in Howard Beach, a similar killing this month of Michael Sandy, a 28-year-old gay African-American New Yorker, has produced no march through Brooklyn.
Sandy was attacked on October 8th at Plumb Beach. He fled his assailants, escaping onto the Belt Parkway, where he was struck by a car. His family took him off a respirator on October 13th. Three days later, there was finally a public expression of outrage, when mostly African American gay leaders held a press conference and vowed to work to change the “environment” in New York from which such crimes spring.
But how else to explain the relatively muted response to what Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes has classified as a hate crime than to note how much the environment has changed in New York?
In 1986, New York State had no hate crimes law , allowing more severe penalties for assaults motivated by bias based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation. The bill, drafted in response to the Howard Beach incident, easily passed the Democrat-led Assembly but was held up by the Republican-dominated Senate for 14 years. The senators either rejected the notion that a bias attack was worse than any other attack, or they did not want to pass any bill that protected gay people as a class. The bill finally passed in 2000, followed by the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in 2003.
Hynes, who was a special prosecutor in the Howard Beach case, was a prime mover of the hate crimes bill and is now using the law to prosecute the alleged perpetrators in the Sandy case.
A History Of High-Profile Bias Crimes
The 1989 racially motivated murder of Yusef Hawkins, a young African American, by a gang of whites in Bensonhurst was widely seen as one of the key reasons the city turned to Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, a black man, to be mayor that year.
Dinkins himself was done in partly by what was seen as an inadequate response to the Crown Heights incidents in 1990 when masses of African Americans, incensed at the death of a black child, Gavin Cato, after being hit a Hasidic limo driver, rioted and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young rabbinical student, was killed.
Dinkins was succeeded by Rudy Giuliani, another mayor with a reputation as a polarizer and for siding with police in almost every dispute with communities of color. In 1997, Abner Louima, a Haitian man, was sexually abused by Police Officer Justin Volpe at a Brooklyn precinct house, sparking outrage. Volpe got 30 years and City Hall paid an $8.75 million settlement to Louima.
In 1999, when police from the Street Crimes Unit fired 41 bullets into Amadou Diallo , an innocent and unarmed African man in the Bronx, weeks of marches and demonstrations ensued and 1700 were arrested, with scores more getting arrested at police headquarters to demand the indictment of the officers who were eventually acquitted in a trial moved to Albany.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg tried to set a different tone on taking office in 2002, publicly meeting with Rev. Sharpton, also widely viewed as a polarizing figure and someone with whom Giuliani refused to meet. Giuliani, in fact, virtually never met with black elected officials including such relatively non-confrontational ones as Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields.
This past June, several hundred gay people marched from the East Village site where African American drag artist Kevin Aviance had been assaulted coming out of a gay club. Police were quick to arrest suspects in that attack as they had been in the Sandy case--responses that helped mute community outrage in both instances.
Back in October 1998 when Matthew Shepherd , a gay, blond, slight 22-year old college student was brutally murdered by gaybashers in Wyoming, there was a nationwide response with a demonstration of more than 9,000 in New York that tied up traffic and led to scores of arrests. The aftermath of his death was dramatized by a play called “The Laramie Project” by Moises Kaufman that is now one of the most performed plays in the country by high school and college companies.
Why The Muted Response To Michael Sandy
The more muted response to Michael Sandy’s murder can be explained by a variety of factors, some less edifying than others:
First, police were quick in arresting the suspects.
Second, street activism in New York, save for some big anti-war actions in the last three years, is at an almost all-time low as people are more likely to agitate on the Internet than through public demonstrations.
Third, without minimizing the horrible crime against Sandy, he was reportedly tricked into thinking his assailant was someone like him seeking a sexual hook-up via the Internet. The sexual aspect of the case may have led fewer people to take up his case as a cause. While Sandy’s desire to meet for sex is shared by thousands of New Yorkers, the attack on him is a caution never to agree to an anonymous rendezvous in an isolated area. That the alleged perpetrators of the attack on him are believed to have gotten away with rolling other gay men in this way is a testament to the fact that such victims often still are afraid to go to the police and that gay liberation--even in New York--has a long way to go.
Fourth, some black gay bloggers, like Jasmyne Cannick , believe race and sexual orientation played a role in the lack of a response. She wrote that “we have the Black leadership that has basically looked the other way because Sandy was gay and then we have the gay leadership who has looked the other way because he was Black.”
Fifth, gay people have made great progress in recent years, including the election of Christine Quinn, an out lesbian, to the second most powerful post in the city, Speaker of the City Council. That kind of seat at the table gives the community a sense that officialdom will take care of it. Indeed, Mayor Mike Bloomberg said in the wake of Sandy’s murder, “this crime was a grave matter and was given immediate attention at all levels of city government.” He also affirmed, “New York is a city where diversity is celebrated and tolerance is practiced, and today we reaffirm our efforts and stand united to fight those who threaten those values.”
On October 16, the black gay leaders who protested Sandy’s murder didn’t take it to the streets, but to the steps of City Hall. Michael Roberson of the HIV/AIDS group People of Color in Crisis said that they needed to challenge “church, school and family norms about the value of black gay men’s lives.” Bishop Zachary Jones of the black and gay Unity Fellowship Church said, “We will not tolerate messages of hate from schools and pulpits.”
But for all the talk of changing the environment that fosters anti-gay bigotry such as that that killed Michael Sandy, most New Yorkers belong to religions that teach that homosexuality is sinful, even if a minority of religious leaders here use the kind of crude anti-gay language some fundamentalists are famous for. And Mayor Bloomberg refuses to implement the City Council’s 2004 anti-bullying law --calling it “illegal” and “silly." New York City’s schools do not even collect serious statistics on bullying incidents.
Clarence Patton, director of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project of New York , put forth a four-point program to change the environment in New York, calling on the city to work on mitigating hate violence “between major hate crimes,” encouraging survivors of such crimes to come forward and making more services available to them, and developing strategies for gay people that will “result not only in our taking responsibility for our own safety, but that of others in the lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual community.”