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Howard Beach Is Not Alone

by Andy Humm, Jul 06, 2005
 

When Nicholas “Fat Nick” Minucci, 19, a white man, fractured the skull of Glen Moore, 22, an African American, with a baseball bat while yelling racial epithets in Queens on June 29, it became an international news story and sparked scores of articles about how far we have or have not come in dealing with racism in our society. Anthony Ench, 21, has also been arrested in the attack.

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The racial attack on Moore was only one of several bias crimes in New York over the past month, including an assault on an unidentified 22-year old Asian woman in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn on July 1 and an attack on Dwan Prince, a gay man in Brownsville, Brooklyn on June 8. But these other incidents did not occur in Howard Beach.

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Howard Beach has been notorious since December, 1986, when a black man, Michael Griffith, whose car had broken down in the neighborhood, was set upon by a mob of white people from the neighborhood, and, fleeing, was hit and killed by a car on the highway. Howard Beach is a brand name when it comes to bias violence.

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Three young white men were convicted of second degree manslaughter and first degree assault in the 1986 incident. But residents of the predominately white Howard Beach neighborhood were quick to say that racism had nothing to do with the attacks. Howard Beach residents said "they were unhappy with the convictions and many viewed the beatings as a simple scuffle--one in which race was not involved, and the severity of which did not warrant the punishment,” according to the Queens Tribune.

The 2005 Howard Beach incident has elicited a similar defensive tone among residents of the enclave. Since it was widely reported that Moore and the other black men he was with the night he was beaten were out to steal a car, according to police, white residents of the area do not want to see this crime attributed to their incurable hatred for black people.

"They got what they deserved," Tim Peterson told the New York Times. "And I'm not justifying it either."

There are similarities in official reaction as well. Mayor Ed Koch vociferously condemned the 1986 attacks. But by that time he was perceived as so racially divisive that he never recovered politically. A couple of more high-profile racial killings followed and Koch was rejected in favor of the city’s first African American mayor, David Dinkins, in 1989.

Dinkins ran afoul of his handling of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, when an African American mob, inflamed by the killing of a 7-year old black child by a Hasidic driver running a light, attacked and killed Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, a rabbinical student visiting from Australia.

Mindful of the potential racial and political minefield, Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke out right after the June 29 attack, as soon as the police classified it as a hate crime. "I cannot stress it enough: we are going to live together, and nobody, nobody, should ever feel that they will be attacked because of their ethnicity, their orientation, their religion, where they live, their documented status, or anything else. Period. End of story,” he said.

Bloomberg has not, however, called a press conference to address the attack on Dwan Prince, but leaders of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project did call one to chastise the political establishment for not dealing with the case. “I reached out to every elected official at the state and local level in Brownsville,” Clarence Patton, director of the project, told me for a story in Gay City News “They acted as if they didn’t understand what I wanted them to do.”

One thing that has defused intergroup tensions in New York is the relatively quick response of the criminal justice system in 2005 versus 1986.

Nineteen years ago, African Americans had so little confidence in the Police Department and the Queens District Attorney’s office that Charles Hynes--now the Brooklyn District Attorney--was brought in as a special prosecutor to bring the Howard Beach suspects to justice.

Today, suspects are in custody in both the Howard Beach and Brownsville cases, a credit to more sensitive and effective police work and the willingness of witnesses in both neighborhoods to come forward.

While the Rev. Al Sharpton is back on the Howard Beach scene all these years later, there has been little call on the part of the political establishment for getting at the roots of the kind of bigotry that leads to these attacks.

The Department of Education has been in the process of increasing somewhat anti-bullying and intergroup relations programs in the schools, but Bloomberg is refusing to implement a school anti-bullying law passed by the City Council, calling it an “illegal” measure.

There seems to be a great desire--especially on the part of politicians--to treat bias incidents as aberrations and police matters, not reflective of some deep-seated problem among the good and unprejudiced people of New York. The gay community, however, has seen reports of anti-gay violence to the police go up 32 percent in the last year, an increase attributed by gay groups to the rise in gay visibility and the very public debate over issues like same-sex marriage.

Norman Siegel, the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union who is making a second run for public advocate, does not think combating hate crime is simple. He and civil rights activist Galen Kirkland spent years going to schools in Bensonhurt, Brooklyn to conduct classes designed to combat stereotyping. Siegel said if Mayor Bloomberg “wants to end hate crime, he should call a summit of civil rights groups” to address the problem--a route that the mayor is unlikely to go in an election year unless under extreme public pressure (as Mayor Giuliani was after the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999).

The press coverage of the Howard Beach incident is not likely to apply that pressure:

A Different New York,” said Bob Herbert of the New York Times.

Howard Beach is not the same place,” wrote Ellis Hennican in Newsday.

Thug-on-Thug Violence,” concluded the New York Post editorial page.

The columns were all about how Howard Beach in 2005 is not the same as Howard Beach in 1986. None of them explored what's happening in 2005 in other neighborhoods.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  


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