Howard Beach Incident: 25 years later, a community struggles to heal

Howard Beach. These words still strike notes of horror and shame in residents of New York who remember the incident that rocked the city and shocked communities across America 25 years ago. When racial tensions flared in this quiet area of Queens into a deadly conflagration that claimed one life and painfully altered many others, it must have seemed as though the bitterness associated with this name would never die.

Twenty-five years later, Howard Beach struggles to heal from the scars inflicted by the hate crimes perpetrated against three black men on December 19, 1986. When they stopped in a white neighborhood because their car had broken down, they were chased by a gang of white teenagers bearing weapons and hurling racial epithets. One victim was chased to his death.

Michael Griffith died at the age of 23 when, fleeing from the rabid mob, he ran into the traffic of Belt Parkway and was fatally hit by a car.

Timothy Grimes, who was 18 that evening, escaped. He is currently serving a prison sentence for an unrelated crime. Cedric Sandiford, then 36, was captured and beaten brutally by his pursuers with baseball bats and tree branches.

Sandiford would go on to marry Michael Griffith’s mother, Jean Griffith, in 1989. He died of complications from AIDS in 1991.

Three main assailants from the youth mob that perpetrated the attack were singled out and charged with Griffith’s murder. Now in their forties, these men have families and have moved on with their lives, declining to speak to the press about Howard Beach. Their silence contrasts sharply with the outspoken acceptance of the murder victim’s mother, even as she recalls her life’s most painful incident.

“In whatever color there are good and bad,” Mrs. Sandiford told the New York Times. “What happened is people make mistakes; they do wrong things. They took a part of my life away, but I don’t hate them. I forgive them for what they did. I don’t have to live with that — they had the hate, not me.”

Jean Griffith Sandiford now works as a community liaison for Charles J. Hynes — the special prosecutor whose emphasis on the racial aspect of the violence put her son’s murderers behind bars. Hynes was placed in his role by then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo under pressure from black leaders — primarily led by Rev. Al Sharpton — who sought to ensure that the victims would receive justice.

While the Howard Beach incident seems like distant history, there are still lingering questions about how much has changed in the neighborhood since that tragic affair. Responses to these questions are divided.

Many leaders and citizens of Howard Beach today feel their community is now close-knit and inclusive. “We’ve become bonded. We’re one family,” Christina Gold, president of an area organization, told The Queens Courier. “What happened 25 years ago… I don’t think we have that issue now, and we’re going to continue to be that way.”

Yet statistics tell a different story. Howard Beach remains almost as racially homogenous as it was 25 years ago. The 2010 census reflected that almost 77 percent of Howard Beach residents are white, while only 2 percent are black. The area was 94 percent white in 1980.

A recent incident of race hate in which a noose was hung near P.S. 232 in the Lindenwood area of Queens suggests that the area has more evolving to do when it comes to accepting diversity.

Still, citizens do not believe Howard Beach should be punished for the crimes of a handful of people that occurred 25 years ago. One resident told The Queens Courier: “That was one incident. It was a very unfortunate incident, but it shouldn’t define an entire neighborhood.”

Yet the shockwaves released by the Howard Beach incident were extremely powerful, and thus impossible to forget — for both good and ill.

The racial polarization that resulted in New York inspired Spike Lee to produce the seminal 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. Some believe that this masterpiece helped set the stage for David Dinkins to become the first African-American mayor of New York.

Now a Brooklyn DA, Hynes concurs that “many changes have progressively taken place over the years, specifically as a result of the Griffith case,” according to CBS New York.

“Today, 45 percent of the NYPD is made up of people of color,” Hynes told the local New York City news outlet. “As a matter of fact, the last academy class for police recruits is made up of a majority of minorities. So, there’s been a great many changes.”

Twenty-five years later, the crimes committed in Howard Beach have encouraged greater racial understanding in the present. Hopefully, this understanding will continue to grow into the future.