Howard Beach: The High Price of Racial Politics

It’s been 30 years since the racially charged death of Michael Griffith during what came to be known as The Howard Beach incident. It’s remembered today as an act of sheer racial bias, but that simplistic narrative is not entirely true.
The White mob included at least one Black kid from Howard Beach. The mob leader was a baby-faced kid named Jon Lester with a Black girlfriend and lots of Black friends.
Today, that’s no big deal. But race and class mixing were not as common back then. The kids who mixed were decidedly differently than those who kept to their own.
Does that make the events which culminated in the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith on De. 20, 1986, even remotely defensible?
But to compare the territoriality of the working class neighborhoods in NYC’s four outer boros with the sheer racism of The Deep South in this instance is probably inaccurate. Doing so was part of the racial politics played at the time by both Mayor Ed Koch and by Al Sharpton.

Koch was a political opportunist who was willing to play on White fears of Blacks to get elected. Sharpton was a political opportunist who was willing to play on Black fears about Whites to build a name for himself as a Civil Rights crusader.

The rest of us paid a heavy price for the divisive and opportunistic tactics they employed to advance themselves.

koch2I was an 18-year-old in New York City when the Howard Beach killing happened. The racial tensions of the time impacted me more than most Americans because I lived in a minority area of the Bronx and attended college in the heart of Harlem at CCNY at 138th Street and Convent Ave.

The Black community was being hit hard by police brutality and institutionalized racism. It seemed like every week brought a new outrage by police, just as it does today at the national level.

New York City was a racial powder-keg.


I can remember sitting in a car in the Bronx with my best friend Steven Lewis in 1986 and saying “Man, I gotta get the fuck outta here. This place is ready to blow.”

Steve, who is Black, assured me (below right) that he had my back and wouldn’t let anything happen to me. But even at the age of 18 I knew “what time it was” in the parlance of the era.

1984ccnysoccer“If this shit blows up you’re not going to be able to do anything about it and neither am I,” I said. “It’s just going to be you and your group and me and my group.”

Why did I feel this way?

Because I spent almost all my time in minority neighborhoods back then.

I knew better than anyone that when Blacks lashed out at racism they invariably lashed out at the poor and middle class Whites living and working beside them. Instead of rich Whites like President Elect Donald Trump.


Sharpton built a national following by crusading against “racist” incidents like Howard Beach and the alleged rape and kidnapping of a pretty young African American teen named Tawana Brawley. The Brawley thing was later proven to be a hoax.

11010506_1648274192069594_4423912982983019770_nBoth of Sharpton’s allies – Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason – were disciplined by The New York Bar Association afterward. Mason was disbarred. Maddox was indefinitely suspended.

Sharpton used to extort tickets from people like Michael Jackson whenever he had a concert in the area, by threatening to stick protesters outside the venue. He had a habit of showing up any time a black man was killed by whites, pushing family to the side, and turning the event into a media circus centered around himself.

Black liberals have denounced the opportunistic Sharpton as a “racial arsonist,” comparing the former FBI confidential informant and paid Faux News “source” to Richard Nixon. A more apt comparison may be to Trump, who just channeled the frustration of forgotten working class whites in so-called “flyover country” in much the way Sharpton gave voice to voiceless inner-city Blacks in 1986.

Is either man a hero?

If you’re one of the untouchables they champion in the rising American caste system they sure seem to be. However, these political opportunists are a far cry from the sacrificial leaders who preceded them. Leaders like The Rev. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, who made great sacrifices for the less fortunate.

Economic sufgriff3fering is the sea which the Trumps and Sharptons swim in. They prosper whenever the predatory 1 Percent relegates everyone but themselves, doctors, lawyers, traders, law enforcement and hereditary union members to second-class citizenship. Whenever a divided America neglects its own.


People need this kind of context and this kind of agony of thought. Because fear and group bias are key tools of the 1 Percent’s divide-and-conquer game plan.

Especially now, when every incident of group bias is reflexively attributed to the Alt-Right. As if no incident of group bias ever occurred before Trump was elected.

Do I think the Alt-Right is a real thing? 


Do I think it’s the reason Trump was elected or that the same progressive whites who backed the Civil Rights Movement, the Sexual Revolution, and the Antiwar movement have suddenly morphed into racists and sexists?


These oversimplifications are used by the mainstream news media to sell advertising and craft the kind of one-dimensional narratives that distract the 99 Percent from the economic tyranny of monied interests.

That’s also why you need to know that Griffith wasn’t beaten to death in Queens. The young Brooklyn resident was running from the gang in Howard Beach when he was accidentally hit by a car on the Shore Parkway. That part of the story often gets marginalized. 


Because it reads better if such selective omissions can be used to imply he was beaten to death. Or hanged.

The Donald Trump narrative is equally specious. It presents this silver spoon as the antithesis of new money economic royals like Hillary Clinton. Instead of showing him as a member of the same elitist country clubs and rich enclaves.


As The Rev. Martin Luther King indicated with his Poor People’s Campaign, economics is often conflated with race. And the suffering created by racism and poverty are manipulated by political opportunists.

“It is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights,” King said. “There must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power. In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.”

lesterCrack was sweeping through New York City like a biblical plague in 1986. The annual homicide rate regularly topped 2,000 in the ’80s, compared with 600 or so today.
I was the only “White” kid on the Civil Air Patrol’s national champion Bronx Group Drill Team and the only “White” playing no-pads football on The Marble Hill Spades housing project team. I was accepted as an individual in both settings, rather than a group rep. Just like the local Black kid in the gang that attacked Michael Griffith in Howard Beach.

However, when I delivered CCNY press releases to The Amsterdam News in Harlem I was chased down the street afterward by the African American drug lookouts across the street. They yelled racial epithets at me. Just as Jon Lester,  the baby-faced ringleader of the Howard Beach gang, did to Griffith. 

Did they do this because I was White?

Kind of, but not exactly.
It probably had a lot more to do with my simply being viewed as a suspicious outsider with a crew-cut at a time when longer hair was the norm.
The same local toughs sure weren’t chasing off the webrawleyalthy, long haired, white kids who drove into Harlem from Long Island to buy crack and ganja from them.

Because race just wasn’t that friggin simple in NYC in 1986. It was hopelessly intertwined with both economic class and neighborhood territoriality.

So much so that I was accosted by two of my future teammates on the Marble Hill Spades the first time I ventured into their Bronx housing project looking for Steve. 

“What are you doing here White boy,” one of them asked, patting my pockets. Luckily for me, Steve poked his head out of his 13th floor apartment window just in time to tell them to leave me the fuck alone.

Was their treatlser-2ment of me racist?

Not really.

I was a stranger at the time. They just didn’t know me yet. I didn’t stop being a stranger in their eyes until after I started playing cornerback beside them.

I mention this because Lester denied being a racist, even though he shouted racial epithets at Griffith and his father. The 17-year-old indicated he was more of a local tough who was trying to prove himself.

I hate to rock the bullshit boat but that shit rings true to me.

“I know this race thing is following me wherever I go, but I have never been a racist,” Lester told The Daily Mirror in England in 2001 after completing a 15 year prison stint. “There was certainly no racial element in it as I recall. It was only the politicians that turned it into one.”

David Duke, he’s not.

Unfortunately, it makes for a better story-line when Lester and his companions are presented like Klansmen.

The painful truth is that Italian American neighborhoods were clannish in New York City in the 1980s – with a small “c.” Just like most of the places inhabited by the hardworking and largely invisible members of the city’s so-called “Bridge and Tunnel Crowd.” That clannish behavior is just as much about turf and income, as pigmentation.

The Italians who lived in the Morris Park arearace of the Bronx would sometimes give me shit as I biked through on my way to my girlfriend’s house on a Friday or Saturday night when they’d been partying. I didn’t like it, but I had the good sense to do one thing Michael Griffith’s daddy didn’t do in 1986. 

I shut the fuck up, gave them a wide berth, and went on my way. Especially when there was a bunch of them.

When they were alone in my neighborhood they did the same thing.


Because if you looked for trouble in somebody else’s neighborhood in New York City in the 1980s you found it. Quick, fast and in a hurry.

That’s part of what I suspect really happened in Howard Beach. Mostly because Griffith’s daddy didn’t want to back down in front of his son.

I don’t blame him, but we’re not talking about Des Moines, Iowa, here. We’re talking about an insular working class neighborhood he didn’t know. One which didn’t know him either.

“I guess, maybe, I could have been a knee-jerk racist – Spike Lee’s expression,” Lester said in a 2001 interview. “Somebody not consciously aware of being racist.”

That kind of mindset was par for the course in New York City in 1986, where it was common for Blacks to think they could not be racist by virtue of their own membership in a traditional victim group. And for Whites to view those they didn’t know as members of a homogenous group, instead of as individuals.

When I tried to cover a confrontation between the Black CCNY Student Government and the Black school administration as a student journalist I was initially barred from entering the administration building by a Black student who did not know me. He did this solely on the basis of my melanin content, until a Black friend told him to leave me the fuck alone. 

When I got on the elevator back home a local rabbi complained about his son being beaten up at the local elementary school by Black and Hispanic classmates yelling “Howard Beach.”
The rabbi was threea newcomer to the Bronx and the kind of high-handed mofo with no use for anyone in our lower middle class neighborhood but the little old ladies in his aging congregation. He was the kind of outsider who actually did think he was better than the rest of us.

The Howard Beach comment was the only time he ever spoke to me. Presumably so I would defend his dumb ass.

We lived in the same building for nearly a decade and he would stand in the elevator with a protective arm around his son and daughter, exuding group bias and suspicion. I’m sure he inculcated his son with it, which is probably part of the reason why the little guy got whooped up on at school.

If the kid had a more diverse social circle it would not have happened. 

How do I know such things?


Because I was the only White kid attending summer school at Roosevelt High School in the Bronx in the summer of 1982. My punishment for questioning the reflexive Freudian logic of the teacher running my senior year psychology elective at the elite Bronx High School of Science was to be made to take third year social studies over again. Even though I’d received a grade of 95 in it a year earlier.

Prefigueroa-marcayda-salazar-tankssumably, the powers that be knew there was a very good chance I’d catch a couple ass whoopings at Roosevelt.

Those beatings never happened.


Because I had a diverse social circle, which included a huge Black guy named Michael Petty. This fellow Civil Air Patrol cadet and future Marine Corps master sergeant walked me to class each day until my new classmates got to know me.

Race is often conflated with turf in NYC. And it’s common for working class New Yorkers to talk trash in the run-up to a fight just to intimidate their opponents. That trash talk encompasses everything from race, to mothers, to height, to facial characteristics.
In my opinion, the real racism during this period was perpetrated by Koch and Sharpton.
Our society has programmed us to embrace the simplistic narrative of a single tribal distinction, which is how Howard Beach is remembered. But the painful truth is that this incident was just as much about income and turf, as pigmentation.

We need to remember that in a world where politicians routinely employ racial divide-and-conquer tactics against the poor and faltering middle class to prevent us from pushing them out of office for representing the 1 Percent. 

Thlovee story of man is “a story of love and hate” to quote Radio Raheem from the film “Do the Right Thing.” The epic Spike Lee tale of racial strife in New York City was inspired by the Howard Beach incident. (Click pic at left for the video link)

When love wins, we all win in the faltering middle class.

Because together, we “kick much ass,” to paraphrase Radio Raheem.

The character was created by Spike Lee, who grew up in the Italian working class neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn.

If working class New Yorkers were really as racist they were depicted during the Howard Beach trial, neither of us would be around today.

Is there racism in New York City?


However, the monied interests who stir things up never seem to get around to shining a similar spotlight on income inequality and class warfare.

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out why.

There’s even a term for it: “the sin of omission.”



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