On this day in 1986, three black men are attacked by a group of white teenagers yelling racial slurs in Howard Beach, a predominately white, middle-class, Italian-American neighborhood in Queens, New York. Earlier that night, the men were driving from Brooklyn to Queens, when their car broke down near Howard Beach. They walked several miles to a pizza parlor in Howard Beach, where they asked to use a phone to call for assistance. After being told there was no phone available, they ordered some pizza. When the men left the pizzeria, they were confronted by the gang of teens. One of the men, Michael Griffith, 23, was chased into traffic on the Belt Parkway and died after being hit by a car. A second man, Cedric Sandiford, was severely beaten, while the third man, Timothy Grimes, outran the assailants and escaped without serious injury.
The attack stoked racial tensions in New York City and garnered national headlines. The two surviving victims, distrustful of police in Queens who they believed were treating them like perpetrators, refused to cooperate further with investigators and the district attorney’s office. Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton led a large group of demonstrators on a protest march through Howard Beach and was met by a smaller band of counter-demonstrators who shouted abuse. Sharpton and other black leaders believed the Queens District Attorney’s office was mishandling the case and called for the appointment of a special state prosecutor. New York Governor Mario Cuomo named Charles Hynes to the position. Sharpton was later accused of using the case to further his own political agenda and increase his national profile. In December 1987, after 12 days of jury deliberations, three teens were convicted of manslaughter in the death of Griffith.
In 1988, Timothy Grimes was arrested for shooting his brother and sentenced to a long prison term. Cedric Sandiford died of illness in 1991.
Almost a decade after the killing, in June 2005, history seemed to repeat itself when three black men in Howard Beach were attacked with baseball bats by a group of young white men who yelled racial epithets. One of the black men was beaten, while the other two escaped unharmed. Further controversy erupted in the case after one of the victims reportedly admitted to police that he had gone to Howard Beach to steal a car. However, in the years since the 1986 incident, New York enacted stronger hate-crime laws and in June 2006, Nicholas Minucci, 20, was found guilty of racially motivated assault and robbery. The following month, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.