Michael Griffith's Queens death revealed northern U.S. racism

When we received a call about young Michael Griffith’s horrific death three decades ago in Howard Beach, where he was hit by a car after being chased by a mob of whites, we went immediately to New Park Pizzeria, where the altercation began, and followed up with a massive protest comprising at least 1,500 people.

As we marched in that neighborhood, we were called the N-word and had watermelon and other things thrown at us — but we persisted. It led to mass demonstrations and a day of outrage where we closed down subways, bridges and other places with acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Because of these sustained efforts to seek justice for Griffith and his family, we were able to get three racists convicted of manslaughter and a special prosecutor (Charles Hynes) appointed by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo.

As we reflect on those tumultuous and stressful times in this city’s history, this nation’s history, we must look at where we are in the present. It wasn’t long ago that National Action Network (NAN) and I were involved in pushing for accountability for the deaths of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla., and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.; and it wasn’t long ago that we called for greater inclusion of Blacks and Latinos in Academy Award nominations, or for answers in the Flint, Mich., water crisis and more. Clearly, our work is not over.

Three decades ago, the mayor of New York was Ed Koch, who had a very tense and sometimes adversarial relationship with the black community. The governor was Mario Cuomo, who, after demonstrations, appointed a special prosecutor, and the President was Ronald Reagan.

Kin recalls Michael Griffith's 1986 racial death in Howard Beach

Thirty years later, the mayor is Bill de Blasio, who has an interracial marriage and biracial children, and who has brought stop-and-frisk to a virtual end in the city and established that the policy is in fact racial profiling. Another Cuomo, Andrew, is the governor and he has worked with NAN and mothers of police brutality victims to have a special prosecutor assigned to any police-involved deaths of unarmed victims. The President is the first African-American to hold such a coveted position and he has commuted more sentences of low-level nonviolent individuals than the last 11 presidents combined. He also has an extensive commission on police reform that we have spent hours working on with him at the White House. Progress has undoubtedly taken place.

As I headed to Brooklyn on Monday night to join the family of Griffith, I was also busy preparing for a march that we will be holding on Jan. 14 in Washington, D.C., to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy and have a national response to the incoming Trump administration.

President-elect Donald Trump, who hails from the same borough of Queens, started getting publicity in the ’80s at the same time that we began raising the public profile of these incidents. And he has nominated a man with a troubled racial background, Jeff Sessions, as the next attorney general.

Studying movements around the world from South Africa to the southern U.S., I always noticed there is a pattern of one step forward and one back. Justice is won by those who can endure and sustain; it is not quick wins and easy fixes. The untold story of Howard Beach is that it helped remove the scab that had covered northern American racism. It’s easy to point to the bigotry of the South, but until that moment, northern prejudice and hate was never consistently portrayed on the national evening news. The question remains how this is dealt with 30 years later with police misconduct still in the headlines. We’ve won enough that my hopes are not dashed, but we’ve lost enough that my naivete no longer exists. Thirty years ago, I never dreamed we’d have a black President. Thirty years ago, I never thought I’d still be marching. Both are true, and one probably feeds the other.

Michael Griffith dies fleeing a white mob in Howard Beach in 1986

So in the stillness of the night, as the ghosts of Griffith and Yusef Hawkins all the way to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Crutcher and more haunt those of us who try to fight against the illusion that we are post-racial, we awaken the next morning getting our marching shoes on.

Those ghosts will never stop haunting us until the sun rises with equal protection under the law and equal opportunity. This is a battle that began when people of my community were enslaved, and it was dramatized in my life in Howard Beach. We will not stop until the stain of the Howard Beaches are removed, and they can only be removed when the criminal justice system and police and community forces work together with one standard and one level of accountability.

We owe that to Griffith, whose car broke down in Howard Beach 30 years ago, and who more importantly showed us that we have a system that broke down for blacks long before he ever got in that car.

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photo of Michael Griffith's Queens death revealed northern U.S. racism

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