Most New Yorkers have responded with shock and horror to the beating attack in a white middle-class Queens neighborhood that led to the death of a young black man. But observers say the incident is evidence that racial tensions lie close to the surface. New York City Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward announced the arrest yesterday of four white male teen-agers and said more arrests were likely. Police have said there were 11 people from Howard Beach - the section of Queens - involved in the incident, all white teen-agers and including one female.
Late Friday night, four young black men were confronted by whites brandishing a baseball bat and sticks, and yelling racial epithets, according to police. The black men tried to flee but were caught and attacked. Three escaped with injuries while the fourth, Michael Griffith, was struck and killed by a car as he fled across a highway.
Commissioner Ward said yesterday, ``The motive is not clear. The best evidence is that people were saying `Nigger, you're in the wrong neighborhood.' It was a bias incident, a hate crime - that's the only motive we have so far.''
Queens County District Attorney John Santucci has said he will ``go for the highest charges possible.'' A grand jury will be called and will most likely decide the charges. The driver of the car that hit Mr. Griffith has not been charged as of this writing.
Mayor Edward I. Koch, also present at the conference, expressed outrage over the incident, calling it the ``most horrendous incident of violence in my nine years as mayor. This is the worst murder in the modern era of New York because of its [racial] overtones.'' He went on to say that he hopes the city will ``rise up in wrath'' at those who perpetrated the crime.
Around the country, civil rights activists are reacting with dismay at this latest evidence of racial bigotry. They decry an attitude among some residents that seems to condone the tragedy.
Laura Blackburn of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says she is concerned about the poisonous atmosphere building across the country at colleges and in neighborhoods. She says it is time everyone, white and black, got involved. ``Ignorance is the breeding ground of racism.''
Commissioner Ward says it is long past time for New York State to require that incidents of racial bias and ``hate crimes'' be reported to the US Justice Department.
Alberta B. Fuentes, executive director of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, says there has been a slight increase recently in violence against persons and property. It includes other personal attacks among ethnic groups, and destruction of property, such as the painting of swastikas on synagogues.
In addition to meeting with the victims of violence, the commission will go through the community to see what gave rise to the incident, Ms. Fuentes says.
For example, an attack by white youths on several visiting Puerto Rican teen-agers in Belmont in the Bronx this summer was followed by an attack on two Yugoslavian cousins by Hispanics and blacks. These incidents led to a coalition of civic and religious leaders determined to stop such violence. That group held a meeting yesterday to stifle rumors and the potential for further violence in the wake of the weekend tragedy.
``We work with a community so they themselves resolve the problem,'' says Fuentes, rather than forcing action from the outside.
Many blacks have complained about racism in Howard Beach, saying that they are yelled at or accosted simply waiting at a bus stop. Fuentes says the commission had heard such complaints, but had not taken any action. She adds that Howard Beach is not unique.
``If [we] had more money available, we could do not just mediation, but prevention,'' she says.
But despite the ugly incidents that require a strong action from the city and its neighborhoods, Fuentes says New York is not without hope.
``We are a mosaic of different colors and cultures, and we live together very well when you consider all the different values we have from all over the world,'' she says.