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.