‘Free Fat Nick’ Another Generation Of Hate?
Another Generation Lost? “Free Fat Nick,” was the theme of the misguided youths who came in opposition to Rev. Al Sharpton’s appearance in Howard Beach protesting the vile baseball bat beating of a black man by “Fat Nick” Minucci.
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
It was one of the saddest days in Queens history.
It was one of the most tragic stories and pathetic displays of the inhumanity that has ever existed in a Queens community.
It was perhaps, the worst incident in my quarter of century of covering the news in Queens County.
It was real and it was ugly.
It was racism at its worst.
It demonstrated that all the teaching and preaching and all of the strides of the 50’s and 60’s made nationwide, all of the progress of equality and good will built by the courageous leaders of the civil rights movement, could not change the ugliness in people’s hearts or the teachings of myopic misanthropes.
It was the day of the shame of Howard Beach.
It was in December of 1986.
And it was last week, again.
For those of you who prayed and hoped, like I did, that the vile baseball bat beating of a black man by white youths in Howard Beach last week was an isolated incident, the news is not good.
For those who hoped it did not and will not reflect on a community which has spent nearly two decades trying to recover from the shattering experience of that fateful day in 1986 when an out of control group of white teenage thugs beat and chased three black men resulting in the tragic death of Michael Griffith while trying to escape by running across the Belt Parkway, I fear we have a long and arduous road ahead.
We at the Tribune covered that incident 19 years ago. What made that awful tragedy so much worse was that many in the community appeared to support the actions of the white teen thugs – they sided with the murderers.
And those of us who witnessed that year-long episode ending in trial and conviction prayed for healing and a future of hope.
The ugliness that came from that Queens community in December of 1986 was as vile and hateful as the ugliness witnessed on the steps of Ol’ Miss when James Meridith integrated that school. The hate was the same as that was experienced by my slain Queens College classmate Andy Goodman when he went south to Mississippi to register voters in the summer of ’64.
The Klan, Orville Faubus and George Wallace had always symbolized to me the worst of humanity. They were raised and inculcated with all that was wrong with people. They tried to perpetuate their hate. They wanted to create another generation of Black haters, Black beaters and for some, Black murderers. But they were distant and far removed from our reality. Sure, things weren’t perfect in New York. But the true vile and ugly – the deadly vile and ugly – existed in the south, not here in New York City.
That was then. That was in the past. That was far away.
It was all so very far removed from Queens, New York.
I marched on picket lines in my youth. I was an active member of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). I spent a meaningful portion of my college experience as part of that important civil rights movement. When I was a teacher, Martin Luther King was the central theme of classroom current events. I worked—I still work—to help achieve his dream. Teaching our children right from wrong is the best way to do that.
Things improved since those early days of my involvement in the civil rights movement. They were not perfect, but progress was made.
Then sitting in the offices of the Queens Tribune in 1986-7, I was forced to come face to face with the same ugliness again. This time it was in my Queens, in Howard Beach. And it was just as ugly.
And after a year of strife, and people of good will working to heal, the Howard Beach incident slowly faded, but was never forgotten. However, we blindly forgot that the hatred still festered and continued to spread from some of its lily white manicured streets. Some of the same ugly bigotry and teachings that led to the 1986 incident was still present. Where else did Nicholas “Fat Nick” Minucci learn to hate? What could have brought him to smash the head of Glenn Moore with a baseball bat, fracturing his skull and bringing him near death?
And quietly, we all hoped – at least I did – that the act of “Fat Nick” was a single isolated moment and was not indicative of the hate of a community. And people came forth to speak out. Al Sharpton, Congressman Greg Meeks, joined at Jamaica Hospital, where Glenn Moore still lay in critical condition, by white elected officials — Councilman Joe Addabbo. Jr., Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, State Senator Serf Maltese — in a sign of unity and a clear statement of condemnation of the hate that brought on the vile attack.
Then Friday, Al Sharpton marched to Howard Beach. In a moment reminiscent of a march he led 19 years earlier, Sharpton wanted to denounce the attack and make it clear that the streets belong to everyone. Almost 20 years earlier he was met with hundreds of demonstrators shouting abuse and hurling garbage.
This past Friday, there were not hundreds, but they were there. Children with signs reading: “Free Fat Nick,” laughed at Reverend Al and smiled to the cameras. They were proud of their message. They were proud of their community. They were glad that a 22-year old black man lay in the hospital near death - or they were just stupid.
Perhaps we can take some solace in the fact that many fewer turned out this time to protest Sharpton’s presence. Perhaps we should find comfort in a greatly reduced level of tension. Perhaps we can conclude things in Howard Beach are better than they were 19 years ago.
In Queens, New York, the most ethnically diverse place on earth, there exists Howard Beach -- zip code 11414.
In that Howard Beach zip code, only 1% of the people are black. You don’t see minorities on those manicured streets, and a black face along the retail strips is not common.
At night, the message still seems to be, if you’re black, you better look out.
Things may have changed, but not very much.
What could bring children from the neighborhood into the streets to defend and applaud the vile act of Nick Minucci? What was done in that community to correct the racially motivated injustice of 19 years earlier? What has caused yet another moment in history bringing shame to the same Queens community?
There are today kids walking the streets declaring Nick Minucci a hero. There are still kids proudly wearing t-shirts and waving signs that shout, “Free Fat Nick.”
I wonder who taught them to hate?