Adam Powell was my original hero. The first time I saw him preach at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, when I was 12 years old, I felt like I had seen God. He embodied all of the ministry and defiance, the swagger and respectability, that I, even at that age, wanted to have. In my teen days, I was Jesse Jackson’s youth director of Operation Breadbasket in New York. Jesse Jackson taught me activism. I learned how to deal with media. I formed the National Youth Movement when I was 16. Then I went on the road for a year and a half with James Brown, taking care of his business but never really leaving the movement.
On January 15, 1981, James Brown and I went to the White House to see then-Vice President Bush to lobby for the Martin Luther King national holiday. Before we left Augusta, Georgia, James took me to his hair shop and told them to do my hair like his and made me vow to wear my hair like that till I die. Even years later, when he got in trouble and went to jail, he used to call me three or four times a week from jail. “How’s everything going? What are you doing? How’s your hair?” So that’s why I say Jesse is my teacher; but James was like my surrogate father.
In the summer of ’86, I started the War on Crack movement. We started painting crack houses with red X’s. Late that year, I got a call in the middle of the night from one of the young men who was on the staff of the movement, a kid we called Sunshine, who said to me, “They killed my cousin Michael Griffith in Queens.” I assumed it was a drug killing, because that’s what we were working on, the crack dealers. So I wrote the number down on the nightstand and went back to sleep. When I got up the next morning, I met Mrs. Griffith and Cedric Sandiford, who was bruised and battered and had been beaten in Howard Beach, and they told me what had happened. And what unraveled was the Howard Beach case. Before that, I had no idea it was racial. I was simply responding to a staff member of mine who was very close to the family. Michael Griffith had on Sunshine’s jacket when he was killed hit by a car after a group of white youths harassed, beat, and chased him and two other black men. That’s how I got involved. I had no idea it would become a big case. I was outraged. I called Jim Bell, who was a union leader, and I said, “We’ve got to show dramatically that this is racist, because they keep brushing these cases under the rug, and we must make the system deal with it.” So I announced that I was going to lead a motorcade in Howard Beach. I got the idea from King marching in Cicero, Illinois. I thought if we went to Howard Beach and there was a reaction, people could no longer delude themselves that there wasn’t a racial problem in New York. The only problem was, I didn’t own a car! I’m calling for a motorcade, and I was riding the A train every day.
To my surprise, over a hundred people showed up with vehicles. And when we got to Howard Beach, there were a couple of hundred people in the streets screaming, “Nigger, go home!” And all the media was there. It doesn’t make everybody in Howard Beach a racist, but it tells people on the evening news – just like Selma did, just like Birmingham did – there’s a problem. The lawyer that the family had chosen was Alton Maddox. I knew him, but I had never worked with him. And we shook hands at the funeral. The next time I saw him in this case, we were all at the court hearing in Queens when the D.A. came out and said he was indicting the white attackers for reckless endangerment. We said, “This is outrageous. This is unbelievable. You’d get that for yelling ‘Fire’ in a theater.”
C. Vernon Mason by then had shown up. We came out on the steps; we denounced it. And Maddox, with Cedric Sandiford, developed a strategy of noncooperation. Sandiford, the eyewitness, would not cooperate with Santucci’s grand jury. It was then that some of the legislators went to the governor, who appointed – for the first time in a race case, to our knowledge – a special prosecutor, Charles Hynes. That was a landmark. Because that was the first time the state conceded there was a problem in how the criminal-justice system responds to racial violence. I think that people in the majority community took our involvement as an aberration. And I think that people in the black Establishment were hoping, “Well, it’s a onetime thing; let’s ride it out. No reason to tell him to take off the jogging suit and cut his hair, because he won’t be around long anyway. It’s an ’86-’87 story.” And they’ve been telling themselves that for eleven or twelve years.
You’ve got to remember that after we went through the whole Tawana Brawley thing, they really thought we’d be finished. Then I was indicted – a 67-count indictment for tax evasion; he was eventually acquitted. So there was always this distance between the black Establishment and us the activists.
It stopped when I started running for office and I started winning their districts, and they figured it was better to have me on their side than against them. But that wasn’t until the early nineties. By then we had won cases in Bensonhurst; we had won in Howard Beach. And I started saying that the only way we were going to make permanent change is to have political power. I wasn’t sure I should run, but I knew someone should. In the middle of this period of inner turmoil, I got stabbed. And I lay in that hospital and said to myself, “You’ve got to go from protest to putting people in power.” That’s when I decided that I needed to try and organize the black mainstream, go back heavy into the churches and deal with politics. A year later, I ran for U.S. Senate, under tax indictment in Albany, and I beat Liz Holtzman and got 15 percent of the vote. But all of that started in Howard Beach.
If victims felt the system worked, there would not be a need for someone like me. But I’ve learned through the Brawley episode that you can’t get in the way of your own cause. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have attacked Bob Abrams personally. I wouldn’t have gotten into name calling. A lot of the things I did really blurred the issue. But if Tawana Brawley called me tonight and certain circumstances existed, I would go to Wappinger Falls again. Ten years later, Abner Louima calls me – and a lot of people don’t understand this – but as long as there are these incidents, there will always be somebody like me who is needed to respond.
Interviewed by Craig Horowitz