I was born and raised in Queens, New York. The Howard Beach murder case was a shocking and horrible crime that evoked the ugly depths of prejudice across communities. Michael Griffith, Cedric Sandiford and Timothy Grimes, all African-American, had their car break down and, stuck there for a while, had gone to get something to eat. When they left the pizza shop, a group of whites, carrying baseball bats, came up to them. The three men were beaten, until Sandiford and Grimes were able to escape-- and Griffith tried to, but met his death when struck by a car as he ran to cross a nearby parkway.
The anger and grief evoked by the incident were captured in this episode of 'Cagney & Lacey' based on the true story. The detectives investigate the killing of an African-American man in a white neighborhood. It seems many area residents did not want to help-- they even thought the victim 'deserved' it, as in their part of town, it was in this day and age still unknown for people of different backgrounds to do anything together. Across the city, millions were revolted that these kinds of attitudes could still flourish. Yet they did, and for some, they might always do so.
The episode was looked upon as so important, as it spoke directly to the tragedy that was on everyone's mind, that it was literally assigned viewing for students; it aired uncensored, but accompanied by stern warnings about the graphic language and disturbing themes. We watched the show, wrote essays about it and took part in discussions at school the next day. Student or not, this episode would be hard to forget. In the show, the tension of the case was lived out in the atmopshere of the precinct. Officers of different heritage snapped at each other and jumped down each other's throats. People who never thought of themselves as bigoted accused one another of these ignorant beliefs. The case might very well fall apart if police were not able to work together to solve it.
At last, Cagney could not take it anymore and, in an infamous shouting match, confronted her fellow officers en masse. She said she knew everybody had some hatefulness going on under the surface-- but somehow, they would have to put it aside, or they could not, at the very least, be able to do their jobs. The explosive argument drew in others who confronted her with the belief that whatever else she had gone through in the ranks, it would never be as bad as what happened to the victim. You might think the men and women of the department had reached the breaking point. Somehow, they did not-- as others stepped up to defuse the situation with gallows humor, making it clear that no matter how bad things got, they still had to pull together. If only the public could have learned that, and taken to heart the words written long ago: "He who hates his brother is a murderer."