Midway through the rap artist Cassidy’s “I’m a Hustla” video, Nicholas “Fat Nick” Minucci appears for a moment in a street scene, outfitted in a black sweatshirt with a silver crucifix around his neck, looking every bit the part of a gangsta rap groupie. Beside him stand the Gotti brothers, sandwiched around Cassidy in ridiculously striped matching mink coats. While they invited Minucci, an acquaintance, to the Philadelphia shoot, he stands curiously off frame, a wistful expression on his face.
Shortly after his arrest for the beating with a baseball bat of a black man in Howard Beach, Queens, last June, fans on the Hottie Gotti web site wondered whether Minucci’s appearance in the video might demean the Gotti brothers’ legacy, in weird email talk that seemed, given the ponderous racial politics of this case, to speak to the crux of the debate.
“Fat Nick is effin awesome! He was defendin himself!” wrote CraZyFoRJoHn, referring to the fact that Minucci’s victim, Glenn Moore, had come to Howard Beach with two friends to steal a car that night. “I don’t think he should go to jail for thaaaaattt long…and who gives if the dude was black?”
To which J.E.M, “Junior Mafia,” responded, “Whoever the f* said that it was ok for that animal to beat the f* out of someone, and all that nonsense about it being no big deal bcuz he knows the Gottis…lemme tell you what I think of your racist, condoning attitude towards this whole situation! You’re F*in ignorant. U piss me off.”
“But,” wrote kissnTell, “r they positive it was a racist thing though?”
The State of New York was positive it was a racist thing. After a three-week trial it took a jury only seven hours to find Nick guilty of a hate crime for selecting Glenn Moore because he was black, for which Nick faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced on July 13. Minucci is back in solitary confinement, his setting for 10 months leading up to the trial. Until he was put on suicide watch, his mother, Maria, visited him once a week, stopping in Harlem to purchase the black lit titles Nick likes, his only source of entertainment save for a staticky radio on which he tuned into DJ Kay Slay’s midnight rap show, during an extended separation for his own protection from the general prison population, whose experiences he absorbed for hours every day.
Maria Minucci lives in Lindenwood, a neighborhood connected to Howard Beach by an underpass beneath the Belt Parkway, that with its uniform brick garden apartments and mixed ethnic population is similar to Howard Beach in zip code only (Howard Beach proper is almost 95 percent white). Not long before Nick’s trial I visited her there, on a day she’d arranged for three of Nick’s friends to drop by. We gathered around her tidy kitchen table looking at pictures of multiracial birthday parties from Nick’s youth, hip-hop magazines, including Felon and The Feds, and a black lit title called Against the Grain—”Boo and Moe were brothers whose father died of a drug overdose while they were young,” read the back flap—items which, Nick’s friends said, made the state’s racial attack storyline implausible.
“The other day on the phone he said to me, ‘Tom, look what they’re doing to me. If I had a chance to be black, I probably would. He dies for these stories, all about black kids and livin in the hood.’” ‘Thomas,’ as he identified himself, was Italian/Puerto Rican, and sported a gangsta look with a billowing white tee shirt that dropped nearly to his knees.
“Yeah, homie,” echoed ‘Willy,’ a slight Dominican/Columbian kid who wore a Scarface tee shirt and a Chicago Bulls baseball cap.
“I walked through the halls with him every day in John Adams High School,” Thomas continued. “Half the school is black. He went to middle school 226 in South Ozone Park, ‘the backstreets,’ where all the Crips are. If you’re racist, you don’t like nothin about that. You don’t dress black, you don’t look at black girls’ asses, you don’t have black friends, and you DON’T listen to hip-hop.”
Later, Nick called from jail. He told me how he was scared to return to East New York, the mainly black community where his father lives, and about an altercation at the Queens County Courthouse “when some black kids jumped out at me ready to fight me.”
“What happens if I go there and some black person tries to stab me because the media says something that’s not true?” he said. “I have witnesses. And they want to call me a racist?”
“What’s he saying, what’s he saying?” Maria said, trying to pull the phone away from me. She had flaxen hair and a heavily creased smoker’s face and spoke in the nasally Queens accent of a television mobster’s wife.
“He says he’s innocent,” I whispered, turning my shoulder to the side and hugging the receiver.
“He is innocent. I don’t care what the mayor says. Hate crime. Give me a break!”
That day, the Daily News had run a small story on page 29, which Maria had cut out, about a white NYU student who had been hit by a car and killed after running from a group of young black robbers who had set upon him as an easy mark. The tabloid had finally inquired into the racial elements of this week-old case, but the tiny article stood in stark contrast to the paper’s front page exclusive on Fat Nick the morning after his attack. ‘Howard Beach Racial Attack,’ read the headline. ‘Black Man Beaten With Bat. Mayor Vows Swift Justice.’
To be guilty of a hate crime under New York’s anti bias crime statute, a criminal must select his victim in whole or substantial part because of his race. According to the police, robbery—and not racial bias—was the motive for the Harlem crime, but when detective Anthony D’Angelo of the Hate Crimes Unit was called to testify for the prosecution at the Fat Nick trial, the murky comparison of the two crimes was still fresh in peoples’ minds. In the hallway outside Judge Buchter’s courtroom two newspaper photographers discussed the fact that witnesses in Harlem had heard one of the black attackers yell “Get whitey!” while chasing his victim into oncoming traffic.
“I mean, why isn’t that a hate crime?” asked one of them.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the other. “But what I do know is what my father always told me. There’s only one way not to be prejudiced against any religion, race, or ethnic group: just hate everybody.”
After Nick was brought in for questioning, but before he’d been charged with any crime, he willingly gave detective D’Angelo four confessions. During D’Angelo’s testimony, one of these, an audio version, was played to a packed courtroom. An unintentionally prescient mix of fantasy and reality, on the tape Minucci claims he was robbed with a screwdriver by the black man he later attacked, in an act of neighborhood vigilantism that was payback for a spat of earlier break-ins in the mostly white enclave committed by “people” from the neighboring, and mostly black and impoverished, community of East New York.
“When you say ‘people’ who do you mean?” probes D’Angelo on the tape.
“I mean the robbers,” says Nick.
“Do you mean black people?”
“Yeah. There’s black people all over that neighborhood.”
“So you mean ‘they’ black people were coming into Howard Beach to rob ‘you’ white people?”
“One hundred percent.”
Minucci never was robbed. (An accomplice turned state witness, Frankie Agostini, alerted Nick to the presence of the black men in the neighborhood after, he says, they eyed his chain at a convenience store.) Minucci’s “us and them” terminology, a standard measure of bigot speak, was trumpeted by the prosecution throughout the trial as evidence of his desire to “dominate and humiliate, and not just seriously injure” Glenn Moore.
“It’s more about his feelings of superiority,” said Assistant District Attorney Mariela Herring in her opening remarks. “He selected Glenn Moore and committed this crime because of Moore’s race.”
It is true that Fat Nick chased Moore through the streets that night, and after finding him hiding behind a porch set upon him with the softball bat, saying, “What up, nigga? This is what you get when you try to rob white boys.” But it was also true that Glenn Moore and his two friends had come from East New York (one of Moore’s friends, Richard Pope, lived there), on a failed excursion to steal a car in Lindenwood. Moreover, there had been a spat of robberies in Howard Beach in the weeks preceding Nick’s attack, documented by letters to the editor of the Queens Chronicle. “Where were the press, Mayor Bloomberg, or Police Commissioner Kelley when they held my family hostage?” said Edward Benedetto, the author of such a letter, as he described being robbed at gunpoint by three black men to a Chronicle reporter after the media descended on Howard Beach.
In his confession, Fat Nick seemed accepting of the presence of black people in East New York, whereas detective D’Angelo seemed coercive, as though he had a bigger arsenal of generalizations about race at his disposal than Nick did, albeit for different purposes. In other words, it seemed possible that Nick had selected Glenn Moore because he was black, but it seemed uncertain as ever that Nick was a racist, as opposed, say, to a street punk with an anger problem who acted with the instincts of a racial profiler, and who should only have been charged with aggravated assault.
I rode the subway from the courthouse back to Bedford-Stuyvesant, where I live. That evening, returning from a beer run, a pack of black teenagers edged up towards me on the sidewalk, many of them on bikes. When the first one set to punch me, I raised a bottle in the sky and he rescinded, remarking, “Watch the bottle, yo.” Other times I’ve been greeted with the plaintive and disconcertingly courteous remark, “Hey, whitey,” as I walk down Bedford Avenue, a major point of Caucasian encroachment.
On a map measuring the city’s racial concentration, Bed-Stuy blends with other Brooklyn neighborhoods, including East New York, to form an area of black segregation in the borough. Sandwiched between it and a similarly segregated area in Queens is the wedge of Howard Beach, an oddly shaped enclave abutting a marsh and JFK Airport.
I’d gotten the map from Craig Gurian, executive director of the non-profit Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York. When I visited Gurian in his office, across the street from City Hall, he’d framed the Fat Nick episode in a language that took aim at the institutions that lay behind whatever happened that night, which to some extent influenced the individual players on both sides, black and white.
“These weren’t coincidences,” Gurian said both of Nick’s attack and of Glenn Moore’s mission to steal a car in a white neighborhood. We were looking at his map, which divided the city into squares of bold dark black (lots of black people), light pink (a Hispanic/Caucasian combo), indigo blue (thick with Caucasians), and flecks of lime green (Asians). “New York’s dirty little secret is how segregated it really is,” Gurian said. “And segregation is the breeding ground. Where there is a distinct ‘other.’ Where the other can be easily identified, singled out. Where the existence of the other is startling, or shocking, or threatening. Where it’s oh-so-easy to make an assumption: this person doesn’t belong here.”
A few blocks down Broadway from Gurian’s office is the headquarters of City Councilman Charles Barron. A former black panther and longtime activist who represents East New York, Barron had recently announced he was running for U.S. Congress. With my map in tow, I asked his opinion of Fat Nick. “This is excellent,” Barron said, peering over it. “At the root of it. Who produced Nick?”
Like a cadre of prominent black leaders, Barron had made a name for himself protesting a string of racially motivated incidents in the 1980s, including the Yusef Hawkins murder trial (known in the city’s race consciousness as “Bensonhurst”), the Tawana Brawley “incident,” and the 1986 murder of a black man named Michael Griffith in Howard Beach.
After his car broke down on the opposite side of Jamaica Bay, Griffith and three friends had walked across Cross Bay Bridge and into Howard Beach, where a white mob chased them from a pizza parlor onto the Belt Parkway. There, Griffith was struck by a car and killed, creating a racial centrifuge with all the concomitant characters of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities—the terrified politicians, the upstart special prosecutor brought in to quell black fears of corruption (Charles Hynes, now the Brooklyn D.A.)—and establishing for Howard Beach the moniker of racist enclave.
Afterwards, Barron told me, he had marched through the streets of Howard Beach with Al Sharpton where “…they were calling us the N-word, carrying an effigy of an ape, carrying watermelons. And a wedding party with a bride and groom came out of the church when we were marching by, and they called us the N-word. And they followed us. This was not Mississippi, this was not Alabama. This was Queens.”
“Now, 20 years later how do we produce this guy?” Barron continued. “It’s the same thing. What’s happening in this city is that we didn’t correct that. This city is a powder keg. We’re not living happily in Bloomberg’s harmonious New York and singing kum-ba-ya!”
Stephen Murphy, the roguish, red-faced attorney who won the only acquittal of a defendant in the 1986 Michael Griffith murder trial, likes to say that the politics of bias crimes can be measured through the arrival of the “racial profiteers.” “It will be a cold day in hell when anything good comes from the rhetoric and vitriol in these racial cases when every politician and activist feels it’s their bailiwick to put forth an agenda that benefits themselves or their cause,” he told me a month before Nick’s trial, as we drove past the Brooklyn Supreme Courthouse, the stomping grounds of his other notorious case, the Yusef Hawkins murder trial. In that case, Murphy won an acquittal for Keith Mondello, who prosecutors claimed organized a group of whites carrying bats that surrounded Hawkins, who was later shot to death with a gun that was never found.
A regular visitor in the Fat Nick case, Murphy could be seen in the media pew taking notes on the prosecution’s witnesses, which he handed over the rail to Minucci’s attorney, his old friend Albert Gaudelli, adding a meta-twist to the proceedings.
For public consumption, the Fat Nick case was billed as a test of the postmodern usage of the word “nigger,” and I’d looked to Murphy (many of whose clients have been rap singers, who very often say to him, “Steve, you’re my nigga,” as a term of endearment) for some sense of how this would play to the mostly black jury. But the N-word debate—featuring Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy testifying to its meanings as a racial slur and hip hop salutation—offered little more than morbid comic relief. (“The last chapter of my book is about the word “nigger” today. It’s called, ‘How Are We Doing with Nigger Today?’” “Well tell us, professor, how are we doing?”)
The irrelevancy of the debate had been established two weeks before Kennedy’s surprise testimony, when Judge Buchter chastised Gaudelli, a squat, affable fellow who could turn brutish on the bench, for “lateral” race banter during his cross examination of Richard Pope, a friend of Moore’s who had orchestrated the plan to steal a car that night, and whose criminal record (which included stabbing a man in the kneecap with a flathead screwdriver, the same kind he was carrying as a car-jacking tool that night), made him the most hardened criminal of the lot.
“Do you use the word, ‘nigga?’” Gaudelli had asked.
“Sometimes,” said Pope.
“When I’m angry.”
“And you listen to hip hop?” continued Gaudelli, incredulous.
“And don’t you hear that word in the music?”
“Objection, your honor, that’s lateral,” intoned the DA.
“Sustained,” said Buchter.
“But does it really offend you?”
“Mr. Gaudelli,” said Judge Buchter, “you’re in the wrong court to press your luck.”
“But judge, this is a case about language!”
“No, it’s not…”
After Fat Nick was convicted of a hate crime, a scrum of reporters listened while Richard Brown, the Queens County District Attorney, delivered a speech so rousing, so thick with self-congratulation, that a better target might have been an enduring bigot like Tom Metzger, the former head of the California Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, rather than a dopey one like Nick. Handshakes and photos ops abounded as the lead prosecutors, Mariela Herring and Michelle Goldstein, posed triumphantly with a departing intern. Outside somewhere, the presiding judge, Richard Buchter, yucked it up with reporters, while in the press room war was being declared against all the racists of New York City—and the racists, the DA assured us, were bound to lose.
Minutes earlier I’d trailed New York Times reporters Corey Kilgannon and Mick Meehan as they’d tried to get a comment from the jury, which had sneaked out a back door and run, like wounded deer, for the subway, flanked by a trio of bailiffs. For three weeks we’d waffled about Nick’s innocence or guilt, slowly concluding that his case had no easy answers, and the announcement of a verdict towards the end of a Friday afternoon had caught us off guard (not to mention Judge Buchter, who’d predicted the jury would take until the following Tuesday).
Kilgannon had actually left around 2:00 pm that Friday. But as the afternoon wore on and the jury requested “read backs” of several of the 14 counts against Nick, it became obvious they were hustling. Meehan hailed Kilgannon and suddenly here he was again, as shocked as the rest of us that a case with so much subtext could be so easy to decide.
But then again, it was shaping up to be a beautiful weekend. The reporters strode past each other as cyclists, using the wind, jockeyed for position.
“Did you get anything?” Meehan asked dejectedly, after the last of the jurors had disappeared.
“No, I was behind,” I said.
“Not a thing,” Kilgannon said. “They’re not talking. I should have followed them onto the fuckin train.”
A motorist honked and waived wryly. It was Stephen Murphy. “A tough bit!” he’d whispered to me from the courtroom, after each of the guilty verdicts were announced. “A tough bit!” Now, for a case that was all about language, he seemed to have been rendered weirdly mute.
Jesse Sunenblick is a writer who lives in Bed-Stuy.