By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In the glaring sun of last Saturday afternoon, the family of murder victim Manuel Mayi and supporters marched the same long street they have retraced for years. It was the annual rally in memory of an 18-year-old Dominican, who on the night of March 29, 1991, ran that route until a mob of youths caught up and beat him to death with baseball bats in the then predominantly white section of Corona, Queens. In a crime believed to have involved as many as 10 attackers, authorities arrested three, tried one, and ultimately failed to secure a single conviction.
But the Mayi contingent has in a sense come a long way beyond those 16 blocks. Political and popular forces with a decade's momentum recently converged to thrust the crime back into the public light, renewing hope that justice may yet be won in a case many view as racial violenceand official neglectat its worst.
Last Tuesday, the City Council's Black and Hispanic Caucus called on police, prosecutors, and the city human rights commission to reinvestigate the "racially-motivated murder." For many, the longstanding official explanation never fit the crime. "This was graffiti-motivated as far as we can tell," a police supervisor said in 1991, contending that Mayi had been tagging a site when a group of locals "took exception . . . and set out after him." Race, police said, was not a factor.
The Mayis have vehemently denied that the Queens College honor student would write graffiti anywhere, let alone be foolish enough to do so in what was then, authorities have said, a widely known Mafia stronghold. But in an interview with the Voice, his mother, Altagracia Mayi, said, "Suppose he did graffiti. Why didn't they just call the cops?" She proffered the autopsy report: "Cause of death: Fractures of skull. Contusions of brain due to blunt force impact. Manner: Homicide." The list of injuries includes two cracks in the skull measuring two and six inches respectively.
Dennis de Leon, then the city's human rights commissioner, said last week, "Do I think if a white person had been spraying graffiti he would have gotten beaten to death with baseball bats? Of course not. That's an absurd explanation." After interviewing witnesses and area residents, he said, "We felt very strongly that it was a bias incident, and we wanted it pursued that way." Rudolph Giuliani's 1993 mayoral victory ended de Leon's tenure and his commission's efforts.
Caucus co-chair Hiram Monserrate has set high stakes for the city's response this time: "This case is definitely a way to gauge [the Bloomberg] administration's real commitment to social justice and to all communities of color."
More easily dismissed in 1991, those are fighting words in 2002. The council caucus by itself, an unprecedented 25-strong, is living proof of the clout those communities now carry. Minority candidates won half the legislature's seats in last year's electionswith Monserrate becoming the first Latino elected in Queens to any office and John Liu the first Asian elected in state and city history.
Chief Michael Collins of the NYPD public information office told the Voice that Commissioner Raymond Kelly last week instructed the Cold Case Squad, an elite unit of veteran detectives, to reinvestigate the case. "We will attempt to locate new witnesses, or witnesses who were reluctant in the past, and see if we can build a case against anyone who might be responsible for this," said Collins. He reserved comment on whether the department would classify the murder as a bias crime, but did not, as police officials had in the past, rule it out.
In practical terms, such a designation would enable a much broader inquiry, for instance into the overall social dynamics of the neighborhood, and possibly uncover other bias incidentswhich area residents claim are common but rarely reported. Symbolically, a recognition of the race factor would have immeasurable import.
The last election showed how critical immigrant, especially Latino, support, has become for politicians of every stripe. Latinos in areas like Corona helped cinch Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg's slim victory over Democratic rival Mark Green. Bloomberg acknowledged their role by quickly reaching out to Fernando Ferrer, the Latino candidate who lost to Green in a primary runoff, and visiting the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Organizations like the Latino Officers Association, a police group, endorsed Bloomberg over Green, who was viewed by some as having condoned if not ordered racist campaign attacks on Ferrer. But the group's president, NYPD Sergeant Anthony Miranda, said, "That doesn't mean we gave Bloomberg carte blanche. It just means he has an opportunity to make things right." In the Mayi case, he said, "the department has to take bigger steps to make sure that people don't get less attention simply because they're minority or because they don't have political clout." Richie Perez, coordinator of the Justice Committee of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rightswhich repeatedly accused Giuliani's NYPD of misconduct and brutalitysaid, "Bloomberg doesn't need to be on the wrong side of this. This didn't happen under his watch."
Bloomberg spokesperson Ed Skyler told the Voice, "The mayor has a lot of sympathy for the family, not only because of their loss but because of the lack of closure, and hopes that the police department will be able to resolve this case at some point." While the mayor's human rights commissioner, Patricia Gatling, declined comment despite her professed prosecutorial zeal, the police department's response has been somewhat encouraging. Last week's demands for a new investigation came with the news that a possible and as yet unreported witness to the murder had since joined the NYPD. The name floated was Frank Pineda, and at the Voice's request, Chief Collins attempted to verify the link.
"There is a person by that name in the New York City police department," he said. But he stressed that "a preliminary look at the [Mayi] case folder does not indicate that the person named is involved." However, he added, "We'll follow up on the case and see where it leads."
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, whom the Mayis have faulted with a slew of botches including the postponement of over 40 court dates, said he would "again vigorously prosecute" if there were new findings. The family has demanded a special state prosecutor.
Everywhere at Saturday's rally were signs of the changing times, including the politicians who worked the crowd of 150. Along the march route down 108th Street, dozens of Latinos and other immigrants, a testament to the city's shifting demographics, heard and sometimes joined the chorus of "no justicia, no hay paz." More somberly, the protesters' diversity showed how years of bias incidents among city residents and with police have given birth to a growing coalition of racial justice activists. Before marching, Latinos, blacks, Asians, and whites joined hands to pray on the sidewalk where the young Dominican died. A speaker took note of the solidarity: "Manny Mayi's death was not in vain."
But there is one constant to the yearly march, in the diminutive form of Altagracia Mayi. She is a low-wage maintenance worker who learned English to better advocate her son's cause. Her efforts do not win points with all her neighbors. Observing from a distance, a group of self-described "part-Italian" bystanders told the Voice that the Saturday rally was "bullshit" and accused Mayi of stirring racial tensions. "That's not right, what she's doing," said one woman. "It was an unfortunate accident. Kids fight."
But disapprovalor even the death threats she reports receivingwon't stop her, says Mayi. "I'm not scared. Why should I close my mouth? I understand everybody is going to die, but they killed my son because he is a Latino. A lot of Latinos get beaten up, but nobody does anything. You like it or don't like it, I'm going to be here." In a crisp white suit, she led Saturday's procession with a photo of Manuel hanging from a ribbon around her neck. It took marchers 40 minutes to walk the distance he ran for his life.