Memories Still Burn in Bensonhurst Over the Death of Yusuf Hawkins

Friday, August 22, 2014

Yusuf Hawkins Mural in Bed-Stuy. (Kathleen Horan/WNYC)

A group of women were sitting on a Bensonhurst stoop this past Wednesday afternoon, taking the sun. They were around the corner from the spot on 20th Avenue where, 25 years ago, a white mob cornered and beat 16 year-old Yusuf Hawkins, before somebody pulled out a gun and shot him dead. The women were also sitting near the schoolyard where, in 1991, a young man approached Rev. Al Sharpton while he was preparing to lead a protest march and stabbed Sharpton in the chest with a five-inch steak knife.

When the women were asked about those days, they complained that Sharpton brought a bunch of outsiders into their neighborhood and stirred up trouble. "He had a whole crew and they started a whole riot here," said a 93-year-old woman who'd only identify herself as Maryellen. "It was terrible."

As Bensonhurst changes — more than a third of the area's population is now Asian — old animosities still simmer. And one thing hasn't changed in the traditionally Italian-American neighborhood: its population is still only 1 percent African-American — essentially the same as it was in 1989.


David L. Lewis


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Comments [12]


As a black girl going to school in Bensonhurst in the early 70's - I can tell you it was hell - the more things change - the more they remain the same

Aug. 29 2014 08:14 AM
Peter from Canarsie

Roughly around the same time late 1980s to 1991 Canarsie was the scene of some ugly racial incidents. Until the 1990s Canarsie was overwhelmingly a White working class neighborhood. Unlike Bensonhurst however it did become a largely black neighborhood.

Aug. 25 2014 01:54 PM
LKS from Philly

@Never Negotiate With Terrorists

Wait- what? Terrorists? We go from fake thugs to 'terrorists' in a span of a paragraph and sadly you think that these terms refer to the same people. Check your premise, dictionary and mirror. This country was founded on the principle of freedom for ALL, justice for ALL, liberty for ALL. The sick and sad thing is that its this very prevalent viewpoint that is destroying everything some claim to stand for. Terrorists- *shaking head* This American is sick of people like you.

Aug. 25 2014 11:06 AM

I agree with Jerry. What was the purpose this so-called report? Obviously, fanning the flames just as Jerry stated.
Where was the WNYC producer or editor who elected to air sad excuse of journalism? I am a sustaining member, but careless empty reports such as this will put an end to that and I am sure I am not alone.
I grew up in Bensonhurst, I went to FDR high school. It was an integrated school and in this so-called highly radical neighborhood. We never had a radical issue or problem, but irresponsible lazy reports such as this can incite a weak mind. I expect that was Mr.O'Grady's intention, to be sensational.
There is a much bigger social issue to consider. What happened to Yusef Hawkins was tragic and should never have happened, but revisiting it is not helpful.
We need to seek balance and tolerance. Take a look at an article by John McWhorter of Time magazine August 22, 2013.

Aug. 24 2014 11:00 AM
Jim O'Grady

Tom may want it to be otherwise but, sadly, all of the facts in this story about the death of Yusuf Hawkins are correct. Juries handed down multiple convictions of the assailants on charges that included second degree murder, riot, menacing, discrimination, unlawful imprisonment and criminal possession of a weapon. That's a matter of public record.

Aug. 23 2014 03:15 PM
Tom Moran from New York, NY

I moved to Bensonhurst six weeks before Yusuf Hawkins was shot, and lived there during all the turmoil that followed it, and can say with some degree of certainty that Jim O'Grady has most if not all of his facts wrong when discussing what happened that night. In fact, the *only* person I have ever heard describe the events of that night as they almost certainly happened was Roy Innis of CORE, in a speech that was broadcast on public-access television sometime in the 1990s. What happened that night was a tragedy, during which one young man lost his life and another would spend years of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit. Mr. O'Grady might want to talk to the people involved before talking about things about which he knows, apparently less than nothing.

Aug. 23 2014 02:35 PM
Jerry from Brooklyn, NY

Isn't there enough racial strife in the news? WNYC has to dredge up this story?! Why? And of course there's the Italian-American racist, hot head, Mafia, Sopranos, Jersey Shore buffoons angle that neatly fits (secretly bigoted) lefty and whitebread American stereotypes.

Are the 93 year old Italian-Americans keeping African-Americans out of Bensonhurst? Maybe that's the story. Are you really digging deep enough, O'Grady? Or is it enough to just pile on and lazily produce a "news" piece that explains nothing? Maybe it's "the Asians" who are conspiring to keep blacks out of the neighborhood. Better get out your trusty pad and pen and hit the streets.

btw: Funny how no "memories still burn" about the Tawana Brawley hoax. It's inexplicable how Al Sharpton has any credibility.

Aug. 23 2014 01:47 PM
Never Negotiate With Terrorists

"Fear Takes" raises and important point about African-American culture. If you work in education or any other line of work that comes in contact with black youth regularly there is a pattern where they try their best to act like thugs and try to intimidate people but then when you call them out on it and treat them like thugs they cry and whine about discrimination. You can't try to terrorize people and then cry like a baby when you don't get what you want. From community leaders like Sharpton setting up a big march right before a lawsuit goes to court (implying pay up or face a riot) to subway dancers trying to intimidate tourists and fresh faced Brooklyn yuppies into giving them pocket change it is standard behavior. Aren't Americans sick of having their inner cities held hostage by terrorists?

Aug. 23 2014 12:23 PM
Alan from Bensonhurst

Bensonhurst today is not the neighborhood it was back then. Most of the neighborhood is either Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern. There's always been a black community in the area. There aren't that many Italians left, as far as I can see. Everyone seems to get along with each other pretty well, or at least keep to themselves. It's wrong to equate what happened here a quarter of a century ago to the way things are now. By the way, I was living here at the time as well, and I thought what happened was disgusting, as did many other residents. There will always be a few racists around, unfortunately, but don't think the entire neighborhood is like that.

Aug. 23 2014 11:11 AM
Jim O'Grady

Thanks for that, Steph.

Aug. 23 2014 11:02 AM
Fear Takes to the Laptop from Brooklyn, New York

This piece feels like it's stoking the flames that live on in Bensonhurst and Staten Island. Right before Sharpton's rally today. It feels like really bad timing for this piece. This is my fear writing. From Sunset Park. And From a transplant from the segregated Memphis of the 70s.

Aug. 23 2014 09:16 AM
Steph Romeo from Brooklyn

Sadly, the opinions of the Italian American (and decidedly older) residents featured in this piece do not surprise me.
Of course, they don't speak for the whole neighborhood, a place that has seen change twenty-five years after the murder of Yusuf Hawkins.

I am an Italian American with deep roots in Bensonhurst. In 1920, my Sicilian-born great-grandparents left East 14th Street in Manhattan and moved to a new house on 68th Street, the same house my grandmother would live in until her death in 2007. In 1989, my parents lived four blocks from where Yusuf was shot, and four doors down from where one of the participants was arrested.

No one can tell me that racism didn't live there.

The ugliness was certainly on despicable display when I walked over to 20th Avenue to check out the march on Sunday, August 27, 1989.

But it was where I met Joseph Sciorra, a PhD candidate at the time, and
now the Director of Academic and Cultural Programs for the John D. Calandra
Italian American Institute, Queens College, CUNY.

He held a sign that said: Italians Against Racism
I ran to him from behind the police barricade.

In a strange coincidence, Joe's sister, Annabella would go on to star in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, the movie that opens with a dedication to Yusuf.

Maybe some of these Bensonhurst residents want to forget it ever happened.
But as we can see what's happening in Ferguson, Staten Island, Los Angeles, and in other places around the country, the racial divide will never be conquered if people refuse to acknowledge the historical past.

RIP Yusuf
Never forgotten

Aug. 23 2014 08:19 AM

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