"in your hearts & minds, never forget yusuf hawkins" (c) chubb rock

The Death of Yusuf Hawkins, 20 Years Later
New York Times

Twenty years ago this month, a black teenager, Yusuf K. Hawkins, was shot to death after being taunted by a mob of bat-wielding white youths in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The racially motivated killing horrified New Yorkers, galvanized civil rights leaders and helped undermine Mayor Edward I. Koch’s bid for a fourth term. Weeks after the killing, the mayor was defeated in the Democratic primary by David N. Dinkins, who went on to become the city’s first (and so far only) African-American mayor.

For Diane Hawkins, the victim’s mother, the tragedy’s effects are far more personal. “My scar will never heal until the day I die,” Ms. Hawkins said in a phone interview this week. “I’m going to take it to my grave.” During the telephone interview from the office of the Rev. Al Sharpton, Ms. Hawkins received a call from Gov. David A. Paterson, the state’s first black governor, who, as a state senator representing Harlem, took part in protests concerning Mr. Hawkins’s death. (They put the interviewer on hold to speak with the governor.)

The facts of the case have long since entered the annals of city history. On the evening of Aug. 23, 1989, Mr. Hawkins, 16, and three friends had ventured into the conservative, heavily Italian neighborhood to look at a used Pontiac and were set upon by a crowd of angry white youths, some of whom wrongly believed that Mr. Hawkins was dating a white girl in the neighborhood.

The tragedy, racially polarized from the start, exploded into the national consciousness when 300 black demonstrators who marched through the neighborhood three days after Mr. Hawkins’s death were confronted by jeering whites who chanted “Niggers go home,” screamed obscenities and held up watermelons as a gesture of ridicule. Undeterred, Mr. Sharpton and other public figures led numerous protests in Bensonhurst and other parts of the city, demanding justice.

Eight youths faced charges stemming from the killing, but the attention centered on Joseph Fama, 18, and Keith Mondello, 19, who were said to have been the leaders of the mob.

The murder trial of Mr. Fama and Mr. Mondello opened in April 1990. The following month, Mr. Fama was convicted of second-degree murder by acting with depraved indifference, though a majority of jurors said they could not vote to convict him of intentional murder because they could not be certain he had fired the fatal shots.

Mr. Fama was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison. Now 38, he is held at the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Dannemora, N.Y. He will be eligible for parole in April 2022.

A separate jury acquitted Mr. Mondello of murder but convicted him of rioting, unlawful imprisonment, menacing, discrimination and criminal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 5⅓ to 16 years in prison.

John S. Vento was acquitted of murder, but was convicted of rioting and sentenced to 2 2/3 to 8 years.

Pasquale Raucci was convicted of three counts of unlawful imprisonment, but these felony convictions were dropped by the judge, who sentenced him to probation and community service for possession of a bat as a weapon. Joseph Serrano was sentenced to community service, also for possession of a bat.

Three remaining men — James Patino, Charles Stressler and Steven Curreri — were acquitted of all charges.

“I believe more people should have been locked up and put behind bars,” Ms. Hawkins said in the interview this week. Mr. Sharpton added, “It was a mob that killed him, and only two went to jail.”

The trials did not bring an end to the racial turmoil that the slaying represented.

On Jan. 12, 1991, Mr. Sharpton was stabbed in the chest with a steak knife as he prepared for a march to recall the killing. Mr. Sharpton later described the episode as a turning point. “I made up my mind right there that if I was to die, I was fine with it,” he said in a memoir, “Al on America” (Kensington, 2003). “That’s when I realized I was willing to die for justice.” (In 2003, the city agreed to pay $200,000 to settle a lawsuit by Mr. Sharpton, who maintained that that the city had failed to protect him.)

In December 1991, the United States Department of Justice announced that it would not pursue federal civil rights charges in the Hawkins case, given that the state has “vigorously pursued” criminal prosecutions.

In 1993, Mr. Mondello’s sentence was reduced to 4 to 12 years. He was paroled from prison in 1998, after serving eight years. He apologized to Mr. Hawkins’s family in a letter and in a meeting with Mr. Hawkins’s father, Moses J. Stewart.

In 1999, to mark the 10th anniversary of Mr. Hawkins’s death, his father spoke in Harlem, saying, in a tearful address: ”He died for something I did. I’m the one who gave him his color. He was born black because of me.” Mr. Stewart and Mr. Sharpton laid a wreath at the site of the killing. (Mr. Stewart died in 2003.) ...

In the interview, Mr. Sharpton said the killing had an indelible impact on city politics.

“Coming out of Yusuf, we had a black mayor,” he said. “Now we have a black president, a black attorney general, a black governor. But institutionally we still have, as the president has said, structural inequality in education, in health care, in policing.”

© MGNTK 2019