Thirty years later, Yusuf Hawkins’ murder still shocks in a changed Brooklyn

August 23, 2019 Clifford Michel, THE CITY
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This story was originally published on Aug. 23 by THE CITY.

Until this week, Mohamed Kootabeda never heard the name Yusuf Hawkins.

Kootabeda was shocked to learn the story of the 16-year-old African American youth who was set upon by a mob of white youths in Bensonhurst and fatally shot on Aug. 23, 1989.

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“I had no idea that something like that happened here,” said the 65-year-old Syrian immigrant, who moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood in 2005.

“This community is very welcoming. I’ve raised my entire family here. But that’s horrible.”

As the 30th anniversary of the slaying that roiled the city approached, local residents were divided among those who never heard of the murder, those who will never forget — and those who wish they could.

“It was terrible,” said Victoria DeMartino, a lifelong Bensonhurst resident. “It’s all anyone ever thought of us as: the place where they shot that boy.”

The differing responses reflected a neighborhood, that in some respects, is a Bensonhurst transformed from three decades ago.

Major demographic shift

Outside the 20th Avenue train station, which Hawkins exited on the last night of his life — the East New York resident had come to Bensonhurst in hopes of buying a car — an Italian restaurant sits across from a Chinese buffet.

Some 55 percent of neighborhood residents are foreign-born, many of them hailing from China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. When Hawkins and three pals encountered a mob who mistakenly thought they were there for a fight, Bensonhurst was an insular, predominantly white bastion.

Hawkins’ murder sparked emotionally charged marches through the neighborhood, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The Rev. Al Sharpton led demonstrations after Yusuf Hawkins’ murder. Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The killing also became a focal point in the then-impending Democratic mayoral primary. The two leading candidates were incumbent Ed Koch and David Dinkins, who would go on to become the city’s first — and so far only — African American mayor.

“There was a lot of denial going around,” said Josephine Liguori, a lifelong Bensonhurst resident who lives two blocks from where Hawkins was shot.

“People didn’t want to believe that this had to do with racism,” added Ligouri, who said the killing divided her classmates at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School.  “But what else is it? You chase a black kid you see and then shoot him. What do you call that?”

She wasn’t much younger at that time than the teens — led by Keith Mondello, then 18, and Joseph Fama, then 19 — who attacked Hawkins.

Fama was convicted of second-degree murder in May 1990 and sentenced to 32 years in prison. Mondello was acquitted of murder and manslaughter, but was sentenced to 5 1/3 to 16 years on lesser charges. He got out in 1998.

‘A very painful chapter’

City Council member Mark Treyger, who grew up about a half-mile away from the murder scene, called the shooting “a very painful chapter” for Bensonhurst.

Treyger said when he became a teacher at the neighborhood’s New Utrecht High School in 2005, his older colleagues told him the repercussions of the killing still resonated.

“That murder had such an impact in the school community where it really increased tension and division in the student body, particularly students of color who felt ignored,” said Treyger, who was 7 when Hawkins was killed. “It really divided people among racial and ethnic lines.”

Dinkins, who narrowly beat Rudy Giuliani for the mayoralty less than three months after the slaying, recently told WBAI’s Jeff Simmons he believed he was elected, at least in part, to reduce racial tensions.

“Those who supported me felt that my election would assist in the general calm in the city and perhaps it did,” Dinkins said. “There are those that had a different attitude than I, but that’s their problem.”

A painful new lesson for some

Christine Xie, who was 5 when Dinkins was elected, said she’s felt safe since moving to Bensonhurst in 2013. But learning this week about the neighborhood’s fraught history disturbed her.

“There’s no crime here, no violence at all,” she said. “I’m on 20th Avenue basically everyday, but no one told me about” Hawkins.

“I can’t imagine what that’s like for his family,” Xie added. “I would leave the city if that happened to anyone I knew.”

After a reporter told Kootabeda details of the Hawkins tragedy, the retired father of three sat silent for a few moments.

“Well,” he finally said, “at least they didn’t get away with it.

“That’s not always the case.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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  1. Bensonhurst has changed so much in the past 30 years. I knew those idiots that killed an innocent black kid for no reason. Joey Fama was the biggest idiot of them all. Keith Mondello was no bargin either. I saw them both as trouble makers. I was in elementary and junior high school with them and I knew then that they were going to end up in prison or dead. As for the weekly protest back then they were insane over a bunch of idiots. Those idiots did not protect the neighborhood they terrorized it and ruined it.

  2. boy George

    That was a very unfortunate situation. Bensonhurst should not be judged because of sore racist loosers that wanted to start trouble. All we can hope is that ppl learn from it dont rush to prejudice someone because of their skin color. Joey Fama found God and tries to play it off 30 years later like he is the victim. I hope he suffers when he is finished doing his time.