By J. S. |
You’ve heard the stories. You may have even lived through them. We’ve certainly glamorized those times in spite of how dangerous they were. New York City during the 1980s was no walk in the park. It was downright scary. The birth of the AIDS epidemic left a portion of its population as decaying shells of their former selves, crime reached its peak, and crack-cocaine ran rampant. The Reagan Administration’s attempt to tackle this “problem” (only two percent of Americans viewed drugs as such), otherwise known as the “War On Drugs,” led to Americans’ addiction to racist ideas through the widespread criminalization—and subsequent mass incarceration—of people of color.
During this period, New York City saw a rise in interracial and interethnic violence, including a series of hate crimes committed against African Americans. Out of the many, three particular incidents stand out: the murder of 34-year-old Willie Turks in 1982, of 23-year-old Michael Griffith in 1986 (alongside Cedric Sandiford, who died in 1991 at age 41 from the attack), and of 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins in 1989. These killings embody the anti-black sentiment that plagued New York City in the ‘80s as all three young men saw their deaths at the hands of groups of whites. Of the three, Hawkins was the last and youngest to die—the “baby brother,” so to say. His death on 20th Avenue and Bay Ridge in Bensonhurst, a working-class, Italian-American suburb of Brooklyn, garnered the most media attention as well as memorials, from Tupac Shakur’s poem “For Mrs. Hawkins” to Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and from Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” to the 1998 film Blind Faith. There is even a mural of Hawkins near Verona Place in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
According to a 1989 New York Times article, Hawkins and a group of young friends, identified as Troy Banner, Luther Sylvester, and Claude Stanford, took the N train to 20th Avenue on their way to meet the owner of a $900 used car at 1965 Bay Ridge Avenue. A group of allegedly between 10 and 30 white teenagers—seven armed with baseball bats—started to follow the boys while hurling racial slurs. Three shots were fired, one bullet grazed Banner, while two hit Hawkins in the chest. His body was found by a woman, Elizabeth Galarza, a 32-year-old neighborhood resident trained in CPR. Mrs. Galarza, who lived at 6818 20th Avenue, was the last person Yusef had contact with before he lost consciousness. She said,
The young boy clenched my hand. When his pulse stopped, he clenched tight and let go. He was frightened. He had terror in his eyes. He was so young and so frightened. I said, ‘Come on baby. You’ll be fine. Take small breaths. Just relax. God’s with you (Blumenthal).
Deciding to revisit the scene of Hawkins’ murder, I embarked on my cross-borough journey to Bensonhurst at around 8:15 P.M. Going to a strange neighborhood after nightfall was risky but it felt more authentic because it gave me a sense of what Yusef must have seen and felt being there at such a time. At around 10 P.M., I stood in the street where Yusef was shot—in front of 2007 Bay Ridge Avenue. Suddenly everything around me felt spooky. I felt the wind blow harder and the air grow colder. I became aware of the movement of the trees, the darkness, and how the clouds floated in the almost maroon-like color of the night sky. I really hoped no one saw me. I wasn’t sure if it was a subconscious response to where I was and what I knew or the cold wind hitting my face, but I felt my eyes start to water.
David Dinkins, the future New York City mayor (1990-1993), referred to Yusef Hawkins’ murder as a lynching (Celona). A lynching is defined as a public vigilante killing committed by a mob for some perceived offense. Historically, in the United States, whites have been the perpetrators of lynchings against black men—and sometimes black women and children—mostly through hanging, but also through flogging, dismemberment, burning, disembowelment, and countless other horrors. One of founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), scholar and women’s rights activist Ida B. Wells, was a staunch anti-lynching activist who wanted to eradicate this crime. Her published pamphlets, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases (1892) and The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (1895), examined lynchings, particularly in the South. Wells wrote in The Red Record:
Beginning with the emancipation of the Negro, the inevitable result of unbridled power exercised for two and a half centuries, by the white man over the Negro, began to show itself in acts of conscienceless outlawry…. The white man had no right to scourge the emancipated Negro, still less has he a right to kill him. But the Southern white people had been educated so long in that school of practice, in which might makes right, that they disdained to draw strict lines of action in dealing with the Negro. In slave times the Negro was kept subservient and submissive by the frequency and severity of the scourging, but, with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged; he was killed.
Hawkins’ murder took place above the Mason-Dixon line in a purportedly “progressive” city over 100 years after Wells published her works, but the atmosphere surrounding the sixteen-year-old’s death as well as the racism and mob mentality of the youths involved in the attack serve as reminders of the atmosphere of the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow South that has never quite left the national psyche.
Local teens Brian O’Donnell, Pasquale Raucci, Steven Curreri, Joey Fama, and Keith Mondello were part of the mob that pursued Hawkins and his friends, who were mistaken for another group of black teens, one of whom was in a relationship with a neighborhood Italian girl, Gina Feliciano. William Faulkner, a Southern writer from Mississippi, shows how this interracial sexual dynamic can lead to violence in his short story, “Dry September,” which details the lynching of a black man, Will Mayes, who was rumored to have raped a white woman, Minnie Cooper. Throughout the story, the reader is not shown the actual lynching but the causes, language, and mentality that lead to such horrifying behavior. The local white barber defends Will Mayes’ character, saying he doesn’t believe he could have committed such an act on account of being “a good nigger” (1). However, the white men in the barber shop cannot believe what they are hearing:
“Then you are a hell of a white man,” the client said. He moved under the cloth. The youth had sprung to his feet.
“You don’t [believe it]?” he said. “Do you accuse a white woman of lying?”
“Do you claim that anything excuses a nigger attacking a white woman? Do you mean to tell me you are a white man and you’ll stand for it? You better go back North where you came from. The South don’t want your kind here.”
“North what?” the second said. “I was born and raised in this town” (1).
Hawkins’ murder shows that the racist atmosphere in the Jefferson, Mississippi barbershop is no different than “back North”—in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Both scenes not only involve vigilante white youths wanting to defend their territory from vilified black men (and boys), but the placement of white women on pedestals to the point where it is impossible to believe they could ever lie, do wrong, or especially, “degrade” themselves by being attracted to, let alone having consensual sex with black men.
As for my visit to the site of Hawkins’ death, people would have found it suspicious to see an unidentified black man taking pictures of the neighborhood, whether in broad daylight or at night, but at least at night—and in a “safe” neighborhood where I saw not one police car (thank God)—I had the chance to be invisible and not be subjected to the suspicious glances I’d get if more people had been out. I felt that this project and traveling to Bensonhurst where Hawkins was shot brought me a little closer to him.
“Bensonhurst: Past and Present.” YouTube, uploaded by JosephAValerio, 13 May 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6Rf31_R-Pg. Accessed 28 Oct. 2016.
Blumenthal, Ralph. “Black Youth Is Killed by Whites; Brooklyn Attack Is Called Racial”. The New York Times, 25 Aug 1989, www.nytimes.com/1989/08/25/nyregion/black-youth-is-killed-by-whites-brooklyn-attack-is-called-racial.html?pagewanted=all. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016.
Celona, Larry, et al. “Yusef Hawkins, an African-American teen, is killed by a gang of white teens in 1989”. New York Daily News, 25 Aug 1989, www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/yusef-hawkins-black-man-killed-white-mob-1989-article-1.2330613. Accessed 22 Oct. 2016.
Chan, Sewell. “The Death of Yusef Hawkins, 20 Years Later”. City Room: Blogging from the Five Boroughs. New York Times, 21 Aug. 2009, cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/21/the-death-of-yusuf-hawkins-20-years-later/?_r=0. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016.
Faulker, William. “Dry September”. The South in Black and White. WordPress. https://southinblackandwhite.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/william-faulkner-dry-september.pdf. Accessed 28 Oct. 2016.
Kendi, Ibram X. “How Ronald Reagan’s Drug War Fueled Americans’ Addiction to Racist Ideas”. The Influence, 23 Jun. 2016, theinfluence.org/how-ronald-reagans-drug-war-fueled-americans-addiction-to-racist-ideas/. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.
Lee, Spike, director. Jungle Fever. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Universal Studios, 1991.
Schapiro, Rich. “Keith Mondello, ringleader in 1989 shooting death of Brooklyn teen, ‘would do anything to give Yusef Hawkins his life back’”. New York Daily News, 17 Aug. 2014, www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ringleader-haunted-1989-shooting-death-brooklyn-teen-article-1.1906249. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016.
Schapiro, Rich. “Mom can’t forgive killers of Yusef Hawkins, whose death 25 years ago sparked marches in racially tense Brooklyn”. New York Daily News, 17 Aug. 2014, www.nydailynews.com/new-york/brooklyn/mom-recalls-yusuf-hawkins-killed-25-years-brooklyn-article-1.1906207. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States”. Project Gutenberg, 8 Feb. 2005, www.gutenberg.org/files/14977/14977-h/14977-h.htm. Accessed 28 Oct. 2016.