1991 Yusuf Hawkins Protests
11 Years After
Yusuf Hawkins
Bensonhurst 2000

The block where Hawkins was killed.

The back view from the schoolyard where the Rev. Al Sharpton was stabbed while he led a 1991 protest against Hawkins' murder.

The schoolyard on a quiet weekday.
Photos by
James J. Benson

by Jennifer Marino '02

It is 10:30 on a Saturday night and groups of young bar hoppers begin to flash their ID’s at a popular Bay Ridge bar/club. They are the regulars, the Italian Bensonhurst teens who come back weekend after weekend to socialize and flirt.

The girls, in their flare jeans, tight shirts, chunky boots and little black bags, look like they’ve just stepped out of Contempo Casuals. Their long, curly dark hair is stiff with hair spray; their make-up, flawless, and their fingers, circled in flashy gold rings. Some stand shyly in the corner while others head straight to the dance floor, jeering at each other in fierce competition.

The guys – modern versions of Danny Zuko and company in "Grease" – wear sweaters from Structure, baggy jeans and black boots underneath leather coats or bubble jackets. Large gold or silver chains surround their necks, and they wear their hair short, stiffly gelled or pushed back and spiky.

By midnight, they and their clones have packed the place, elbowing their way past each other to greet their friends. They give each other "pounds" or kisses on the cheek. The DJ pumps hip-hop and reggae – popular African-American musical genres – and the crowd goes ballistic. But there is not one black person in sight.

"Black people? No. They’d never come in here," says Jessica S., 18. "In here we all know each other and we’re all from the same neighborhood," meaning Bensonhurst. "If a black kid came in here, he would probably leave right away because the guys would abuse him."

Sammy G., 18, agrees with Jessica, although he insists that he himself is not racist. "If me and my boys went to a club in Harlem, we’d probably get shot," he says. "That’s why we stay here and they (blacks) stay there. We don’t belong there, and they don’t belong here. That’s the bottom line."

So why, then, does the music "belong" in the club?

"Their music is phat," says Anthony L., 19. "But that doesn’t mean we want to chill with them." He scowls when reminded that the slang word "phat," as well as his baggy clothing style, originated among blacks.

The statements made by these teens are a sharp reminder that although racism has seemed to improve in the mostly Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst since the murder of Yusuf Hawkins almost 11 years ago, the feelings of prejudice are just under the surface in many young people.

On the night of August 23, 1989, 16-year-old Hawkins and three friends came to the neighborhood to look at a used car. About 30 white youths carrying bats and sticks (one with a gun) immediately approached them. The white kids were furious that the ex-girlfriend of one of the group members had invited minorities to her 18th birthday party. They thought that Hawkins and his friends were there for the party and attacked them, shooting Hawkins dead.

The incident sparked outrage among blacks who came to the neighborhood to protest, met with chants of "Useless, Useless" (a play on the name "Yusuf") and racial epithets from residents. One person spat in the face of Hawkins’ father, Moses Stewart.

In 1991, a Bensonhurst man stabbed the Rev. Al Sharpton as he led a march through the neighborhood to protest the killing. Undaunted, he led another march on June 6, 1998 in outrage over the release of Keith Mondello, one of the attackers, and faced jeers and catcalls.

The most recent indication of continued racial tension in the neighborhood came in February 1999, when a Bensonhurst teenager handed a KKK flier to a reporter. The flier received attention in various newspapers, including the New York Times.

Although many immigrant groups – such as Russians, Asians, Greeks, and Arabs – have been moving to Bensonhurst since the 1980s, the neighborhood is still predominantly Italian. According to Community Board No. 11, which encompasses Bensonhurst, Mapleton, Bath Beach, and Gravesend, the ethnic make-up is approximately 65 percent Italian, 25 percent Jewish, 8 percent Asian, and only 2 percent Black and Hispanic.

Because of these statistics, the sight of a black person will often catch the attention of a white resident.

"Who’s this n----- walking up my block?" Sal F., 20, asks his group of eight friends, motioning to a black teen walking by himself across the street.

"I don’t know, but I saw three n------ on bikes on 18th Avenue before," his friend replies. Threateningly, he adds, "Let me see them pass by again…"

Though reactions like these are common, Police Officer Guy Stabile insists that there is very little racial crime in the neighborhood. Though he is from a different precinct, he is on the same radio frequency as the 62nd. Even before he became a cop, he says, there was "never much going on" when it came to racism.

"Kids fight because they want to fight, not because of black and white," he says.

Michael C., 22, a life-long black resident of Bensonhurst, says that although he often feels out of place in the neighborhood, he has never been afraid of getting beaten up. "Sometimes when I walk by a big group of (white) guys, they’ll stare and say shit and try to provoke me," he says. "I just keep my temper calm, because this is the only way to avoid trouble."

Carl N., 18, another black resident, has also never had a problem with violence because of his race. He hangs out with the Italian kids he grew up with. "When we get into fights with other guys, that’s when I am targeted…the other guys go for me first," he says. "But other than that, things have been cool."

Sal F. blames the lack of racial violence on cases like that of Yusuf Hawkins, and on the work of Al Sharpton.

"We don’t fight with black kids because it would give (Sharpton) another excuse to make a big scene in the media and to start a war with the white people," he says. "If black kids beat up a white kid, you don’t see that all over the news. But if white kids beat up a black kid, it all of a sudden makes (whites) the lesser race."