YUSUF HAWKINS: 30 YEARS LATER

Encore: August 11, 2020

In 1989, a black teen, Yusuf Hawkins, was fatally shot after being chased by a white mob in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Now, an enterprising journalist returns to the scene to find a community changed and memories fading.

Aired on October 9, 2019. 

TRANSCRIPT

> GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

I'M JACK FORD.

BENSO BENSONHURST, BROOKLYN, 1989.

FOR MANY IT CONJURES MEMORIES OF ONE OF THE MOST PAINFUL RACIAL INCIDENTS IN NEW YORK CITY'S HISTORY.

THE KILLING OF 16-YEAR-OLD YUSEF HAWKINS.

HAWKINS, A BLACK TEEN, WAS SET UPON BY A WHITE MOB AND FATALLY SHOT.

HIS COLD-BLOODED MURDER HORRIFIED THE CITY AND THE COUNTRY, SETTING OFF MONTHS OF PROTEST MARCHES AND PAYCHECKING THE WAY FOR THE ELECTION OF NEW YORK'S FIRST BLACK MAYOR, DAVID DINKINS.

THE NAME BENSONHURST BECAUSE A NATIONAL SYMBOL OF HATE.

IN THE 30 YEARS SINCE HAWKINS' DEATH, THE ONCE-HEAVILY ITALIAN NEIGHBORHOOD HAS DIVERSIFIED.

SEEKING TO FIND OUT HOW THE TRAGEDY IS REMEMBERED, THE NEWS OUTLET 'THE CITY' TRAVELED TO INVESTIGATE.

AND WE HAVE MORE ON THE FININGS.

NICE TO HAVE YOU HERE WITH US.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR HAVING ME.

LET'S SET THE STAGE FOR OUR VIEWERS.

30 YEARS AGO, I REMEMBER, I WAS JUST STARTING IN TELEVISION NEWS.

AS A MATTER OF FACT, I WAS WORKING AS A LEGAL ANALYST FOR CHANNEL 2 NEWS HERE IN NEW YORK CITY.

SO I REMEMBER THE STORY.

BUT JUST THE -- GIVE US A SENSE OF HOW THIS PLAYED OUT AS A BACKDROP TO YOUR INVESTIGATION AND OUR CONVERSATION.

YEAH.

SO ON AUGUST 23rd, 1989, YUSEF HAWKINS AND THREE OF HIS BUDDIES GOT OFF THE N TRAIN ON 20th AVENUE.

HE WAS LOOKING TO BUY A USED POINTS IN 82 PONTIAC -- USED 1982 PONTIAC.

HE WAS ENGULFED, SURROUNDED BY WHITE TEENAGERS WHO SEVERAL OF THEM WERE -- HAD BASEBALL BATS, GOLF CLUBS, AND JUST WITHIN A FEW BLOCKS THEY HAD SURROUNDED HIM.

AND A GUNMAN, THE GUNMAN, JOSEPH FAMMA, SHOT HIM TWICE IN THE CHEST.

TALK ABOUT WHAT THE BENSONHURST NEIGHBORHOOD WAS LIKE THEN.

ITS COMPLEXION, IF YOU WILL, ITS COMPOSITION 30 YEARS AGO.

SO IT WAS A PREDOMINANTLY WHITE, WORKING CLASS, ITALIAN NEIGHBORHOOD.

PI PIZZERIAS EVERYWHERE, A MAJORITY HOMEOWNER NEIGHBORHOOD, AS WELL.

THE COMPLEXION OF THAT NEIGHBORHOOD HAS CHANGED INTENSELY SINCE THEN.

BUT BACK THEN, YOU KNOW, ONLY THREE DAYS AFTER THE SHOOTING, YOU KNOW, BLACK ORGANIZERS GOT TOGETHER AND IMMEDIATELY WERE OFFSET BY PEOPLE YELLING RACIAL EPITHETS AT THEM, SOME OF THEM HOLDING --

EVEN AFTER THE SHOOTING, STILL BEING ATTACKED RACIALLY?

YEAH.

SOME PEOPLE ACTUALLY HOLDING WA WATERMELONS BELIEVE IT OR NOT AS A FORM OF RIDICULE AT THE TIME.

AND IT SHARPLY DIVIDED THE NEIGHBORHOOD.

WHAT WERE YOU LOOKING FOR?

WHEN THE DECISION WAS MADE -- LET'S TAKE A LOOK, LET'S GO BACK 30 YEARS, BACK TO BENSONHURST.

WHAT WAS THE IDEA?

I WANTED TO SEE WHAT THE NEIGHBORHOOD REMEMBERED.

AND HONESTLY, WHAT I FOUND WAS A NEIGHBORHOOD THAT HAS DEEPLY CHANGED.

THERE ARE STILL REMNANTS OF THAT OLD NEIGHBORHOOD, BUT NOW WE'RE LOOKING AT A NEIGHBORHOOD THAT'S 55% OF THE POPULATION IS FOREIGN BORN.

SO MANY OF THEM ARE FROM CHINA, TURKEY, PAKISTAN, UZBEKISTAN.

AND YOU SEE THESE OLD-SCHOOL PIZZERIAS, THEY'RE STILL THERE AND ALL THESE ITALIAN EAT REECE.

ACROSS THE STREET YOU'LL SEE A HUGE CHINESE BUFFET, A HUGE TURKISH EATERY AT THE SAME TIME.

AND NOW IT'S ACTUALLY MINORITY/MAJORITY IN THE SENSE WHERE IT'S -- I BELIEVE IT'S ONLY 44% ARE WHITE.

WHEN YOU ASK PEOPLE, THIS IS GENERAL OBVIOUSLY, BUT WHEN YOU ASKED ABOUT THE HAWKINS SHOOTING, HOW MANY DID YOU FINDS ACTUALLY REMEMBERED IT?

WERE AWARE OF IT AT ANY WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM?

I MEAN, DOZENS.

DOZENS, TRULY.

ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO WERE HOMEOWNERS AND STILL HAVE THEIR HOMES IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.

THEY DID REMEMBER THE SHOOTING, AND THEY DID REMEMBER IN PARTICULAR THE MARCHES THAT WERE ORGANIZED BY REVEREND AL SHARPTON BACK THEN.

BUT WHEN I TALKED TO SOME OF THE PEOPLE WHO MOVED MORE RECENTLY, THE MEMORY IS STARTING TO FADE A BIT.

WE'RE TALKING 30 YEARS LATER, I TALKED TO ONE INDIVIDUAL WHO WAS SHOCKED THAT THAT COULD HAPPEN --

I WANTED TO ASK YOU ABOUT THAT.

I NOTED THAT, THAT SOMEONE WAS ESSENTIALLY SAYING TO YOU, REALLY?

HERE?

I NEVER COULD HAVE IMAGINED --

YEAH.

YEAH.

I MEAN, THE DNA OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD IS MUCH THE SAME.

IT'S SOMEWHERE -- A PLACE WHERE PEOPLE WANT TO RAISE THEIR FAMILIES.

WHEN I TALKED TO A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO MOVED THERE, THE ONE INDIVIDUAL, MUHAMMAD FROM SYRIA, HE WAS ABSOLUTELY RATTLED.

WE'RE TALKING ABOUT AN INCIDENT THAT ABSOLUTELY SHAPED A NEIGHBORHOOD, DEFINED A NEIGHBORHOOD FOR IT.

AND IT HAS VERY MUCH CHANGED SINCE THEN.

AND I THINK WHEN PEOPLE WHO HAVE MORE RECENTLY IN RECENT YEARS MOVED TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD, THEY'RE JUST SURPRISED THAT SOMETHING LIKE THAT COULD HAPPEN.

SO IT WAS -- WAS YOUR SENSE AFTER SPENDING TIME THERE, GOING BACK TO THE RACIAL ANIMUS THAT EXISTED IN 1989, DID YOU FINDS ANY SEMBLANCE OF THAT AT ALL?

THERE WERE A COUPLE OF PEOPLE I SPOKE TO WHO FELT THAT THE MARCHES PAINTED THEIR NEIGHBORHOOD IN A BAD LIGHT AND REALLY PUSHED BACK ON THE SENTIMENT THAT IT WAS A RACIAL INCIDENT ACTUALLY.

AND THAT IT WAS A RACIST ATTACK.

AND THEY FELT MORE THAT THESE WERE YOUNG TEENAGERS WHO GOT INTO A FIGHT.

AND THAT WAS ALL TO IT.

OF COURSE, THAT'S NOT WHAT EVERYONE SAID.

I TALKED TO ONE FAMILY WHO ACTUALLY, THEY LIVED ON 20th AVENUE WHERE THE SHOOTING OCCURRED, AND THEY LEFT.

THEY ACTUALLY SOLD THEIR HOME.

SO AFFECTED BY IT.

YEAH.

YEAH.

YOU MENTIONED THE -- THE TWO YOUNG MEN WHO WERE CONVICTED OF THIS.

THERE'S AN INTERESTING PART OF THE STORY WHERE YOU TALK ABOUT KEITH MONDELLA, CONVICTED OF LESSER OFFENSES, NOT THE SECOND-DEGREE MURDER.

HE'S STILL IN PRISON.

AND YOU TALK ABOUT A CONTACT BETWEEN KEITH MONDELLA AND A FAMILY MEMBER OFU YUSEF HAWKINS.

TELL ME ABOUT THAT.

MOZAMSES HAWKINS, HIS FATHER SENT A LETTER TO THE FAMILY.

RY RECONCILED WITH THE FATHER IN LATE 1998, AND THEY ACTUALLY GOT TOGETHER, AND HE APOLOGIZED, AND THE FATHER ACCEPTED THE APOLOGY.

IT'S A DIFFERENT STORY WHEN IT COMES TO THE MOTHER.

BUT YEAH, THEY DID RECONCILE BEFORE THE FATHER PASSED AWAY.

WHEN YOU SAY A DIFFERENT STORY WITH REGARD TO THE MOTHER, HOW?

SHE HAS BEEN QUOTED OVER AND OVER IN THE ANNIVERSARIES SAYING THAT THIS IS A WOUND THAT WILL NEVER HEAL IN HER HEART.

SOMETHING THAT SHE'S GOING TO TAKE TO THE GRAVE, AND THAT SHE ACKNOWLEDGES THE APOLOGIES, SHE DOES NOT ACCEPT THEM.

LAST QUESTION FOR YOU.

YOU TALK ABOUT MOTHER, OF COURSE, REMEMBERING THE DEATH OF HER SON.

WE TALKED ABOUT HOW MUCH COVERAGE THIS GOT AT THE TIME.

IT'S INTERESTING I THINK TO SEE HOW MUCH YUSEF HAWKINS' MEMORY IS STILL INGRAINED ESPECIALLY IN SOME LEVELS OF POP CULTURE.

YEAH.

IT JUST -- HOW IS HE -- HE HAS HE BEEN REMEMBERED?

HOW HAS HIS MEMORY BEEN KEPT ALIVE IN MANY WAYS, THROUGH VARIOUS POP CULTURE MEANS?

YEAH.

I THINK YOU CAN DEFINITELY POINT TO SPIKE LEE'S FILM AS ONE EXAMPLE.

'DO THE RIGHT THING.'

WHEN YOU LOOK AT A NEIGHBORHOOD THAT REMINDS YOU A LOT OF BENSONHURST AND COMMUNITIES CLASHING AND RACIAL TENSIONS TRULY COMING TO A BOIL, ALSO I THINK IN FOLLOWING YEARS YOU SAY HIS NAME LITTERED OVER HIP-HOP TRACKS EVERYWHERE.

IT WAS SOMETHING THAT HAD REALLY SHOOK THE NEIGHBORHOOD.

WELL, IT -- IT'S A VERY INTERESTING LOOK BACK.

YEAH.

AT WHAT -- A DIFFICULT TIME AND PLACE AND HOW IT'S CHANGED IN THE PERIOD OF THE THREE DECADES.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SPENDING SOME TIME WITH US.

WE APPRECIATE IT.

YEAH.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR INVITING ME.

THANK YOU.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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