Until this week, Mohamed Kootabeda never heard the name Yusuf Hawkins.
Kootabeda was shocked to learn the story of the African-American 16-year-old who was set upon by a mob of white youths in Bensonhurst and fatally shot on Aug. 23, 1989.
“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% 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 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 ⅓ to 16 years on lesser charges. He got out in 1998.
‘A Very Painful Chapter’
City Councilmember 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 five 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.”
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