Marchers took to the streets of Bensonhurst on Sunday, Aug. 23 to honor Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year-old Black teenager who was fatally shot after a mob of white youths attacked him in 1989.
The small protest, which marched to the site of Hawkins’ murder on Bay Ridge Avenue and 20th Avenue, aimed to pay tribute to the 31st anniversary of Hawkins’ death and raise awareness about racial violence in Bensonhurst, according to one of the march’s organizers.
“Obviously, all of the current tragedies like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are unfortunately well known because they just happened,” said Celenia Diaz. “I wanted to have this protest to remind people that although now we’re more aware that [racial violence] is common, this has been happening for a really long time.”
Hawkins, an East New York resident, was visiting Bensonhurst with a group of friends on Aug. 23, 1989 to buy a used Pontiac when a group of Italian-American locals attacked him with bats under the wrong impression that he was dating a white girl in the neighborhood. One attacker shot Hawkins in the chest, killing him.
The killing sparked a flood of outrage and increased racial tension throughout the city. Civil rights leaders took to the streets of Bensonhurst in protest, where white hecklers confronted them, calling them racial slurs and holding up watermelons to mock them. The public outcry ultimately aided the election of the city’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins, and helped undermine incumbent Edward Koch, according to The New York Times.
One teenager who was said to have led the mob, Joseph Fama, then 18 years old, was charged with the murder and sentenced to 32 years to life in prison. Fama has pled not guilty and has long insisted that he was a bystander to the incident but not involved.
Though Hawkins’ murder spurred widespread unrest, the killing has largely faded from public memory in the intervening years, said Diaz.
“I’ve been living in Bensonhurst for over 10 years, and I never heard of this story ever,” said Diaz, who learned about his death from the HBO documentary “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,” which was released on Aug. 12. “I’m on Instagram and I see the trailer for it. Someone posed it and said, ‘When is Bensonhurst going to change’ and I said, ‘What?'”
The HBO documentary prompted the hip-hop radio station Hot 97 to fire Paddy Duke, a producer who had worked at the station since 1994 and was one of eight teenagers charged in Hawkins’ killing. Duke, whose real name is Pasquale Raucci, was acquitted of murder, and a judge dismissed all his other felony charges.
During the Aug. 23 march, about 25 protesters gathered in Seth Low Playground to pay their respects. The producers of “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,” and Hawkins’ family did not attend, but they gave Diaz their support, she said.
From the playground, the protesters set off down Bay Ridge Avenue to 20th Avenue, carrying signs and chanting. Diaz said that, though the turnout was small, residents also came out of their homes to show their support.
“Everyone came out of their houses, so a rally of 25 people turned out to be a whole community,” she said. “All races, Italians, Mexicans, and Asians, just stood there and heard us out.”
The group also faced some resistance, said Diaz, who said that some passersby shouted, “Free Fama!” in reference to Hawkins’ convicted killer.
At the site of Hawkins’ killing, Diaz, rapper Ace Burns, Borough President staffer Hercules Reid spoke to the crowd about Hawkins’ death and and the racism that lingers in southern Brooklyn. The march ended with a prayer and a moment of silence for Hawkins.
One attendee said that he marched to shine a light on the racism that prevails in southern Brooklyn.
“I felt like it was very empowering because we tried to give remembrance to a person who was super young,” said Queens resident Jonathan Rampagoa. “We tried to bring that awareness to the community.”
Rampagoa, a 15-year-old who has helped organize marches against anti-Asian racism, said the event helped put himself in Hawkins’ shoes.
“I’m close to being 16, so I tried to remember that … we’re lucky to live in a time minorities are able to have more civil rights and speaking out against racism unlike Hawkins’ era,” he said. “I can’t imagine walking as an Asian boy in New York City and just getting mobbed.”
The march came weeks after Asian-American leaders organized a large protest in Bensonhurst in response to a vicious attack on an 89-year-old Asian woman, which local police did not classify as a hate crime.
The Aug. 1 demonstration, led by Queens-based rapper China Mac and actor William Lex Ham, aimed to call out the anti-Asian racism that’s proliferated since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, China Mac said at the rally.
Diaz, who also attended both protests, says she hopes to continue planning and organizing demonstrations in majority-white neighborhoods throughout southern Brooklyn.
“They’re very racist out here to this day,” she said. “And I guess my goal is to spread that awareness in these communities because these communities are the ones to stay hushed about things that have happened in the past.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Hawkins’ killing occurred on Bay Ridge Parkway. The shooting took place on Bay Ridge Avenue.