On August 23rd, 1989, 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins was shot to death by a mob of 30 white teenagers armed with a gun and baseball bats in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The hate crime, which former Mayor David Dinkins described as a “lynching,” shook the city, galvanizing civil rights leaders and igniting protests.
Twenty-six years later, what became known as the Bensonhurst Murder Case is depressingly relevant in today’s climate of racial unrest. Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement often include Hawkins’ name in the long list of victims of racially-charged killings in the past several decades, alongside Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and too many others. Reflecting on the lack of justice served in both Hawkins’ case and in these more recent cases offers a painful example of history repeating itself: Only two of the 30 white teenagers in the mob that attacked Hawkins ended up going to jail.
Hawkins and three of his friends had ventured from their home in Bed-Stuy to the heavily Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst to look at a used Pontiac. A mob of white youths, some of whom mistakenly believed that Hawkins was dating a young white woman in their neighborhood, attacked Hawkins. One teenager, Joseph Fama, shot Hawkins three times in the chest.
In 1990, 19-year-old Joseph Fama received a sentence of 32 1/3 years-to-life in prison, where he remains. He won’t be eligible for parole until 2022. Keith Mondello, also 19, received a sentence of 5 1/3-to-16 years in prison, and was released in 1998. He later apologized on NY1 for his role in the killing. John S. Vento was acquitted of murder, but was convicted of rioting and sentenced to 2 2/3 to 8 years. Joseph Serrano was sentenced to community service for possession of a bat. Three other men in the mob—James Patino, Charles Stressler and Steven Curreri—were acquitted of all charges.
“I believe more people should have been locked up and put behind bars,” Diane Hawkins, Yusef’s mother, told the New York Times in 2009. The Reverend Al Sharpton added, “It was a mob that killed him, and only two went to jail.” This feeling that the justice system has failed is all too familiar today: The disappointment with the outcome of Hawkins’ trial is echoed in contemporary responses to the acquittals of police officer Darren Wilson, who killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, and of police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner after placing him in an illegal chokehold in Staten Island in 2014.
“Even though it has been 25 years, it feels like it just happened. It’s like it’s never gonna go away. It just can’t go away for me,” Diane Hawkins told the Daily News in 2014. “I feel like there’s an empty space in my heart.” Her enduring grief suggests what’s likely in store for the families of victims of more recent racially charged killings long after public outcry subsides.
Hawkins’ death has not faded from history: It’s been memorialized in a mural in Bed-Stuy; in Spike Lee’s film Jungle Fever, dedicated to Hawkins; and in songs by Tupac Shakur, Public Enemy, Miracle Legion, and others.
Most recently, in April, the NY Post reported that upcoming indie film Back in the Day, starring Lillo Brancato, Alec Baldwin and Mike Tyson, will re-create an Al Sharpton-led protest march in Bensonhurst after Hawkins was murdered there.