On the evening of Aug. 23, 1989, Yusuf Hawkins, 16, and three friends from the East New York section of Brooklyn emerged from the subway in the mostly white, Italian working-class neighborhood of Bensonhurst. The four were on their way to look at a used car they had seen advertised for sale when they were surrounded by about 30 white youths, some wielding baseball bats. Moments later four shots rang out, and Hawkins crumpled to the sidewalk, dying from two bullets to the chest.
In April the racially charged drama finally switched to the Brooklyn State Supreme Courthouse as Keith Mondello, 19, charged with organizing the mob and instigating Hawkins’s murder, and Joseph Fama, 19, who was accused of firing the shots, went on trial for Yusuf’s murder. As the victim’s mother, Diane Hawkins, 36, and father, Moses Stewart, 35, wailed tensely for the verdicts, they talked with staff writer Montgomery Brower about their ordeal and the son they lost.
A week before my son’s murder,” says Diane, “Yusuf came to me and said, “Mom, I keep having this dream, this same dream, three nights in a row about this train ride. And every time I get on the train, everybody gets killed or hurt except me. I’m the only one that survived.’ And he said, ‘Why do I keep dreaming about this train ride?’ like he saw something ahead. And then he goes and takes this train ride to Bensonhurst, and that was his last train ride.”
“I got home that evening from work about 8 o’clock,” recalls Moses. “About 9 or 9:30 [Diane’s] sister knocked at the door. She came in and she said Yusuf had been hurt in an accident and that they needed us at the hospital. Before we left, she pulled me aside and said, ‘Your son, Yusuf, he was shot.’ My first assumption was uh-oh, they went somewhere and got into it with somebody, and somebody shot him in the arm or his behind or leg or something, and he’s lying in the hospital waiting for somebody to come get him and bring him home.
“But when I walked through the door, our nephew walked out of the room with the doctors, and I could see from the expression on his face that something was very, very wrong. I took the doctor off to the side, and he took me into a room. He said something like, ‘Your son was shot twice in the heart and he’s dead. Would you like me to tell your wife?’ I said, ‘No. don’t believe you told me like that. Are you trying to tell me my son is dead?’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s what I’m telling you. Would you like me to tell your wife?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want you to say anything to her, not if you’re going to tell her like you told me.’ So I called her into the office, and I told her.”
“He got down on his knees and told me,” says Diane.
Six days later thousands of mourners flocked to the Lawrence H. Woodward Funeral Home in Bedford-Stuyvesant to file past Yusuf’s body. A host of politicians and black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, came to pay their respects. Moses was less than flattered by some of the attention.
“I had made it known to everybody that I was not going to allow my son to be used for any political game, because I didn’t want them bouncing him around between them for votes. Then Jesse shows up and comes in with his entourage, and he takes his shoes off, and he says. ‘That boy in there could be the next reason why [David] Dinkins could be elected Mayor of New York City.’ So I said, ‘Hold it, don’t do that. I want him buried with dignity and respect.’ [Later] Jesse apologizes, and we say a little prayer, and he tries to get us to walk him outside. So, the only thing he wanted was to come outside with the family, with the click, click, click and the camera bit. But we were wise to that, so he kind of lost that battle.”
After the burial, neither parent was able to return to work—he as a driver, she as a secretary. Together with their surviving sons, Freddie, 19, and Amir, 15, who are in high school and junior high school, respectively, they struggled to cope with their loss.
“It’s like cutting off your right arm,” says Moses, “after you’ve had it and done so much with it, and then you just take it off. He was loved. Between Amir and Freddie, he was like the scales of justice. They’d put their weight on him and see which side he would lean to.
“Freddie being the first and a few years older was more independent, more like myself as I came up. Amir and Yusuf were very, very tight. They were so close, you would think they were twins. They did everything together.
“He was very good at basketball. Just before his death, he had begun to master the slam dunk. He was a helluva good checker player, too. He used to beat me all the time. He was also academically very good. He maintained an 85 average and received all these awards in elementary school, junior high school, and he was headed to Transit Tech [a vocational high school in East New York]. He wanted to be a technical engineer.” Adds Diane: “The Monday [after Yusuf was killed], he was supposed to go to the school for a three-day orientation. The weekend before, he said to me, ‘Mom, I can’t wait till Monday comes.’ His father had bought him a new outfit of clothes to go in, and he was so much looking forward to it.”
“He never got to put the clothes on,” says Moses. “The new sneakers, shorts, the hat, the shirt. He pursued, as some would call it, the American Dream.”
“The American Dream that was taken away from him,” says Diane.
“In every other case of racial violence, there was always some sort of excuse,” says Moses. “But here there were no drugs, there were no women, there were no weapons, there was no confrontation. So often, in the black community particularly, we lose our children to the streets. But we can safely say that our sons don’t do drugs, they don’t run around and get in any kind of trouble with the law, they’re not having children out of wedlock. Yusuf was aware that racism existed, but he had never experienced it. He would hear about it on the television, or read about racial incidents, and he would always want to know, ‘Why?’ It kind of gets to me every time I think about it. For him to have lived his 16 years within the black community, where we have a higher rate of killing one another than anybody else, and then to venture into a neighborhood that one would call middle-class, and then to lose his life—it’s very, very strange when you really sit down and think about it.
“It’s the same thing my younger son asks to this day: ‘Why are people like that?’ To him it’s inconceivable that somebody could just dislike somebody because they have a different color skin. Yusuf and his friends didn’t know they were walking into the lion’s den. They were going into Bensonhurst, another area with another people who had an altogether different set of rules. These people have a deep-rooted hatred for anybody outside them, and they don’t feel they’ve done anything wrong. Yusuf’s first experience with racism was fatal.”
With the Rev. Al Sharpton, a controversial black activist, and other community leaders, Moses and Diane and hundreds of supporters went on a series of protest marches through Bensonhurst, where they were met by jeering while residents.
“You would think the community would understand, and it would be a little remorseful,” says Moses. “But instead they pulled their pants down, told us what we could kiss. They walked up and spit in my face.”
“It seems like no one there cares about any other human being,” says Diane. “I don’t see any people trying to go along with us and saying that, okay, we’re sorry this happened.”
Moses adds: “I’ve always said that out of this tragic thing, you’ve got to find some good. I went out there and I was looking to see if just somebody breaks through that line and says, ‘Mr. Stewart, Ms. Hawkins, I’m so sorry about what happened.’ That would have made me feel 100 percent better. They did send us letters, but it was like they were signing a petition, like it was almost an orchestrated thing. I can read between the lines. We got three letters from three white elementary school kids in Boston that were more touching and personal than anything that ever came out of Bensonhurst.
“Instead of protesting, I could say, well, he was shot and he’s dead, and the courts are going to handle it. But his death did this to me: I don’t ever want to see that again. I feel that it’s my job to make some noise. You’ve got to wake people up to what’s happening, because there’re thousands of Yusufs out there of all races. Right now, as we talk, some kid is being murdered simply because of his color. And if the fathers don’t take an active role, who will?”
When Fama and Mondello went on trial, Diane could not bring herself to sit through much of the testimony, but Moses went to the proceedings religiously.
“There were 30 guys with bats talking about killing ‘niggers’ and Puerto Ricans, and nobody sees this? Come on. For the justice system not to pursue it, that killed what faith I had in it. When I get into that courthouse and see Mondello walk up and down that hallway, and I look in this guy’s face, I want to become a murderer myself,” says Moses. “Those who I’ve had around me, Rev. Al Sharpton, my family and everybody, say, ‘Let justice be served, let it work itself out.’ But personally, it couldn’t give me greater pleasure than to just snap his neck and get this all over with. You never know what the death of a child will do to you. It’s almost like somebody pushing buttons in there that you didn’t even know were there.
“I’m going into that courtroom hoping for a guilty verdict, like I was hoping Yusuf was only wounded. But if they come out there and say not guilty, then I’ve taken the loss again. Yusuf to me would have been killed two times.
“Yusuf died three days before my 35th birthday. We’ll be in the house, and we’re always looking for him to turn that corner, always looking for him to come out of that room. We walk into his room, and there’s his shoes, there’s his clothes, his posters on the wall. And you don’t want to feel uncaring by going and taking them down. You want the memory to live on. but every time you look at the memory, it brings back that hurt and that regret. His death did this to me: I don’t ever want to see that again. You’ve got to wake people up to what’s happening.”
The family visited Yusufs grave March 19, on what would have been his 17th birthday.
“It was very, very rough, because to go to your child’s grave is the final step. Every time you go to that grave it’s the same—your loved one is there,” says Moses. “He was just touching the surface of what it was really going to be like to grow up, and he never got that chance. When I go to that cemetery, I say to myself, ‘I wish it was me. I wish I could have been the one that took the bullet.’ ”
Three days after this interview, Joseph Fama was convicted of second-degree murder and faces a sentence of 25 years to life. On the following day, however, Keith Mondello was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter. The jury found him guilty of 12 lesser charges—ranging from first-degree riot to menacing—but Hawkins family supporters were bitterly disappointed. When the verdict was read, Diane doubled over as if hit in the stomach. Rage spilled into the streets of Brooklyn, as angry blacks attacked TV news crews.
But even as the Mondello jury was being dismissed, the Bensonhurst case took on still another twist. Eyewitness News, a newscast on ABC’s New York City station, interviewed a woman, identified only as Maria, who said she saw the murder. Just before the fatal shots, she claimed she saw Fama hesitate and then heard Mondello say, “Shoot him, he’s just a nigger.” A prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn said that federal law-enforcement officials are considering pursuing federal civil-rights charges in the case.
Moses Stewart, whose sister, according to a source, died the night of the second verdict and whose father fell into a coma two days later and was hospitalized, remained in seclusion with his family.