Black America’s Fight for Yusuf Hawkins Is Far From Over

Black America’s Fight for Yusuf Hawkins Is Far From Over

I dare you to examine the 1989 murder of Yusuf Hawkins and tell me America has changed. Yusuf Hawkins was a 16-year-old Black teenager who, along with three friends, went to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, one summer night to look at a used car his buddy Troy had found for sale in the newspaper. Yusuf didn’t know anyone in Bensonhurst, but he and his friends found themselves surrounded by a mob of 30 young white men swinging baseball bats, wielding handguns, and accusing them of not belonging in their all-white neighborhood. The mostly Italian men forced themselves between Yusuf and his friends, pinned Yusuf up against a dark doorway, and shot him to the ground. Yusuf stood up quickly as his attackers fled. He even managed to take a step toward his friends, not knowing, of course, that two of the shooter’s bullets had blown his heart wide open.

“We’re not racist. We just don’t like Black people,” a young man from Bensonhurst proclaimed on camera just days after Yusuf’s murder—and moments after a young Reverend Al Sharpton led a march of hundreds of Black people directly through the neighborhood. This particular young man stood with the white counter-protesters, some of whom threw watermelons and soda at Yusuf’s grieving family members and shouted, “N—ers, go home!”

Today, one could cite racial sensitivity in white communities as a sign of change and progress. But there were white people—Italians too—supporting Yusuf’s family, and marching through Bensonhurst in ‘89. Today, one could call out the increased diversity of races in Bensonhurst as evidence of progress. But de facto segregation in New York City is as prevalent today as it was the day Yusuf was killed. Many white Bensonhurst residents simply migrated to all-white neighborhoods in Staten Island, as the Asian population in Bensonhurst increased before their eyes. My ancestors say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I say there is an equal and opposite arc of immorality. It bends toward injustice by way of denial at any cost and it is incumbent upon us willing to tear that arc to pieces.

What followed Yusuf’s murder was one of the most racially charged uprisings New York City has ever seen. “White Gang Kills Black,” read the Daily News headline in ‘89. Today, that headline is fitting for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. It is fitting for the gang of police who murdered Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Unfortunately, an equally apt headline for then and now is: “Extraordinary Measures Required for Justice If Black.”

The McMichaels (two white men), Arbery’s alleged killers, were not arrested until 74 days after the murder took place—and only after leaked footage surfaced of the crime, which led to public outcry. Within that 74-day span George E. Barnhill, the local district attorney, claimed Arbery “initiated the fight,” an absurd assertion that would have been effective had the footage not leaked. It has been 168 days since Breonna Taylor was murdered by police in her sleep—and no charges have been filed. A nearly blank police report about the incident is denial in black and white; an obstruction of justice enacted by those who are paid and elected to serve justice.

When Black people are victims of racist crimes and our elected prosecutors don’t take action, little recourse remains for those who want justice. Violence is not an option. As we’ve seen, uprisings—like those in response to the murder of George Floyd and delays in charging any of the officers involved—perversely become social discourse about how Black people shouldn’t be “rioting.” Attempts to change the laws nationally are stifled by deflection, as we saw when the subject of police protection took the spotlight at the June 10th House Judiciary Committee Hearing on police reform. City mayors are no help, as they cower to the needs of their most wealthy constituents who are most likely not Black, and who are all too often silent, convinced the victim is at fault, afraid of the “Black Lives Matter” mantra, or so desperate to believe their communities are not racist they’ll turn a blind eye to almost anything. All of this amounts to roadblocks wrought with denial that racist murders take place in modern times. That leaves victims of racist violence little choice but to march.

All of this amounts to roadblocks wrought with denial that racist murders take place in modern times. That leaves victims of racist violence little choice but to march.

The Hawkins family faced similar challenges after Yusuf’s murder. The nearly 30 young men who attacked Yusuf immediately went into hiding and their Bensonhurst community protected most of them, including the alleged shooter. Would-be allies rationalized the murder by accepting the widespread narrative that Yusuf was in the middle of a love triangle with one of the attackers and his white girlfriend, a story seemingly more palatable than the reality that Yusuf was killed for being Black in the wrong part of town.

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