“1989. A number. Another summer” are the opening lyrics to Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” But in New York City, 1989 wasn’t just another summer.
Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Griffith, Bernie Goetz, Willie Turks, Tawana Brawley. Anyone and everyone who was alive during that time in the city’s history knows the story behind each of those names. By the end of the decade, Yusuf Hawkins would be added to the list wrapping a bow around the racially tumultuous decade.
Hawkins was shot to death by a white kid who was part of a mob of other white kids looking to attack Hawkins and his friends. The media, fresh off of the Central Park jogger case, initially painted the story as an interracial love triangle between Gina Feliciano, Keith Mondello (a member of the mob of white kids) and Hawkins (who didn’t know either of them). Mondello said that he was brought to a frenzy after Feliciano threatened to bring her Black and Hispanic friends to the neighborhood to come and beat Mondello and his friends. Feliciano alleges that Mondello threatened her and told her not to bring her Black friends, one of whom she was allegedly dating, to her birthday party.
Hawkins’ death and the racial tension of its aftermath were the main topics in the new HBO documentary “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn.” While the name of the documentary, directed by Muta’Ali Muhammad, focuses on Brooklyn, the storm was all over the city.
Three months before Hawkins was shot to death by a white kid, five young Black men were arrested for allegedly beating and raping a white woman in Central Park. In the documentary, footage from a local news station recorded then Mayor Ed Koch sarcastically saying “When the grandmother says, ‘He was a good boy, he didn’t do anything,’ don’t you believe it!”
Koch was more subdued during the first news conference after Hawkins’ death. He would eventually say that people shouldn’t paint Bensonhurst as a violent neighborhood, told the Rev. Al Sharpton to stop marching in the neighborhood and (in the middle of a mayoral election between Rudolph Giuliani and David Dinkins) said no one should “seek to a get a political benefit from a tragedy.”
“Storm” does a great job of painting what New York City was like at the time, making sure the viewer, like one talking head said, doesn’t look at the five boroughs through a “post-Obama” lens.
For those who already know the story and were alive for it, there are still revelations in “Storm” that would surprise them, including an anecdote that connects infamous mob snitch Sammy “The Bull” Gravano to Hawkins and that the baseball bats supplied to the mob of white kids belonged to one of the few Black kids who lived in the neighborhood. As an adult, the same Black person accuses Sharpton and others of making things worse and inciting violence by marching through Bensonhurst, where white onlookers spewed racist and homophobic words towards the marchers.
In the documentary, Sharpton said that being raised in the North made him assume that loud and outright racial hatred was a Southern thing and Hawkins’ death changed his views.
There’s news footage of Stephen Murphy, Mondello’s attorney, saying that race had nothing to do with Hawkins’ death followed by Murphy in the present saying race had everything to do with his death. Murphy reasoned that he was just doing his job as a lawyer on behalf of a client.
“Storm” paints Hawkins’ father, Moses Stewart, as an opportunist who had just come into Hawkins’ life that year and made himself Sharpton’s right-hand man, speaking on the injustices of his son’s death to the media. Stewart is said to have gotten Sharpton’s number from a media member encouraging him to find a spokesperson for the family.
The documentary also talked to Joseph Fama, the man who went to jail for shooting Hawkins and is still incarcerated at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., who remained steadfast in his belief that he shouldn’t take responsibility for the incident.
“I don’t know who shot Yusuf Hawkins, but it wasn’t my friends and it wasn’t me,” said Fama. “Mere presence is not guilt. If that’s the case, then 30 other people are guilty.”
Muhammad lets the people speak for themselves as often as possible in “Storm.” The best stories can come through silence and letting the interviewee continue to talk. The only issue one can have in the documentary is the lack of background information on Feliciano. Being the alleged spark plug that ended in Hawkins being shot, there should’ve been more information on her.
On YouTube, you can find an old interview she did with CBS correspondent Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes.” In the clip, Bradley reports that Feliciano wasn’t well-liked in Bensonhurst because she had a lot of friends who weren’t white.
Nevertheless, “Storm” is a must watch and depicts how divided the city was and the reasons for racial tensions being so high. After all, it’s not a coincidence that Spike Lee released the film “Jungle Fever” two years later and dedicated it to Yusuf Hawkins.