The Boys of Bensonhurst
A Neighborhood’s Rage — and an Eyewitness Account
by Kathy Dobie
Originally published in The Village Voice, September 5, 1989
On Thursday, when I arrived in Bensonhurst, neighborhood people, cops, and reporters were milling on the corner where, the previous evening, Yusef Hawkins had been shot and killed by a crowd of neighborhood boys. In the apartments above the candy store and beauty salon, men, women and children hung out of the windows, watching. Gina Feliciano — the 18-year-old girl who had enraged the neighborhood boys by, presumably, dating a black guy — lives in one of those apartments and I wondered which one was hers, but I knew the window would be darkened, the blinds drawn. Around the corner, a wavering line of chalk marked the place where Hawkins, who was 16, had died — because he was black and because he had tripped the wire of someone’s “manhood.” Gina was in hiding — as if she had pulled the trigger — and a neighborhood was defensive and angry.
“My old man told me don’t say anything to reporters if I want to see my children. He’s 40 and he could still break my legs.” The speaker, a young man, works at a bakery; he’s wearing a white apron, white pants and a white tank top.
“I don’t trust nobody anymore,” a kid tells a reporter. “Why should I tell you anything? You just say what you want to say anyway.”
“Well, then why do you come out here every day?” the reporter asks.
“‘Cause you’re here,” says one kid.
“Because we have to defend ourselves,” say another.
Neighborhood residents insist the Hawkins incident wasn’t racial. They blame the girl. “She provoked them,” they tell reporters, because, apparently, Gina had said her boyfriend and his friends were coming into the neighborhood and they were going to show the white boys something. “If she said I’m gonna bring my Irish boyfriend in to fight you, the same thing would’ve happened,” one man says.
Many of the kids don’t even think Keith Mondello — one of the five who had been arrested for the attack — was seeing Gina. “She’s a skag,” they say. “Let’s put it this way,” a recent high school graduate told me. “A lot of boys have memories of her.” It seems she has been an outsider for some time. “She went bad,” says a mother who has known Gina since she was a little girl.
When Gina dropped out of high school and began to attend secretarial school, she made a lot of black and Hispanic friends. People on her block — including adults — had been telling her for awhile not bring those kind of people into the neighborhood anymore. Wednesday — the night of the killing — was Gina’s birthday.
BY HIS OWN ADMISSION, Michael’s an anomaly. He stays out of trouble, does well in school and plans on going to college. He loves his neighborhood, and when I talk with him two nights after the murder, he’s struggling with that love. “I used to hang out there with these guys three or four years ago. I didn’t think they were capable of doing this. I really didn’t.” He’s sitting in the kitchen with his sister, Sheila and his mother, Rose.
Michael and Rose don’t believe the incident was racial, but they don’t defend the kids either. When a 24-year-old suspect was arrested, Rose said, “A twenty-four-year-old hanging out in the schoolyard!”
“Their set of morals are different,” Rose says. “They don’t think of death as a terrible thing.” Michael cuts in, “It’s another notch on their belts.” Rose says there are lots of young men who believe in a “distorted” picture of the mob and play at being gangsters. Rose asks if I’m Italian. No, I say. “How can I explain?” she sighs. Her parents came from “the other side.” They met in night school studying English, educated themselves, wanted to get ahead. “The ones coming over today don’t bother to learn the language, they don’t care about education.” She says they don’t know what their kids are doing in school because they can’t talk to the teachers. They lose track of their kids in the world.
“Different things are important to me,” says Rose. “School is important to me. Respect is important to me.”
“That’s what the kids wanted,” Michael says to her. “Respect from the street.”
“That’s not respect,” she retorts.
“Ma, open your mind!” Michael counters. “For them, that’s respect.”
Rose taps her cigarette impatiently. “You shoot somebody point blank with a gun and you didn’t think you were gonna end up in jail?”
“They didn’t think anybody would talk,” Michael says.
“They have to sleep with themselves anyway.”
The guy the cops are looking for — Joey Fama, the alleged murderer — is, Michael says, “a typical Guido.”
“A coward Guido,” Rose says.
“A brown-noser,” Michael says.
“Now who would he be brown-nosing?” Rose asks.
“I don’t know, Ma,” Michael says.
BOBBY IS PUERTO RICAN and moved into the neighborhood when he was 16. About a month later, he was sitting with his little sister outside the house when four guys cruised by, calling him Puerto Rican this and Puerto Rican that. Bobby just turned and went inside. But the next day he got four carloads of his friends from the old neighborhood. They had weapons, but they didn’t fight. They just predicted the future — not too promising — of the white kids if they touched a hair on Bobby’s head. Bobby was left alone after that. “My stepfather’s Sicilian,” he says. “And he always told me, ‘Stick with your own people. You can trust them a little more than others.’ ”
Bobby’s 28 now, married, with a kid, and works as a maintenance man for the local church, St. Dominic’s. He doesn’t have to fight anymore — not with his fists, at any rate. Bobby’s looking for a larger apartment because he and his wife want another child. “I went to all the realtors on 18th Avenue. Every place they sent me to was out of the neighborhood. They keep trying to move me to Coney Island. And they do it with a straight face!”
We’re sitting outside the church. The sun’s slanting low and the women are arriving for Bingo. Bobby calls the old ones baby, and they love it. He says the neighborhood kids hang out in front of the church at night. He imitates them, slouched, arms folded, their faces immobile — “like old men.” Bobby doesn’t get it. When he was their age he was seeing girls, going out dancing, playing pool.
Bobby say Father Arthur of St. Dominic’s, organized a basketball league and opened the gym at night for the neighborhood kids but they kept pulling shit like shutting out all the lights in the middle of the game. So Father Arthur said, “Everything to you guys is a joke. Well I’ll how you what a joke is …” And he barred hem from the gym for the rest of the season. “He only lets the really young ones in now,” Bobby says.
Later that night, I meet a kid who says he can’t talk to me because one time, his friends thought he “ratted” on them and three of them jumped him. He’s husky, built strong, but he didn’t fight back just, ducked and blocked the punches as best he could because he thought they might run to their car and get their bats or maybe even a gun. He tells me about an 18-year-old neighborhood kid who was found handcuffed, both legs and arms broken, six shots in the back of his head. “The kids around here don’t do anything their fathers wouldn’t do,” he says.
ON SATURDAY, up until almost the moment Reverend Al Sharpton and the protesters arrive, the crowds on 20th Avenue are calm. Nothing is going to happen, I’m told, “not with all the cops here.” I sit with a group of boys who joke about Gina. But when we get around to discussing racism, the talk turns angry. One guy pulls down his shirt, revealing some heavy gold, and asks angrily, “Do you think I could walk through Bed-Stuy like this without getting shot?” “What about all the times a white person gets killed by a black person — why isn’t that racial?” “What about Central Park?” Then they discuss affirmative action — the white man’s on the bottom of the totem pole, they complain. “If I go to get a job at the Transit Authority, do you think I’ll get one?” An older man walks with me away from the crowd, sadly shaking his head. “They don’t think before they open their mouths,” he says. “They mix things up. They don’t understand that they could get a job at the TA. They could get out of here if they tried.”
Then the cops’ walkie-talkies are buzzing with news of the marchers’ location. Some neighborhood people have brought signs and hold them up for the TV cameras — WE ARE NOT RACISTS, and NO MORE TAWANA BRAWLEYS — and the crowd cheers. Then the sound of sirens, the sight of cars and a bus being whisked to the back entrance of the schoolyard. Everyone rushes over there, and as the protesters start pouring into the schoolyard, the white kids push up against the chain link fence, girls getting hoisted onto their boyfriends’ shoulders. “Sharpton’s using you!” a blond girl starts yelling. A teenage boy says to his friend, “You know they got fear in their hearts.” And then, “Smell that stench in there.”
One man is holding up a huge card board sign: WE ARE ALL GOD’S CHILDREN — DEATH HURTS US ALL. “Put that sign away,” a kid yells. “Yusef, Yusef,” the protesters begin to chant. “Fuck you, fuck you,” one white kid howls back. “Watch your mouth dude. We don’t want no trouble,” says another. “Jon Lester for president!” from another part of the crowd. There’s a frantic “shush” from some quarters, laughter from others. The crowd twists against itself. “Don’t let them show us up,” one of the whites yells. “This is our neighborhood. What the fuck is this! Once again they’re kicking us out of our neighborhood.” A boy yells, “Fucking niggers!” and applause and cheers sweep the crowd, making it one.
Then the cops are standing in two rows at the schoolyard gate, channeling the protesters through. The marchers move out onto 20th Avenue, 10 to 12 people to a row, and the whites, mostly kids, teenagers, and men in their early twenties, run along the sidewalk next to them. “We want the killer!” the protesters chant. “Go home monkey face!” the crowd responds. “Break out the coconuts!” A black woman occasionally flips the finger at the howling boys, but does not look at them. A few blocks away from the schoolyard and the calls of “nigger” propel one black man out of the lines. Whites and blacks rush in and cops push and hop into the middle of the scuffle, nightclubs raised. When the groups are separated again, a photographer says, “That was the best yet. No blows, but …” “Did you see that?” a white man says breathlessly. “They attacked us. Police brutality!”
“Our streets!” goes the new chant of the marchers. The white kids go crazy. “You’re losers!” “Go home to your crack-infested projects!” A block later a white kid charges through the line of cops, straight to Sharpton, whose guards surround him immediately. The attacker is chased by cops. “They showed their true colors today,” Sharpton says. A young black woman, her face wet and eyes dazed, heads out of the ranks as if she’s sleepwalking, but before she enters the white sea, two protesters pull her back. “They want that house for free!” yells a neighborhood man. “They think freedom is a free house!” One marcher remarks to another, “They fought three wars with that shit in their blood.”
After another scuffle, a neighborhood man calls, “Look, look!” He points to the ground. I look down and there’s his cardboard sign — WE ARE NOT RACISTS — covered with scuff marks, two cops planted firmly on top of it. “They won’t give me my property.” He’s frantic, weeping. “Reverse racism!”
The return march from the police station seems calmer somehow. The marchers begin to chant, “Poor white trash!” and black and white boys grab at their cocks, challenging each other to step over the line. “It takes two of yours to make one of mine,” croons a black man. “I got balls, I got balls, come on over here,” a white kid yells. “White pussy boy,” calls a marcher.
Once, there’s almost a conversation. “Malcolm X is a racist!” a white boy screams and the black protesters groan.
“Who’s more racist than you?” a black man answers.
“Sharpton’s using you!” the white man yells back.
“It’s not about Sharpton. He’s not important. It’s about Yusef.”
“I didn’t kill Yusef. None of these people here killed Yusef.”
But then both crowds are shouting and the two men are drowned out and swept by their respective groups down the street.
When we finally return to the schoolyard, the Bensonhurst kids are fenced out, and they start spitting through the fence at the protesters. One guy is suddenly darting for something on the ground in front of me. Just then, the cops push everyone across the street. A black reporter reaches down for the same object the white kid was trying to get — a soda bottle — and with anger and disgust etched deeply into his face, he throws it hard to the sidewalk and it splinters into a thousand useless pieces.
On the other side of the street we’re kept behind cars, crowded close together. When the kids see me writing, they start yelling things for me to jot down. A boy shoves a watermelon in front of me. “I went to Africa and brought a tropical watermelon,” he announces. “We’re not racist!” another boy says gleefully. “Write that down.” They’re tired of being good and sorry. They’re having fun. Then the kids start singing, “We Are the World.”
There will be a memorial service for Yusef Hawkins at the site of the killing the next day, and when the protesters have driven away, a tall man holding a baby announces a “baseball game” scheduled for tomorrow morning. “Bring your bats,” he says. “This is our neighborhood, not theirs.” On the corner, another man is yelling at a police officer that he has his name and badge number. He’s furious because during the march the officer hadn’t let him go into a store to buy a soda. He screams, “You weren’t a cop today, you were black!” The kids are deciding what to do with the watermelon. You can tell they’d like to eat it but they can’t now. “Throw it on the ground,” one kid advises.
Roy Innis holds court outside a bakery, and neighborhood people are talking to him eagerly and more articulately than they do to the reporters. “Why does the media only talk to the kids?” an older man asks. “They’ll say anything, do anything because of the TV cameras — why do you think they had a watermelon? Looking like fools!” Innis tells them not to let the media back them into a corner. “Where are the reporters now?” someone says. “They start this whole thing up and then they leave.”
Three women talk on the corner. “I didn’t even know there was going to be a march today,” one says. “This is a shame,” says another. “Now my kid is using the word ‘nigger.’ ” Another says, “The problem is, we have no leaders.”
AFTER THE MARCH, Tony is hanging around like someone with no place to go. He’s slight, brown-eyed, with a soft, expressionless face. That morning his mother had warned him to stay in the neighborhood today, to “stay where people know your face.” “I didn’t even know they were going to march,” Tony says. “Then I saw my friend and he said there’s gonna be a fight.” So he came right over.
Tony and I walk a few blocks away and sit on a stoop. “Do you know what a ‘baseball game’ is?” he asks me. “I figured it out,” I say, and ask if he’s going to be there. He says, “I’ll be there. I’ll park my car in the schoolyard.” Says it without any passion, like an obedient child.
Our conversation happens upon the murder by mistake. “They didn’t shoot the right one,” Tony says. “I was there. I saw him fall.” He stares out at the street. He doesn’t pour out the story, just answers my questions as if he would’ve answered anybody that had bothered to ask him. He calls Joey Fama “my friend” throughout the conversation. Says they had gone drinking at the Bay Lounge the night of the shooting. Drank vodka and rum. When they came to the corner, they bought some beer. “Then my friend was really zooted.” There were about five of them hanging out. He remembers Joey saying, “Wait. I’m going to the house and get my gun.” He says there were still only five guys hanging together on the corner when they spotted the four black kids heading down the avenue, but other neighborhood kids started following them. Kids started going to their cars — maybe there were baseball bats, Tony says, but no one got a chance to use them.
Tony says Joey pointed the gun at one of the kids. “The black kid started getting really scared. He says, ‘Wait, wait, please wait.’ My friend says, ‘No, you fucker, you was fucking with my girlfriend.’ Then he pulled the trigger. Pop, pop. I didn’t know it was going to happen, it just happened. When I got home I told my mother, and she said, ‘These are the kind of friends you want to pick? You’re gonna end up in jail.’ ” He waits for me to finish writing, patient as a dog.
“The black kid said, ‘I’m not the one. I don’t even know who your girlfriend is. I just came here to buy a car.’ My friend said ‘That’s bullshit.’ ” He started cursing at him. The black kid kept backing up. My friend said ‘Don’t back up anymore.’ He said ‘Okay, Okay. I’ll beg on my knees. Please, please …’ and he just shot him. That was it. He just fell. The way he shot him — blood came out in four different directions. I never saw nothing like this before. My heart dropped, my feet started running.”
Speaking of Yusef, Tony looks at me. “His parents were freaking out probably, huh? I saw his father on the news.” When a man who lives in the house comes out, Tony scoots quickly to the side of the step. “Hi. How you doin’?” he says politely. The man looks at him once without any friendliness and nods his head. I offer Tony a cigarette. “I saw a kid get beat up by two men for letting out some information,” he says. It happened on the same candy store corner. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.” He’ll never forget the black kid being shot either, he adds. “Were you surprised Joey did it?” “I knew he had it in him. I knew he had the heart to do it,” Tony says. “But I thought he was just going to point the gun and scare the guy. But everything turned out different.”