rjhowe.net: essays: hate

Fast Over Thin Ice: Hate's in Season, and It's a Bumper Crop

The summer of 1989 was a season of hate in New York like I had never seen before.  In August of that year, Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old black kid was walking with two friends, also black, through Bensonhurst, a white, predominantly Italian neighborhood, when they where attacked by a band of white males, not much older than themselves, and Yusef Hawkins was shot dead.

The image that sticks with me, in a city that averages eight murders a day, is the mortally wounded Hawkins, bleeding on a Brooklyn street and clutching a candy bar.

It turned out that Hawkins and his friends were in the neighborhood in search of a used car they’d seen advertised in a newspaper, and that the shooter was 19-year-old Joseph Fama, a kind of village idiot, inflamed by the rhetoric and actions of his neighbors into “killing the nigger.”

That was only the beginning of a series of passion plays that had their roots in nearly a decade of poor race relations.

In 1982, Willie Turks, a black city transit worker, was beaten to death with baseball bats by a mob of whites from the predominantly Italian neighborhood of Gravesend in Brooklyn.  Nineteen-year-old Gino Bova, described in the press as an unemployed weight lifter, was eventually convicted of “depraved indifference” homicide and several other felony counts.

In December of 1984, an electronics engineer named Bernhard Goetz shot three black youths he claimed were menacing him in a subway car.  Two of the shooting victims made a full recovery, but the third was paralyzed and is expected to be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  It took two New York grand juries to indict Goetz, and after a lengthy trial he was acquitted of all attempted murder and assault charges and sentenced to several months in prison for illegal possession of a handgun.

Michael Stewart, a self-described graffiti artist, died in transit police custody in 1986.  Stewart was black and the arresting officers were white.  No charges were ever filed against the police.

A mob of bat-wielding whites injured two black men and chased a third, Michael Griffith, to his death on the Belt Parkway in December of 1986 in the Howard Beach section of Queens.  Jon Lester, 19, the baby-faced assailant charged with Griffith’s death was eventually sentenced to twenty years in prison.

In 1987, a 300-pound black woman, Eleanor Bumpers, who according to police was mentally ill and brandishing a large knife, was shot and killed by white police officers responding to the scene of a domestic disturbance.  No officers were charged in her death, but police procedures for dealing with emotionally disturbed persons were reviewed and changed in the wake of the shooting.

In November of 1987, a black teenager, Tawana Brawley had disappeared from her home in upstate New York, and reappeared two days later in a trash bag, smeared with feces.  She claimed that she had been kidnapped and raped by a gang of white men.  Wapinger’s Falls prosecutor Steve Pagones was implicated in the alleged attack by Brawley’s attorneys, and advisor Reverend Al Sharpton.  Over the period of a year, witnesses stepped forward to say that Brawley had been with her boyfriend that night, and in fear of her stepfather, had concocted the rape story.  A grand jury eventually found that no abduction or rape had occurred.  Pagones was exonerated, and Brawley’s attorneys faced penalties before the New York State bar.  Many blacks maintain that Brawley was a symbol of the victimization of blacks, if not a victim herself.  In Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing, the camera pans across a line of graffiti on a building:  “Tawana told the truth!”

In April of 1989 a white female jogger was raped and beaten in Central Park by a gang of black teenagers.  The case instantly became a cause célèbre.  The victim, an Ivy League graduate and investment banker, hovered near death for weeks and then began a long, painful recovery.  At this writing it is not clear to what extent she will remain physically and mentally handicapped from the attack.  Her early recovery and the trial of her assailants was front page news for months at a time.  The same week that the Central Park Jogger was attacked, a Puerto Rican woman was raped and murdered in a Bronx housing project.  The case received almost no publicity.

The atmosphere was already charged when Joey Fama shot Yusef Hawkins on an August evening in 1989.  Blacks and black activists descended en masse upon Bensonhurst, a neighborhood where tribal sentiments had long been ascendant, bringing with them the father of the slain teenager, as well as the Reverend Al Sharpton, then notorious for his participation in the Tawana Brawley case.     

The people of Bensonhurst rose to the occasion, spitting and throwing things at the marchers, mugging for the news cameras, screaming, “Niggers go home!” and other racial epithets, and waving watermelons at the marchers.

David N. Dinkins was then running for mayor of New York, the first black who would fill that office.  He was running against Edward Koch, the three-term incumbent who had started his career as a liberal reformer, but by the time of the election was seen as a major contributor to the city’s racial and ethnic divisions.  Dinkins ran on a platform of healing the city’s racial and ethnic rifts.  On a hot Saturday night I went with a fellow reporter, Ken Ficara, then of the Centre Daily Times, to Herb Daughtry’s Baptist Church on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to see Jesse Jackson endorse Dinkins’ bid for mayor.

Ficara and I spent most of the afternoon and evening in the predominantly black neighborhood, and at the church.  After the proceedings broke up, we interviewed some community residents and political activists.  After covering Jackson’s endorsement, we packed up our notebooks and drove to 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst, the scene of the Hawkins killing a few weeks earlier, and that night the scene of an annual religious and ethnic feast -- a four block street fair with Italian food concessions, gambling booths, rides, and souvenir stands.

There, for the first time that day, we felt suspicion and hate.  Both Ficara and I are white, and both are half Italian, yet there wasn’t even a trace of hostility toward us in the black neighborhood we’d spent the day in.  The feast was another matter; there was more silent menace in one block of 18th Avenue than in the whole length of Atlantic Avenue, downtown.

Even though we belonged, genetically, to Bensonhurst, we were outsiders.  We weren’t “from the neighborhood.”  Dressed in jeans and button-down shirts, not terribly different from what everyone else wore, we felt conspicuous.  Wrong haircuts.  Wrong looks.  Wrong attitude.  We were outsiders there.  And that may be the quintessential New York experience.

It is easy, growing up in New York, to be an outsider.  I was born in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section, and ours was one of the handful of white, mostly Italian and Irish, families left in the neighborhood in the early Sixties.  In 1969, my family finally joined the white flight out of North Brooklyn to the Gravesend section of the borough, an Italian and Jewish enclave almost at the borough’s southern edge.

I went from one Catholic school, the School of the Nativity, to another, Our Lady of Grace.  I couldn’t have been more uprooted if I’d moved to Mars.  I was the only kid in my eighth-grade class with a non-Italian surname.  It was also the first time I came up against the wiseguy mystique particular to second and third-generation Italians in Brooklyn.

I got into fights every day.  I was a timid, bookish kid to begin with, and in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I never managed to get through a month without having my bus pass stolen, but transferring to Our Lady of Grace was a leap out of the frying pan.

The straight-line distance between the two neighborhoods is less than 7 miles, but everything was different.  The kids had different hairstyles, wore different clothes, lived in different houses, played different street games, and lived a different culture.

What’s hard to grasp is that all of New York is like this.  We talk about pluralism and multiculturalism, but New York’s diversity is very often segregation with smaller boundaries.  For every ethnically mixed neighborhood, there are a dozen with little or no interpenetration of ethnic groups.  Brighton Beach has its Russian Jews, Bensonhurst its Italians, Boro Park its Hasidim, Kew Gardens its Chinese, and Crown Heights its blacks, further subdivided into “American” and “Caribbean” enclaves.

Neighborhoods don’t so much mix as “turn over” the white euphemism for non-whites moving in.  When an Irish or Norwegian resident of Bay Ridge says that the neighborhood has changed, he or she doesn’t mean for the better.  As blacks and Puerto Ricans moved into predominantly Irish Flatbush in the Sixties, the white residents fled to Nassau and Suffolk counties, further east on Long Island, or to Breezy Point, a closed community at the western tip of the Rockaway Peninsula.

In the Wall Street boom years of the Eighties, Brooklyn communities close to Manhattan, such as Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights, underwent explosive gentrification.  Rents doubled and doubled again, and brownstones built (albeit extravagantly) for one family were subdivided into three- and four-room co-ops.  At the height of this lunacy, there were actually co-op parking garages, where neighborhood residents paid a mortgage and a monthly maintenance fee on a slab of yellow-lined concrete.

Residents of gentrified areas liked to call their neighborhoods “mixed,” but everyone who colonized them knew that there were “good blocks” and “bad blocks.”  The pioneering type might buy a house on a “bad block” in the hopes that the wave of gentrification would overtake the street, especially in the late Eighties after all the good brownstones were taken, but before the Boesky trial or the Wall Street collapse.

It is when residents of these enclaves collide, that racial or ethnic violence occurs.  In the summer after Yusef Hawkins’ death, I attended a meeting of Park Slope Residents Against Bias-Related Violence as a reporter for a local weekly newspaper.  Park Slope is really two neighborhoods; the narrow yuppie corridor between Prospect Park West and Sixth Avenue, and everything below Sixth Avenue to the Gowanus Canal.  The earnest residents who attended the meeting were mainly gentrificants from above Sixth Avenue, and all but one was white.  The black and Puerto Rican residents of the other Park Slope have certainly spent years being outraged at racially motivated violence; they didn’t need to join committees.

There is a tendency to picture bigots as living out there in the homogeneous middle of the country; rednecks with white sheets over their heads.  But bigotry thrives in an atmosphere of familiarity.  You find racial violence in the places where the different racial and ethnic groups rub against each other.  Apologists for the killers of Yusef Hawkins asked repeatedly what three black kids were doing in a white neighborhood, as if the presence of outsiders were excuse enough to shoot them.  But in the larger sense, that is the right question to ask.

What business does a black man have in a white neighborhood, or vice versa?  That is what’s at stake.  What business do women have in men’s jobs?  What business do gay men have in the armed forces?  What business do any of us have trying to live in a multi-ethnic society?  This is not just a question for New Yorkers, or even Americans.  Look at the Canadian separatists, or the Palestinians and Jews in the Middle East, or the Irish Catholics and Protestants.

When the Soviet Union’s central control began to slip in Eastern Europe, ancient ethnic and racial hatreds flared to life at once.  The freedom symbolized by the demolition of the Berlin Wall is also the freedom to hate.

Where do we belong?  In 1989, shortly after David Dinkins was elected the first black mayor of New York, a black woman charged that the Korean owner of a Flatbush, Brooklyn grocery store struck her and shouted racial slurs at her.  The owner was found innocent in a subsequent trial, but the black community still boycotts the store, and picketers still march in front of it eighteen months after the incident, despite the direct intervention of Mayor Dinkins.

In 1990, a black man, Wilford Phillips, moved into the white neighborhood of Canarsie in Brooklyn.  His windows were broken repeatedly, and one night his house was burned to the ground.

This year tensions between the Puerto Rican and Hasidic Jewish communities of Willamsburg, Brooklyn, came to a head when a Hasidic man was charged with raping a Puerto Rican girl.  The suspect was taken into custody at a local police precinct.  Before he could be sent to central booking, hundreds of Hasidim stormed the station in an effort to free the accused rapist.  More than a dozen police were injured.  The suspect remained in custody, and none of the Hasidim who stormed the station were arrested.  Members of the Puerto Rican community charged police with giving the Hasidim special treatment, saying that if Puerto Ricans had attacked police under the same circumstances it would have resulted in a bloodbath.

Most recently, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, organizers of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, tried to exclude gay men and lesbians who wanted to march under their own banners.  Mayor Dinkins interceded, and in what many believe was his finest moment in office to date, he relinquished the mayor’s traditional position at the head of the parade to be with the gay and lesbian marchers.  The mayor and his fellow marchers were spit at and sprayed with beer from the crowd.

Summer is coming again, and hate is always in season.

Originally printed in Pulphouse Magazine, June 1992.

home | news | bio | fictionessays | audio linksblog