NEW YORK — Ugly scenes of protesters being taunted by whites in a Brooklyn neighborhood where a black teen-ager was killed have thrust the long-simmering issue of race into the forefront of New York's tightly contested Democratic mayoral primary.
In an election where questions of racial polarization remained largely unspoken for months, the shooting of 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins last week--allegedly by a white teen-ager in a case of jealousy and mistaken identity--has dramatically changed the climate of the campaign.
As Hawkins' family prepared for his funeral today, community leaders ranging from Cardinal John J. O'Connor to Hazel Dukes, head of the New York state branch of the NAACP, appealed Tuesday for calm.
"It is absurd to pretend there is no racism here," the cardinal said at a meeting he had convened at his residence with other civic leaders. ". . . Racially motivated violence, especially when it involves the taking of a human life, causes each of us to examine the values we hold."
"Today, we've come together to stand together to say to our city, to our states, to our nation, it is enough violence," Dukes said. "We are human beings. We are not animals. We must learn somehow and some way to understand and respect each other."
Mayor Edward I. Koch, who had urged an end to demonstrations by predominantly black protesters in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood of Bensonhurst after Hawkins death, modified his position Tuesday under intense pressure.
The mayor said that protests were acceptable as long as they were not offensive to local residents.
After Koch had urged that marches stop because they could inflame racial tensions, one black minister likened him to Eugene (Bull) Connor, the police commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., who ordered dogs and cattle prods used against civil rights activists in the 1960s. And former U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani, the clear favorite to win the Republican mayoral nomination, strongly suggested Tuesday that Koch remain silent.
"The last thing we need in this delicate, sensitive, difficult situation is for Ed Koch and Al Sharpton to be shooting their mouths off," Giuliani said, comparing the mayor to the controversial and flamboyant black preacher without a pulpit who had taken part in one of the protests.
When the demonstrators marched last weekend in Bensonhurst, they were met by a hail of racial epithets from onlookers. Some displayed watermelons and held up signs warning: "Go home."
Since those incidents, Koch's chief Democratic primary opponent, Manhattan Borough President David N. Dinkins, who is seeking to become the city's first black mayor, has reaffirmed the right to march.
"I think we have every right to peacefully demonstrate," Dinkins told the audience in a church in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section Monday night. He also announced that the Rev. Jesse Jackson would campaign on his behalf in the closing days before the Democratic primary on Sept. 12.
Jackson, visiting Tuesday with Hawkins' grieving parents, compared their son's slaying to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black teen-ager who was killed in Greenwood, Miss., by whites who thought he was whistling at a white woman.
Jackson charged that Koch should have been heading marches through Bensonhurst instead of discouraging them. "The one thing I know is that his discouraging people to march publicly is sending a signal to those that did the beating, that he's on their side," Jackson said. He urged Dinkins' supporters to "get angry and vote."
Hawkins and three companions were surrounded by a gang of up to 30 whites, some carrying baseball bats, when they entered Bensonhurst last Wednesday to answer an advertisement for a used car. Police said the local residents believed one of the black youths was the new boyfriend of a local white girl who had spurned one of the attackers. Six men have been charged so far in connection with the slaying.
But the youth believed to have actually pulled the trigger, who detectives said has a relative linked to organized crime, has remained at large despite an intensive manhunt. Detectives were investigating the possibility he may have fled to Italy.
New York's latest serious racial incident came just as some polls showed that Koch had finally pulled even with Dinkins, who has sought to convince voters he would be a healing force in the city after the sharp rhetoric of the mayor's almost dozen years in office.
For the 62-year-old Manhattan Borough president, a major task has been to convince voters he has the toughness to run the city--a theme the candidate has tried to address in commercials with the tag line that Dinkins has "the quiet courage that proves you don't have to be loud to be strong."