A few weeks ago, I, like many New York-based reporters, set out for Crown Heights, Brooklyn to investigate how race relations have improved since the riot that engulfed the neighborhood in 1991. It’s almost impossible to approach an event this momentous without preconceptions. As a resident of Crown Heights for four years, albeit on its farthest western fringe, I expected that with the violence now firmly in the past, tensions between black and Jewish neighbors would have faded.
Instead, I discovered that many of the grievances that supposedly underpinned the troubles 20 years ago remain. Blacks in the Caribbean and African-American community still harbor suspicions that Jews receive preferential treatment from the city. Their interactions with Jewish security patrols and, occasionally, Jewish landlords foster anger and resentment. Jews, meanwhile, live uneasily alongside a secular community blighted by unemployment and violent crime. Perhaps worse still, they nurse grievances that the riot was, far from an outpouring of anger at white America, an overtly anti-Semitic attack.
The two groups are so far apart that they cannot even view this seismic event in their neighborhood’s history in the same way. In fact, the sharp difference in their interpretation of the riot is indicative of the deep divide that still separates the two communities today.
The generally accepted narrative of the Crown Heights riot begins on the evening of Monday, August 19, as the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, returned from his weekly visit to his wife’s grave. The last car in the rebbe’s three-car motorcade ran a light at the corner of President Street and Utica Avenue. It collided with another car and careened onto the sidewalk, where it struck cousins Gavin and Angela Cato, both 7.
Within minutes, a Jewish volunteer Hatzolah ambulance and two city ambulances were on the scene, joined by an expanding crowd of onlookers, most of them black. The Jewish driver and his passengers were whisked from the sidewalk by Hatzolah, while city paramedics treated Gavin and Angela. According to the New York Daily News, the Jews were rushed from the scene because they had been attacked by the crowd. When Gavin’s death was announced, it ignited a firestorm, fanned by the rumor that the Hasidic ambulance crew aided the Jewish driver before tending to the Cato children.
Three hours later, a gang of up to 20 black youths came across Yankel Rosenbaum, an Orthodox student from Australia who was living in Crown Heights while he researched his doctoral thesis on the Holocaust. The mob attacked, and in the melee Rosenbaum was fatally stabbed.
From here, the story of the three days and four nights of rioting diverges further. Even the language used to describe the violence varies, depending upon whom you talk to. For Jewish Crown Heights residents, particularly those who lived through the riot, the hatred was fueled by anti-Semitism. “My Puerto Rican neighbors were okay,” said longtime, Hasidic resident Barbara Stone. “It was only Jewish cars and houses and people that were attacked.”
Stone and her husband spent three days locked inside their home as bricks and bottles bounced off the bars of their windows and protesters outside shouted anti-Semitic slurs, brandishing signs that, according to reports in the Forward at the time, included such messages as “Hitler didn’t do his job” and “The White Man is the Devil.” To describe the violence, Stone and many of her Jewish neighbors reached back through history to European anti-Semitism of the late 19th and early 20th century. Crown Heights was not a riot, it was a pogrom.
Black residents also perceived a racial aspect to the violence, but from a different angle. “They didn’t take the black little boy first,” said Cynthia Riley, 50, “they just took the Jewish guy. It was a racist thing like that.” In the offices of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, I was struck by the fact that deputy director Sharon “Ife” Charles took care to refer to 1991 not as a “riot” but as “the incident.” Rep. Yvette Clarke said that others refer to it as “the disturbance.”) When I pressed Charles on the racial nature of the violence, she said, “We need to be careful how we are using the words ‘racist’ and ‘anti-Semitic.’”
But the anti-Semitic aspect of 1991 is impossible to deny. The day after the car accident, Chana Lipkind said her 20-year-old daughter was subjected to a barrage of “anti-Semitic garbage” by black youths in the street. Sitting in her doctor’s office on President Street, Lipkind calmly recounted how her home, near the corner of President Street and Utica Avenue, was attacked. “My front door got taken off its hinges by people pounding against it,” she said. “There was a black family sitting on its stoop and telling people, ‘That’s a Jew’s house’ — which was kind of hard to deal with.” Even today, Lipkind said that if she hears a commotion outside, her first reaction is to stop whatever she is doing. “You find yourself thinking: ‘Let’s stop. What’s going on?’” Lipkind said.
That fact that many Jews in Crown Heights see the riot as a pogrom shows just how deep the wound of 1991 cut. A riot is a public disturbance, usually fueled by social injustice. A pogrom is an irrational outburst of violence, fueled by anti-Semitism. A riot can be explained away more easily than a pogrom. But Jonathan Kaufman, author of “Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America,” first published in 1988, said he believes that the “pogrom” label is misplaced in Crown Heights. “There’s no question in my mind that most of the violence was blacks committing crimes against Jews,” Kaufman said. “But a pogrom is part of a historical mindset about Jews, and it’s often organized not at a local level, spontaneously, but by governments or by churches.”
In Crown Heights there was no such organization. Instead, the facilitators were black firebrands, such as Sonny Carson and Al Sharpton, who swept into the neighborhood on a wave of righteous indignation, haranguing public officials and calling for “justice.” These black leaders demanded that Yosef Lifsh, the Hasidic driver of the car that killed Gavin Cato, be arrested. When Mayor David Dinkins, an African American who had been elected a few years earlier in the hope that he would calm interracial tensions, insisted that, according to the law, only a grand jury could indict the driver, it further infuriated black protesters.
Sharpton and Carson led a march that turned ugly on the third day of the riot, when protesters peeled away from their preplanned route. They burned the Israeli flag outside Lubavitch’s international headquarters and harangued the mayor, who was visiting a nearby school to calm tensions. Delivering the eulogy at Cato’s funeral the following week, Sharpton labeled the Jews of Crown Heights “diamond merchants” and drew a direct parallel between them and apartheid-era South African diamond mine owners. Journalist Philip Gourevitch, who reported on the riot for the Forward, said Sharpton was the consummate opportunist. “Sharpton was a vulture who would go in and take on anybody’s funeral, shouting about justice as if anything that stirred emotion was a good occasion to exploit for the general feeling that there was injustice towards the black community,” Gourevitch said.
To be sure, the black community did have real grievances in 1991, particularly in the wake of a spate of white-on-black violence. During the previous decade, three black men, Willie Turks, Michael Griffith and Yusuf Hawkins, had been killed by white gangs in Brooklyn and Queens. Gavin Cato’s death came six months after the vicious beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. When Gourevitch walked into the 71st precinct house in Brooklyn, toward the end of the third day of rioting in Crown Heights, he was told by a police captain Robert Mescolotto that officers felt they were being restrained because of the King incident.
To this day, Jewish residents of Crown Heights harbor a deep resentment that the police stood by while they were verbally and physically attacked. (They also harbor resentment that the organized Jewish community acted too slowly to spring to their defense.) A state report into the riot, commissioned by Governor Mario Cuomo two years later, reserved particular criticism for Dinkins, who in the early days of the violence appeared oblivious to the scale and severity of the attacks. Though there has never been conclusive proof that Dinkins ordered the police to hold back, the idea that the mayor instructed the NYPD to allow rioters to “blow off steam” pervades the collective Jewish memory.
Though a number of Hasidic Jewish self-defense groups existed at the time of the riot, today such groups are viewed as a bulwark against the black community when the NYPD cannot be relied upon. The very existence of Jewish volunteer patrols, however, often partly funded by the taxpayer and working in tandem with the NYPD, helps to fuel perceptions in the black community that Jews get preferential treatment from the city. Because the volunteers’ work often brings them into contact with members of the black community, the patrols, known as Shomrim and Shmira, can be a particular source of friction, especially when they are accused of violence. Only a few years ago, a pair of Shmira volunteers beat a 20-year-old Crown Heights resident who turned out to be the son of a black NYPD officer. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office is currently seeking to extradite one of the suspects, Yitzhak Shuchat, who fled to Israel after the attack.
Clarke said that if the only interaction black residents of Crown Heights have with the Jewish community is with those patrols, “then of course they are going to form a negative perception.” But she said that a much bigger blight on the community today is black-on-black gun crime. “There’s a gang subculture within the black community that traffics in guns,” Clarke said, “and we’re just seeing our communities really being besieged by the free flow of handguns in the United States.” The day I visited the Crown Heights Mediation Center, a sign in the window proclaimed that it had been 27 days since the last person was shot in the neighborhood. “It’s not a question of black and white, Jews and non-Jews,” Hasidic resident Stone said. “It’s just not a safe neighborhood.”
Of course, a large part of the reason that Jews have remained in Crown Heights is the Lubavitcher rebbe, who insisted that his followers stay when most of Crown Heights’ Jewish population fled to other parts of Brooklyn during the 1970s. During the past 20 years, their numbers have only grown. According to Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, the community has roughly doubled to about 3,000 Jewish families from about 1,500. In addition, thousands of students flock to Crown Heights to study at Lubavitch yeshivas. The number of black households in the predominantly Jewish part of Crown Heights has fallen during the same period to about 11,000 families from about 13,000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau. Meanwhile, as the Jewish community expands, it is seeping into parts of Crown Heights that were once exclusively black. Cohen said that about 400 Jewish families now live north of Eastern Parkway and about 200 have migrated south of East New York Avenue, both former unofficial borders for the Hasidic population.
Whenever two communities live in such close quarters, there will be tension. Although socio-economically very little separates Jews and blacks in Crown Heights — per capita income is roughly the same for both communities in the Jewish section of the neighborhood — there is an enormous gap between the lives of insular, strictly Orthodox Lubavitchers and their black, secular neighbors, who, by and large, live totally different lifestyles.
Yet to talk to people in the neighborhood, one senses at least a desire to coexist — a desire that is as strong now as it was before the riots. “I have no problem [with my Jewish neighbors],” said Marcia Brown, who has lived on President Street for 35 years. Explaining the riot, she added, “I think it was just some miscommunication.” William Riley said that when he was growing up in Crown Heights during the 1970s and ’80s he used to play with Hasidic children. He still considers his Jewish neighbors to be his friends. “We lived fine with each other,” Riley said. Likewise, Lipkind’s daughter, Symie, said she still has many black friends and acquaintances from her days growing up in the neighborhood. Lipkind said the riot left “a bitter, nasty taste in the air among everybody.” But she added, “A lot of us appear to have moved on from that time period.”
Blacks and Jews have also been helped by community leaders, who are highly attuned to any signs of trouble. A case in point: knowing that the anniversary of the riot would precipitate an influx of reporters picking over old wounds, leaders of both communities organized a summer-long series of events, including block parties and picnics, meant to showcase the “positive achievement and energy” in Crown Heights today. Though claims in their press release that the communities have “learned to coexist” rang hollow, the fact that leaders were so eager to present a united front shows genuine commitment to preventing a repeat of the riot.
Even Stone said that despite the anti-Semitic violence she lived through, the Crown Heights riot was about much more than tension between the area’s blacks and Jews. “We were just a neighborhood that got in the middle of a whirlwind,” she said. “And I think everybody is trying to move forward and return to what we were, which was a neighborhood of divergent individuals trying to live together and do the best we can.”
Contact Paul Berger at firstname.lastname@example.org