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Remembering The Carnage And Crises Of The Crown Heights Riots

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Twenty five years ago, on October 29, 1992, Lemrick Nelson Jr. was acquitted of the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. That event — as well as others that both preceded and followed it — had a significant impact on my life, stirring up a host of personal memories and evoking a chapter in the larger story of relations between blacks and Jews in New York City.

On August 21, 1991, a seven-year-old black child named Gavin Cato was accidentally struck and killed by a vehicle in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Shortly after, an enraged black mob shouting “Kill the Jews” waged an all-out riot, beating and robbing scores of defenseless Jews and smashing Jewish property.

That night, a group of black youths stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Hasidic scholar from Australia. He later died in the hospital. The rioting and looting continued for three full nights as city police stood by at a distance making no effort to stop the violence.

A few days later, on September 1, I joined 700 other Jews at Gracie Mansion to protest Mayor Dinkins’ response — or nonresponse — to both the racial violence and the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum.

The mood at the rally was angry and militant. The crowd thundered, “Jewish life is not cheap!” and “Mayor Dinkins must go!” Even though the leaders of the Jewish establishment were nowhere to be seen, Sen. Al D’Amato took the mic, saying: “Mr. Mayor, you are more concerned with politics than doing the right thing.” D’Amato demanded to know why only one person, a youth named Lemrick Nelson, had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the killing of Rosenbaum when it was clear that many others had also been involved.

I too spoke to the crowd: “This should not be a confrontation between the Jewish and black communities, but rather between the forces of decency in both communities and the anti-Semites who perpetrated the horrors that occurred in Crown Heights.”

Here I was articulating what, for me, was an inherent conflict. On the one hand, I felt a deep imperative to raise a voice of moral conscience against the murder of a Jew solely because he is a Jew. Indeed, this was the first time since the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 that such an act was committed against a Jew in America.

On the other hand, I was concerned that raising a voice would be misinterpreted as reflecting anti-black sentiments, when, in fact, relations between our communities has always been central to my very being, and has become part and parcel of my rabbinate.

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Less than a year and a half later, on October 29, 1992, the simmering volcano of black-Jewish tensions blew its top again with the shocking announcement that a largely minority jury — six blacks, four Hispanics, and two whites — had found Lemrick Nelson Jr. not guilty. The next evening, members of the jury joined Nelson and his defense team in celebrating the outcome.

Having been tipped off that the verdict was about to be delivered, I arrived at the Brooklyn Supreme Court building just in time to see the trial’s participants and spectators spilling out into the street. An enraged Norman Rosenbaum, Yankel’s brother, was shouting that the jury’s shocking decision was “cowardly and racist.” He declared, “In the same way that Lemrick Nelson has the blood of Yankel Rosenbaum on his hands … now the jury has the blood of Yankel Rosenbaum on their hands.”

The knot of Hasidim gathered around Norman Rosenbaum appeared shocked by this incredible miscarriage of justice. The possibility that a jury could find Nelson innocent despite the overwhelming evidence against him seemed unthinkable to all of us. Outraged, we determined to shut down the whole city if that’s what it would take to win justice for Yankel.

Within an hour, 200 protesters crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, blocking traffic, chanting “Jewish blood is not cheap!” At City Hall, we were met by helmeted police in full riot gear.

While we shouted outside, Mayor David Dinkins conducted a press conference inside, saying: “I have no reason to doubt that in this case, the criminal justice system has operated fairly and openly in reaching this conclusion.” His only acknowledgment of the anguish of the Jewish community came in an oblique comment that “some will be disappointed” with a verdict that “somehow leaves one’s sense of justice unfulfilled.”

From City Hall I went directly to Crown Heights, which had exploded into a bedlam of skirmishes between blacks and Jews as the police struggled to prevent another full-scale riot. This time, unlike in the original riot a little more than year earlier, a few young Jews fought back. I walked the neighborhood for hours, trying desperately to cool tempers and prevent violent clashes. At one point, I raced after a group of Hasidim trying to chase down a black youngster, crying out, “This is not the way of Torah!” Thankfully, I managed to convince them to return to the Lubavitch Center.

Afterward, I sought to make clear to anyone who would listen what my stance was: I believed the Mayor was culpable for the events in Crown Heights. In an interview with Sam Roberts of the New York Times, I pointed out that either the Mayor ordered the cops to hold back or someone else had (in which case, it was the Mayor’s responsibility to find out who). But “if the Mayor saw this unfold and passively sat back, then he is culpable.” In fact, several officers told me they had been ordered to step back.

On November 8, 1992, to express our enduring outrage, Beth Gilinsky, head of the Jewish Action Alliance, some rabbinic colleagues and I, leading about a thousand marchers, carried a coffin to the gate of Gracie Mansion. In doing so our rally symbolically laid the slaying of Yankel Rosenbaum at the Mayor’s feet.

That evening, news channels ran short clips of both the Mayor and me angrily accusing each other of inappropriate conduct. I repeated my charge that the Mayor bore ultimate responsibility for having let the gangs vent. The Mayor retorted that I was “racially divisive.” As it happens, that rally turned out to be one of the most effective protest actions I had ever led.

In the wake of the Gracie Mansion event and subsequent spectacle, Mayor Dinkins finally seemed to grasp the obvious: Crown Heights represented the single greatest roadblock to his re-election. With his re-election only a year away, he launched a political offensive to shore up his shrinking Jewish support by giving speeches before Jewish audiences. His mistake was passing over venues of the grassroots Jewish community, such as those living in Queens and Brooklyn, in favor of elite liberal audiences like the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism. But this tactic only exacerbated the Mayor’s Crown Heights problem. For my part, I simply attended these venues to inform the Mayor that the grassroots Jewish community was watching, closely.

At the Mayor’s November 17th speech on black-Jewish relations at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I positioned myself at the entrance. As he entered the room I was able to greet and exchange a brief handshake with a chagrined-looking Dinkins. I like to think that the photo of our encounter, run the following day in many New York papers, gave the message that, from my side at least, the conflict with the Mayor was not a personal one.

What followed wasn’t so cordial however. In his speech, as reported in the New York Post, Dinkins “cautioned that ‘members of the clergy can inflame’ racial tensions, and urged all to ‘be vigilant for the words we choose’ as he stared directly at Rabbi Avi Weiss, one of his harshest critics in the case.”

Despite the apparent success of the Mayor’s outreach campaign to Jewish establishment groups, it was not enough to sway the entire NYC Jewish population to his cause. In an interview with the New York Times, Herbert Berman, a moderate liberal city council member from a heavily Jewish area of Brooklyn, said, “Wherever I go in my neighborhood, people tell me that the Lemrick Nelson situation and an assortment of other affronts have caused them to believe that there is no place for them here. There is a sense among Jews that they are no longer welcome in the city. What frightens me is I don’t think City Hall understands.” This from a man who’d previously been quoted as saying, “The Mayor is being unfairly treated by a number of people,” and that “to call him a murderer is ridiculous.”

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Soon after Nelson’s acquittal, Richard H. Girgenti was commissioned by Governor Mario Cuomo to investigate the city’s actions during the riots. His subsequent report censured Dinkins for having failed to order the police to stop the rioting. While Girgenti found no evidence that the Mayor had intentionally held the police back, he sketched a devastating picture of a disengaged mayor blithely deferring to an almost criminally permissive police chief, whose response to a full-scale civil disturbance was to let the rioters “vent.”

Dinkins took a hit at the polls. He lost his re-election bid in 1993 to Rudy Giuliani, who made the Crown Heights riots a centerpiece of his campaign.

Through community pressure, in 1997, and again in 2003, Nelson was brought up on federal charges of violating Yankel Rosenbaum’s civil rights for which he served a ten-year sentence.

Looking back twenty five years, I am gratified that our demand for justice met with some success. And yet, I have personal regrets. Most notably, I was perceived by some to be anti-black. This has weighed heavily on my heart and soul.

I’m ecstatic, however, that since those troubled times, great progress has been made to bring together the black and Jewish communities in Crown Heights. Setting the tone were several meetings held between Carmel Cato, father of young Gavin killed in the Lubavitch motorcade, and Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of Yankel murdered in the subsequent riots.

On a very personal level, I regret that I have never had the chance to reconcile with David Dinkins. After Rudy Giuliani ejected Yasser Arafat from Lincoln Center in 1995, I debated Koch and Dinkins on MSNBC. I supported Giuliani’s actions, and they opposed it. During that debate, Dinkins did not acknowledge me even once. I wish it could be different. I’d like to make peace with him, but so far it has not happened.

In January of 1994, Mayor Giuliani invited me to his inauguration. I have never been comfortable at formal political events, and, truth be told, I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I felt deep distress that I had been forced to raise a voice against a black leader I had once supported and voted for when he was first elected – a leader who had seemed to offer the hope of bringing a measure of reconciliation between Jews and African-Americans.

As Rudy Giuliani took the oath of office, I sat in the second row seat designated for me, behind former mayor Ed Koch. My mind wandered to the many protests I’d led against Dinkins for his inaction. I would have given much not to have had to protest then, and to not be sitting up front now.

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