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The Crown Heights riots, 30 years later: Insiders recall tense three days between the mayor and the Jewish community

In the summer of 1991, following an accident that killed a young Black child and the fatal stabbing of a Hasidic yeshiva student, tensions erupted between the Jewish and Black communities in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. In the riots that ensued, more than 200 people were injured. Property damage was extensive.

Jewish leaders accused then Mayor David Dinkins of restraining the police and allowing rioters to harm the Jewish community.

Thirty years later, the local Orthodox community mobilized to elect Eric Adams, the first Black mayor since Dinkins. And despite a recent uptick in violent antisemitic incidents, years of efforts to establish coexistence and build relationships are bearing fruit.

The Forward spoke with aides for the former mayor, who died last year, and leaders of the Crown Heights Jewish community ahead of the anniversary on August 19.

Dinkins ran on a platform of racial healing after defeating three Jewish candidates in the Democratic mayoral primary in 1989, including incumbent mayor Ed Koch. But despite being a champion on Jewish issues and having a pro-Israel record, Dinkins had a hard time earning the support of New York Jews. His tenure was doomed by soaring violent crime, and his response to the Crown Heights riots tainted his legacy well after his re-election defeat in 1993.

‘This community felt completely abandoned’

The violence broke out after a vehicle in the motorcade of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, struck and killed Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old Black child. Later that evening, Yankel Rosenbaum, a Chabad student from Australia, was stabbed, succumbing to his injuries at the hospital. The deaths kicked off three days of violent street demonstrations in the neighborhood. They were fueled by a group of outside activists, led by Rev. Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson, who marched in the neighborhood demanding the arrest of the driver, who was Israeli, and spouted antisemitic slurs while the police officers were told to stand down and not interfere.

At one point, rocks were being thrown at Hasidic Jews outside the Lubavitch headquarters on 770 Eastern Parkway, but no action was taken and no arrests were made. On the other side of the street, community leaders met and created an emergency committee to speak in one voice and coordinate efforts to prevent retaliation.

Dinkins, who visited the families of the victims at the hospital and came to Crown Heights to meet with the police and Black and Jewish leaders, was accused by some Jewish leaders of allowing a “pogrom” to take place.

Members of the Crown Heights community, who shared their experience on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the events, described the city government and law enforcement’s handling of the situation as troubling.

“This community felt completely abandoned,” said one key leader who was in the room. “We felt that there was too much acts of violence against Jews and Jewish institutions. And Dinkins, who may have been a very fine and upright person, failed because he didn’t catch what was going on.”

Sol Drimmer, a resident who was involved in the efforts to calm the situation, described Dinkins’s conduct as “complete inaction” and alleged that the mayor’s reaction was to “let them vent.”

“We were basically talking to the wall,” Drimmer said.

Herbert Block, who served as Jewish liaison to Dinkins, insisted that the order given by City Hall was to quell the violence. “Mayor Dinkins, from the very moment the protests began, made it clear that the police needed to get that under control, and there should be no violent reaction by the community to what happened,” he said.

Rabbi Bob Kaplan, the founding director of the Center for Community Leadership at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, suggested the frustration was due to a lack of relationships between the two communities. The neighborhood was going through demographic changes, making it difficult to diffuse the situation on a localized level.

Shea Hecht, who served as one of the community’s representatives to the media at the time, said that the outside agitators were drawn to the neighborhood because the Lubavitch community was the center of attention and a “guaranteed hit target” for those looking to express their anger. He blamed City Hall for not knowing what was happening on the ground.

Damage control, outreach and the emergence of Rudy Giuliani

Block acknowledged that while it was ultimately the failure of the police to stamp out the violence, Dinkins bore the responsibility for what happened under his watch. But he maintained that City Hall “made extensive efforts to get the police to control the situation and to also be on the ground in Crown Heights in dialogue with the community and try to solve and address some of the underlying tensions that led to the riots.”

In an interview, Jeremy Burton, who started working in the Dinkins administration in the spring of 1992, recalled how the former mayor worked to deal with the fallout of the events by engaging with the community and making an effort to restore relations. Burton was later tapped to serve as deputy director of a newly-created office of Jewish community affairs.

“Nobody had any illusions that we could retroactively fix what happened in the summer of ‘91,” he said.

Burton said Dinkins also never expected to earn the vote of the Orthodox community in his re-election bid. Exit polls showed Rudy Giuliani, the Republican candidate, received close to 70% of the Jewish vote, including nearly 100% of the Orthodox community.

But what mostly “hurt him was the language shifting from riots to pogroms, that implied the violence was aided by the government, at a time when he clearly understood that the administration has failed this community, and that we needed to show that we would do better going forward.”

“I think, had he been re-elected, I think that productive relationship could have grown and continue to be strengthened,” Burton added.

30 years later, the Orthodox rally behind a new Black mayor

Kaplan, who was at the time of the riots associate executive director of Hillel in New York, said that both communities have “worked hard over the past 30 years to develop lines of communication,” and the police department has learned a lot of lessons about community relations that would prevent such events from occurring again.

Hecht said the progress made in relations between the community and government in the past two decades took a negative turn amid an uptick in antisemitism and crime in recent years. This was compounded by a deteriorating relationship between the Orthodox community and Mayor Bill de Blasio since the COVID-19 outbreak. But he said he remained hopeful that Adams, who ran on a message of public safety, would be more attuned to the needs of the community and avoid the missteps of the past.

“I would not expect Adams to respond the way Dinkins responded, and there’ll be more people in the Orthodox world who would be able to pick up the phone and call Adams and he would probably answer us,” Hecht said.

Chanina Sperlin, a leader in the Crown Heights community who hosted a fundraiser for Adams last week, said the presumptive next mayor “has proved himself over and over again” as a close friend of the community and has earned their trust in leading the fight against hate and antisemitism.

Burton, who is now executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said that watching New York politics from afar, he wonders whether the community isn’t less divided than it was 30 years ago in terms of how it engages with City Hall. Moreover, he maintained that it appears that there is “certainly awareness and sensitivity of government officials in New York to the Jewish community and I don’t think today a mayor of New York City will allow events to unfold in the way they did 30 years ago.”

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