Crown Heights riot
The Crown Heights riot was a three-day race riot that occurred from August 19 to August 21, 1991 in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. It pitted black and Orthodox Jewish residents against one another. The riots began on August 19, 1991, after a child of Guyanese immigrants was accidentally struck and killed by an automobile in the motorcade of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of a Jewish religious sect.
Edward Shapiro points out there are many interpretations of what happened:
- differing interpretations emerged regarding its nature and origins....[They] reflected the diverse political, religious, and social circumstances, the differing ideological assumptions, and the divergent understandings of the past by the journalists, sociologists, political activists, and historians who wrote about the riot.
A common interpretation is that the riot unleashed simmering tensions of the Crown Heights' black community against the Orthodox Jewish community. In its wake, several Jews were seriously injured; one Orthodox Jewish man was killed; and a non-Jewish man, apparently mistaken by rioters for a Jew, was killed by a group of black men. Two black men were convicted in federal court and sentenced to long prison terms.
The riots were a major issue in the 1993 mayoral race, contributing to the defeat of Mayor David Dinkins, an African American, who was blamed for an ineffective police response. Ultimately, black and Jewish leaders developed an outreach program between their communities to help calm and possibly improve racial relations in Crown Heights over the next decade.
- 1 Precipitants
- 2 Conflicting community viewpoints
- 3 Riot
- 4 Shooting murder
- 5 Court case
- 6 Impact on the 1993 mayoral race
- 7 Race relations in Crown Heights
- 8 Aftermath
- 9 In popular culture
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
At approximately 8:20 pm on August 19, 1991, Yosef Lifsh, 22, was driving a station wagon with three passengers west on President Street, part of the three-car motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect. The procession was led by an unmarked police car with two officers, with its rooftop light flashing.
The police car and Schneerson's automobile crossed Utica Avenue on a green light and proceeded along President Street at a normal speed. But Lifsh's vehicle had fallen behind. Not wishing to lose sight of Schneerson's car, Lifsh's vehicle either crossed Utica Avenue on a yellow light or ran a red light. There was no indication of the exact speed of Lifsh's vehicle. Lifsh's vehicle struck a car being driven on Utica Avenue, veered onto the sidewalk, knocked a 600-pound stone building pillar down and pinned two children against an iron grate covering the window of a first-floor apartment in a four-story brick building. Seven-year-old Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants, who was on the sidewalk near his apartment on President Street, repairing his bicycle chain, died instantly. His seven-year-old cousin Angela Cato who was playing nearby, survived the hit but was severely injured.
Lifsh believed he had the right of way to proceed through the intersection because of the police escort. Lifsh said he deliberately steered his car away from adults on the sidewalk, toward the wall, a distance of about 25 yards (23 m), in order to stop the car. Lifsh later commented that the car did not come to a full stop upon impact with the building, but rather slid to the left along the wall until it reached the children.
Death of Gavin Cato
Accounts differ as to the next sequence of events. After the collision, Lifsh said that the first thing he did was to try to lift the car in order to free the two children beneath it. The EMS unit that arrived on the scene about three minutes after the accident said that Lifsh was being beaten and pulled out of the station wagon by three or four men. All accounts agree that Lifsh was beaten before ambulances and police arrived. A volunteer ambulance from the Hatzolah ambulance corps arrived on the scene at about 8:23 pm, followed shortly by police and a City ambulance, which took Gavin Cato to Kings County Hospital, arriving at 8:32 pm; Cato was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. Volunteers from a second Hatzolah ambulance helped Angela Cato, until a second City ambulance arrived and took her to the same hospital.
Two attending police officers, as well as a technician from the City ambulance, directed the Hatzolah driver to remove Lifsh from the scene for his safety, while Gavin Cato was being removed from beneath the station wagon. According to the New York Times, more than 250 neighborhood residents, mostly black teenagers, many of whom were shouting "Jews! Jews! Jews!", jeered the driver of the car and then turned their anger on the police.
Some members of the community were outraged because Lifsh was taken from the scene by a private ambulance service while city emergency workers were still trying to free the children who were pinned under the car. Some believed that Gavin Cato died because the Hatzolah ambulance crew was unwilling to help non-Jews. There was a rumor at the time that Lifsh was intoxicated. A breath alcohol test administered within 70 minutes of the accident indicated this was not the case. Other rumors circulating shortly after the accident included: Lifsh was on a cell phone, Lifsh did not have a valid driver's license, and that police prevented people, including Gavin Cato's father, from assisting in the rescue.
Later that evening, as the crowds and rumors grew, people threw bottles and rocks. At about 11:00 pm, someone reportedly shouted, “Let's go to Kingston Avenue and get a Jew!" A number of black youths then set off westward toward Kingston Avenue (0.7 miles (1.1 km) away from Utica Avenue), a street of predominantly Jewish residents several blocks away, vandalizing cars and heaving rocks and bottles as they went.
Conflicting community viewpoints
After the death of Gavin Cato, members of the black community believed that the decision to remove Lifsh from the scene first was racially motivated. They also maintained that this was one example of a perceived system of preferential treatment afforded to Jews in Crown Heights. The preferential treatment was reported to include biased actions by law enforcement and allocations of government resources amongst others. Furthermore, many members of the black community were concerned about the expansion of Jews moving into the neighborhood, believing the latter were buying all of the property.
Members of the Jewish community did not share this view. Many believed that allegations of favoritism made by blacks were not supported by facts; a number of studies disproved the allegations, including one study conducted specifically in response to this allegation. It was widely believed in the Jewish community that these allegations were an attempt to mask blatant anti-Semitism committed against Jews during the riot. As examples, they point to anti-Semitic statements made by protesters throughout the rioting, and comments made at Gavin Cato’s funeral. In his eulogy at the funeral, the Rev. Al Sharpton made comments about "diamond dealers" and commented "It's an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights." In addition, a banner displayed at the funeral read "Hitler did not do the job".
Yankel Rosenbaum killing
About three hours after the riots began, early on the morning of August 20, a group of approximately 20 young black men surrounded 29-year-old Australian Jew, Yankel Rosenbaum, a University of Melbourne student in the United States conducting research for his doctorate. They stabbed him several times in the back and beat him severely, fracturing his skull. Before being taken to the hospital, Rosenbaum was able to identify 16-year-old Lemrick Nelson, Jr. as his assailant in a line-up shown to him by the police. Rosenbaum died later that night. Nelson was charged as an adult with murder and acquitted, but later convicted of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights in federal court; Nelson eventually admitted that he had indeed stabbed Rosenbaum.
For three days following the accident, numerous African Americans and Caribbean Americans of the neighborhood, joined by growing numbers of non-residents, rioted in Crown Heights. In the rioting of the ensuing three days, according to Edward Shapiro, many of the rioters "did not even live in Crown Heights."
An additional 350 police officers were added to the regular duty roster on August 20 and were assigned to Crown Heights in an attempt to quell the rioting. After episodes of rock- and bottle-throwing involving hundreds of blacks and Jews, and after groups of blacks marched through Crown Heights chanting "No Justice, No Peace!", "Death to the Jews!", and "Whose streets? Our streets!", an additional 1,200 police officers were sent to confront rioters in Crown Heights.
On the third day of the disturbances, Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson led a march. The marchers proceeded through Crown Heights, carrying antisemitic signs and an Israeli flag was burned. Rioters threw bricks and bottles at police; shots were fired at police and police cars were pelted and overturned, including the Police Commissioner’s car.
Riots escalated to the extent that a detachment of 200 police officers was overwhelmed and had to retreat for their safety. On August 22, over 1,800 police officers, including mounted and motorcycle units, had been dispatched to stop the attacks on people and property.
By the time the three days of rioting ended, 152 police officers and 38 civilians were injured, 27 vehicles were destroyed, seven stores were looted or burned, and 225 cases of robbery and burglary were committed. At least 129 arrests were made during the riots, including 122 blacks and seven whites. Property damage was estimated at one million dollars.
On September 5, two weeks after the riot had been controlled, Anthony Graziosi, an Italian sales representative with a white beard dressed in dark business attire, was driving in the neighborhood. As he stopped at a traffic light at 11 pm, six blocks away from where Yankel Rosenbaum had been murdered, a group of four black men surrounded his car and one of them shot and killed him. It was alleged by Graziosi's family and their attorney, as well as Senator Al D'Amato, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, State Attorney General Robert Abrams, former Mayor Ed Koch, and a number of advocacy organizations, that Graziosi's resemblance to a Hasidic Jew precipitated his murder. The New York Police Department, Mayor Dinkins, newspaper columnist Mike McAlary, and the U.S. Justice Department did not agree. The murder was not treated as a bias crime.
A Grand Jury composed of 10 Blacks, 8 Whites, and 5 Hispanics found no cause to indict Lifsh. District Attorney Charles J. Hynes explained that under New York law, the single act of "losing control of a car" is not criminal negligence, even if death or injury resulted. Lifsh waived immunity and testified before the Grand Jury. About an hour after hearing Lifsh’s testimony, the Grand Jury voted not to indict him. Subsequently, Lifsh moved to Israel, where his family lives, because his life was threatened. In Israel, Lifsh settled in the Lubavitch village of Kfar Chabad.
Afterwards, Hynes fought unsuccessfully for the public release of the testimony that the grand jury had heard. His lawsuit was dismissed, and the judge noted that more than three-quarters of the witnesses who had been contacted refused to waive their right to privacy. The judge also expressed concern for the witnesses' safety.
Impact on the 1993 mayoral race
The Crown Heights riot contributed to the defeat of David Dinkins in his second mayoral bid. He was attacked by many political adversaries in his reelection bid, including vocal proponents of “black nationalism, back-to-Africa, economic radicalism, and racial exclusiveness.”
On November 17, 1992, New York Governor Mario Cuomo gave the Director of Criminal Justice Services, Richard H.Girgenti, the authority to investigate the rioting and the Nelson trial. The Girgenti Report was compiled by over 40 lawyers and investigators, and consisted of a two-volume, 600-page document of its findings on July 20, 1993. It was extremely critical of Police Commissioner Lee Brown. The report also embarrassed Dinkins on his handling of the riots. However, the report found no evidence to support the most severe charge against Dinkins and Brown: that they had purposely delayed the police response in order to allow rioters to "vent" their rage.
The first night of the riot, Dinkins, along with Police Commissioner Lee Brown, both African Americans, went to Crown Heights to dispel the rumors about the circumstances surrounding the accident, but they had no impact on the rioters, most of whom were young black men.
In a 16-minute speech on the Thanksgiving holiday following the riot, Dinkins rebutted allegations that he had prevented police from protecting citizens in Crown Heights. The Jewish community believed Dinkins failed to contain the riot and failed to exercise his responsibility, to the detriment of the Jewish community.
Use of the term "pogrom"
The Crown Heights riot was an important issue raised repeatedly on the campaign trail in the 1993 mayoral election. According to Edward S. Shapiro, politicians opposed to Mayor Dinkins used the word pogrom to characterize the riot in order to discredit the mayor's response to the riot, writing "the controversy over how to define the Crown Heights riot was not merely an issue of semantics."
Rudolph Giuliani, who would become the next mayor of New York, called the Crown Heights riot a "pogrom" on 1 July 1993 in a speech at Bay Ridge, Brooklyn: "You can use whatever word you want, but in fact for three days people were beaten up, people were sent to the hospital because they were Jewish. There's no question that not enough was done about it by the city of New York. One definition of pogrom is violence where the state doesn't do enough to prevent it." Other political opponents to Dinkins used the term, including Ed Koch, who had been defeated by Dinkins in the 1989 Democratic mayoralty primary, and Andrew Stein, a candidate in the 1993 Democratic mayoral primary. The term had been used previously in 1991 by journalists such as A. M. Rosenthal in the New York Times and Eric Breindel in the New York Post, and politicians such as New York City Councilman Noach Dear and later by Judah Gribetz, president of the JCRC of New York. By September 1991 it had become routine within Jewish circles to describe the riot as a pogrom and would remain so for some Jews a decade later, as shown by articles in publications such as Jewish Week, Jerusalem Post, The Forward and The Jewish Press, and others went further calling it "America's Kristallnacht".
Use of the word was rejected by Dinkins and his supporters, primarily on the basis that a pogrom needs to be state-sponsored. Dinkins said "To suggest that this is [a pogrom] is not to contribute to the resolution of the problem but to exacerbate tensions and problems that are there." Dinkins was personally offended by the use of "pogrom" since it insinuated that the riot was state-sanctioned and that he personally was an antisemite. "I am incensed by it... [it is] patently untrue and unfair."
Michael Stanislawski, Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, wrote in 1992 that it was "historically inaccurate" to couple "pogrom" with Crown Heights, because the word denoted organized violence against Jews "having some sort of governmental involvement." Journalists also disagreed with the use of the term, including Joyce Purnick in the New York Times, Earl Caldwell in the New York Daily News, and an article in The City Sun. Al Sharpton said that Giuliani was engaged in "race-baiting" by using the word "pogrom." Henry Siegman and Marc D. Stern of the American Jewish Congress also publicly rejected the term.
In 2011, shortly before the twentieth anniversary of the riots, an editorial in The Jewish Week wrote: "A divisive debate over the meaning of pogrom, lasting for more than two years, could have easily been ended if the mayor simply said to the victims of Crown Heights, yes, I understand why you experienced it as a pogrom."
Race relations in Crown Heights
Relations between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights began to improve almost immediately following the rioting. Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden summoned the leaders of each of the ethnic communities to Borough Hall within days after the riots ended, creating what became known as the Crown Heights Coalition. The Coalition, led by Edison O. Jackson, the then President of Medgar Evers College and Rabbi Shea Hecht, Chairman of the Board of the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE), functioned for ten years as an inter-group forum in which to air neighborhood concerns and work out issues. Golden used the Coalition to initiate interracial projects designed to promote dialogue. One project involved sending a Jewish leader and a Black leader together in a pair to public intermediate and high schools in the area to answer questions from the children about each other's cultures.
A week after the riots, Hatzolah helped repair an ambulance of a black-owned volunteer service. The following year, the Brooklyn Children's Museum held an exhibit on the contributions made by blacks and Jews in New York. In 1993, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was active in promoting improved black-Jewish relations. In 1993, a series of neighborhood basketball games were scheduled between the two groups, including a scrimmage held as part of the halftime entertainment of a New York Knicks vs. Philadelphia 76ers professional basketball game. Also that year, Rabbi Israel Shemtov, whose anti-crime patrol had long been perceived by many black residents as biased against them, rushed to the aid of a black woman who had been shot on the street in Crown Heights, putting her in his car and taking her to the hospital. The Crown Heights Mediation Center was established in 1998 to help resolve local differences, also a direct outcome of the Coalition. On August 19, 2001, a street fair was held in memory of Cato and Rosenbaum, and their relatives met and exchanged mementos of hopes of healing in Crown Heights.
To this day, the demographics of Crown Heights remains largely the same as it did in 1991; Jews did not flee from Crown Heights, and the Lubavitch population of Crown Heights increased after the riot, with the area in which they reside having expanded.
In popular culture
- On the sketch comedy show In Living Color, the 1991 season 3 premiere episode did a sketch parodying West Side Story called Crown Heights Story.
- A 2004 television movie, Crown Heights, was made about the aftermath of the riot, starring Howie Mandel.
- Two episodes of Law & Order, one during season two and another during season four, were based on the riots.
- Anna Deveare Smith wrote a play called Fires in the Mirror, depicting 29 real-life interviews with actual people involved in the riots.
- Brooklyn Babylon, a feature film starring Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and The Roots, presents a fictionalized version of Crown Heights neighborhood unrest in the 1990s.
- The 2011 ABC Australian documentary "Death in Brooklyn" by Tracey Spring.
- New York City teachers' strike of 1968 – which took place immediately to the east of Crown Heights in Brownsville and was another chapter in African-Jewish American relationships.
- Edward S. Shapiro, "Interpretations of the Crown Heights riot." American Jewish History (2002) 90#2 p: 97
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- Shapiro, Edward S. Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brooklyn Riot (U. Press of New England, 2006) link