The Crown Heights Riot & Its Aftermath

By Philip Gourevitch

The Jewish Forward, January, 1993

August 1991 Riot in Brooklyn, New York

Early one evening during the riot in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in August 1991, I stopped in at the 71st precinct station and chatted briefly with Captain Mescolotto, an executive officer who had been called back from vacation to help deal with the mayhem in the area. We spoke as the riot’s third day was turning into its fourth night.

The precinct halls were jammed with uniformed men and women; outside, in the parking lots and along the streets, police vans and cruisers were densely parked, their windows taped against anticipated attack. Similar vehicles could be found a few blocks away, smashed and burned, turned over on their roofs. In those areas near the center of the hasidic community of Crown Heights, there were also hundreds of cops decked out with riot helmets and plexiglass body shields. By the look of it, the forces in blue had secured the neighborhood.

But with each passing day, Jewish residents and their leaders had been increasing the volume of their complaints. The city, they said, was failing to protect them, the rioters were being allowed to rampage unchecked, too little force was being brought to bear, too few arrests were being made, the police were clearly under orders to hold back, law and order were cowering in the face of a mob that only grew wilder as it sensed its full power to intimidate.

I myself had watched the previous day as black rioters hurled rocks and bottles at a throng of Hasidim while policemen stood between the two groups, holding the line but doing nothing to stem the attack. The police were taking the lion’s share of the casualties in these confrontations, but whenever the issue of inaction came up, Mayor David Dinkins and the then police commissioner, Lee Brown, offered tight-lipped denials of any restraining orders and insisted they were doing everything within their power to restore peace to the neighborhood.

Perhaps Captain Mescolotto, who had arrived on the scene only that morning and was still dressed in civilian clothes, had not been fully briefed on the official line by the time I talked to him. Perhaps that was why, when I asked how his officers felt about being restrained, he answered, “They’re flipping out.” What held them back?, I pursued, mentioning that in addition to the TV and press cameras I had noticed a couple of kids among the rioters carrying video cameras. Captain Mescolotto then said of his colleagues, “A lot of them feel that they’re paying the price for Rodney King.”

Rodney King had already become a household name in America by that time, although less apocalyptic in its resonance than now. The famous video tape of the arrest and brutal beating of King by a group of white Los Angeles policemen had been broadcast repeatedly on national television, and while the officers who beat him had yet to stand trial for using excessive force, they had already been convicted in the public mind.

The footage of the prone black man being clubbed and kicked by white men in uniform while others stood by confirmed the traditional historical narrative of race in America, the story of black victimization by white power. And that view of things was only fortified when the men who beat King were eventually acquitted by a white and Hispanic jury in suburban Simi Valley, California, even as the riots that followed the verdict seem to have appalled and frightened Americans as much as the verdict itself.

Analogies between the Rodney King case and the situation in Crown Heights would surface again this past fall as New Yorkers attempted to make sense of a Brooklyn jury’s decision that Lemrick Nelson, Jr., a seventeen-year-old black, was not guilty in the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Orthodox Jew who had been set upon, beaten, and stabbed by a mob of up to twenty young black men on the first night of the Crown Heights riot a year earlier.

After all, the two cases seemed similarly airtight; and just as a predominantly white jury in Los Angeles had exonerated whites against all the apparent evidence, so in Brooklyn a predominantly nonwhite jury exonerated a black against all the apparent evidence. But the comparisons quickly became strained and were ultimately misleading. For if what happened in Los Angeles fit the conventional public understanding of American race relations, the story of Crown Heights turned convention on its head.

That is why Captain Mescolotto’s frank remark was so telling. In evoking Rodney King, Mescolotto was saying, essentially, that whenever blacks began to riot, the reaction of official America and also of the mainstream press would be: here goes another explosion of racial tension, and an explosion of racial tension means that blacks have been pushed to the wall; that some terrible racist incident has caused a battered minority to explode in rage; that we must deal with the event even-handedly, expressing our sympathy with the cause of the rioters and being careful above all not to anger them further.

But there was no cause being championed in Crown Heights, unless one counts lawlessness and anti-Semitism as causes. Nor was the riot, strictly speaking, a minority riot, but rather a rampage by some of the neighborhood’s 180, 000 strong black majority against a Jewish minority of 20, 000. Most importantly, it was a riot not by victims of racism but by racists, an attack on Jews because they were Jews. Blacks shouting anti-Semitic slogans, and explicitly proclaiming themselves the proud reincarnations of Hitler, sought to destroy and/or drive out their Jewish neighbors by force.

In this respect, the event was unprecedented in American history. So deep is the American predisposition to perceive blacks as the victims of racism that when they explode in the role of racists, we lack even the vocabulary to describe it.

In order to give their purpose a name, the rioters themselves summoned up the Nazis; their victims, analogously, reached back in time and across the Atlantic for a word to describe what was happening to them: pogrom. The terms are not altogether inappropriate. In recent years, political anti-Semitism has flourished in the black community.

According to a new study by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), blacks are twice as likely as whites to hold strong anti-Semitic views. Other studies have shown (although the ADL report disputes it) that black hatred follows an inverse pattern to that in the general population, increasing in direct proportion to education and wealth rather than the other way around.

Be that as it may, while Jews speak to one another about black anti-Semitism, it is shockingly rare for white leaders of any creed, let alone for blacks, to speak directly to blacks about anti-Semitism in their extended community.

One exception is the literary critic, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard, who published an op-ed piece in the New York Times this past summer, arguing forcefully that the ultimate damage done by black anti-Semitism is to the political culture of blacks themselves. For his pains, Gates was lain basted by other blacks and received at least ten death threats, and no significant public support.

Derrick Bell, a black professor who left Harvard Law School over its alleged racism, angrily told the Times that “blacks should be very careful about criticizing each other because whites love it so much when they do.” The consequences of this attitude and of the situation it has bred were on display in Crown Heights in August 1991.

If anti-Semitism is entrenched among the black elite, it has also clearly trickled down through all sorts of media the black radio and press, rap lyrics, the teachings of black Muslims and academic Afrocentrists like Leonard Jeffries of City College, and the speaking appearances on campuses of Kwame Toure and Louis Farrakhan as well as through the defensive support these black racists receive from high-profile black activists and clergymen. The most conspicuous anti-Semite plying his trade in the summer of 1991 was Jeffries, whose relentless slurs against Jews enjoyed enormous attention in the press during the first weeks of August. When he was criticized, many mainstream blacks rushed to Jeffries’s defense or kept silent.

Black newspapers like the Amsterdam News and the City Sun; the black radio station WLIB, long an open-air forum for anti-Semitic ranters; and some of the black activists who would later figure significantly in Crown Heights Al Sharpton, Colin Moore, C. Vernon Mason, Sonny Carson, Lenora Fulani all went to bat, expressing their approval of Jeffries’s “scholarship” and denouncing his critics as race baiters. This, then, was the immediate background to the riot.

Not only was anti-Semitism in the ether, it was gathering steam as a loud and increasingly mainstream black movement when a station wagon from the entourage of Menahem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, careered out of control and crashed onto a Crown Heights sidewalk on the night of August 19, crushing to death a black child, seven-year-old Gavin Cato, and leaving his seven year old cousin, Angela Cato, badly injured.

The violence erupted immediately. When the driver of the station wagon, Yosef Lifsh, stepped out of his car with the intention of helping the children he had hit, he was set upon by angry black bystanders who beat and robbed him before the police could reach the scene.

Moments later, an ambulance from the jewish-run Hatzolah service arrived. Police, seeking to remove the object of the crowd’s anger, directed the crew to take away Lifsh and his passengers. Before the Hatzolah vehicle was out of sight a city ambulance had arrived to begin the gory and laborious task of removing the Cato children from beneath the car, but Lifsh’s attackers were enraged at the decision to place him in the first ambulance.

Crying racism, the growing crowd was worked into a lather by a provocateur, described by witnesses as “tall and bald headed, ” who chanted ”Jews, Jews, JEWS.”  When the gathering dispersed, smaller groups ran off in different directions, smashing cars and hurling rocks and bottles at passers by and homes.

Shortly, a mob came upon Yankel Rosenbaum, a twenty nine year old Australian ultra-Orthodox Jew not a Hasid, as the papers still insist on calling him who was in New York to conduct historical research at the YIVO Institute. Rosenbaum was beaten and stabbed by attackers who shouted “Get the Jew” and “Kill the Jew” before fleeing as police arrived on the scene.

Chasing after the scattering assailants, officers nabbed several suspects, including Lemrick Nelson, Jr. They brought him to Rosenbaum, who lay wounded on the hood of a car, and the dying man identified Nelson as his attacker. The police also reported finding a bloody knife and three bloody dollar bills in one of Nelson’s pockets, and DNA testing later established that this blood corresponded to Rosenbaum’s.

Nelson was arrested and taken to the 71st precinct, where, according to the sworn testimony of detectives, he confessed to stabbing Rosenbaum. In the meantime, Rosenbaum was taken to Kings County Hospital, where two of his wounds were treated while a third went unnoticed and continued to bleed. He died shortly after midnight.

Except for one article in an obscure Trotskyitc publication which hailed Rosenbaum’s murder as a “revolutionary act, ” the killing of a Jew in Crown Heights was not championed by anyone at the riot as a boon for black activism.

But Sharpton and Carson and the other demagogues who flocked to the neighborhood over the next days to capture the spotlight as leaders of the “protest” wasted no breath mourning Rosenbaum. Nor did they lament any of the other injuries, fire bombings, looting, and property damage that followed his murder. Instead, they quickly conjured up their own version of events, according to which Gavin Cato’s “murder” at the hands of the Jewish driver was the latest in a series of racial assassinations that included the killings of young black men in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst. By the time of Sharpton’s speech at Gavin Cato’s funeral, the list had expanded to include “the four girls who got killed in Birmingham one morning” during the 1960’s civil rights movement and “brother Malcolm X .”

Separating themselves cunningly from the rioters, but never condemning their violence, Sharpton and his on again off again partner, the lawyer Colin Moore, moved into high gear with a call for the arrest of Lifsh. Even though more than twenty similarly accidental vehicular deaths had occurred in Brooklyn since 1989 without a single arrest several involving local Hasidim run down by blacks Sharpton’s pressure led Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, into convening a grand jury.

The jury found no cause for an indictment, but that did not stop Sharpton, even on the evening of Lemrick Nelson’s acquittal, from continuing to demand a full investigation of the Lifsh case. T

Throughout the three days and four nights of rioting in Crown Heights, and over the days of nonviolent marches that followed, no black leader stood up to denounce the anti-Semitism expressed by the rabble or the rabble rousers. Signs with messages like “Hitler didn't do his job” bobbed over commemorative banners for Gavin Cato.

On the sidewalks, young blacks taunted Hasidim with the teachings of Leonard Jeffries and Elijah Muhammed, the late leader of the Nation of Islam: “You came from Russia and Poland where you slept in caves. You sold slaves.”

Seeing my reporter’s notebook, one rioter stopped to shout: “Write this down. Jews are murderers. The black Hitler is coming this time.” Al Sharpton’s rhetoric peaked at the Cato funeral: The world will tell us he was killed by accident. Yes, it was a social accident .... It’s an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights. It is an accident to think that we will keep crying and never stand up and call for justice .... What type of city do we have that would lie on our children and allow politics to rise above the blood of innocent babies? Have we lost all our moral fiber? ... Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid .... All we want to say is what Jesus said: if you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise, no meetings, no kaffe klatsch, no skinnin’ and grinnin’. Pay for your deeds .... It’s no accident that we know we should not be run over. We are the royal family on the planet. We’re the original man. We gazed into the stars and wrote astrology. We had a conversation and that became philosophy. We are the ones who created mathematics. We’re not anybody to be left to die waiting on an ambulance. We are the alpha and omega of creation itself .... We will win because we’re right. We will win because we’re strong. God is on our side.

Sharpton, who wears a medallion of Martin Luther King, Jr. around his neck, did well by this speech. Newspapers reported the diamond merchants slur, but not a peep was heard from within the black community. No doubt the speech failed to provoke an outcry because it was not surprising, and it was not in the least bit new. It was simply another statement of the going poison of anti-Semitism and Afrocentrism, pitched to the righteous cadences of classic civil rights oratory, a standard issue compression of lies, bigotry, and nationalist swagger.

When I interviewed Sharpton the next month, he was proud to point out that no violence had ever occurred while he was leading a march in Crown Heights, that no pro-Hitler signs had ever appeared in the ranks that followed him. This was true.

But his claim that he had been turning black rage into nonviolent channels was absurd. He abandoned the neighborhood as soon as the fire had gone out in the furnace and there was no apparent advantage to be had in stirring the ashes. Had he and his colleagues stayed away in the first place, the rioters, by all accounts a disorganized, uncoordinated crew of unemployed young men, many of whom did not even live in the neighborhood, might well have scattered the morning after the accident.

On the third day of the riot, at the time that I was speaking to Captain Mescolotto, Mayor David Dinkins was a few blocks away meeting with members of the black community, urging them to “Increase the peace, ” and getting nowhere. Stepping out of a meeting with the Cato family, he was greeted by a barrage of bottles and stones from a crowd that had gathered in the street; he had to retreat into the building before his guards could secure safe passage to his limousine.

That night, the mayor increased the police. By the next evening, force and arrests had checked the uprising. Three days and four nights had gone by. It took another three weeks before Dinkins under pressure not only for his apparent inaction during the riot but also for having seemed to equate the racial murder of Yankel Rosenbaum with Gavin Cato’s accidental death - called Rosenbaum’s killing a “lynching.”

The New York Times article which reported that fact went to great pains to explain why the mayor had not spoken sooner: Although the mayor has condemned the murder of Mr. Rosenbaum again and again, his words have always been clearly aimed at keeping the peace. The mayor was forced to walk a fine line, with black protest leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton crying for the arrest of the driver who killed the boy, and Jewish leaders calling for the arrests of more members of the crowd who attacked Mr .Rosenbaum.

The article then went on to quote from Dinkins’s speech at the Cato funeral (he did not attend Rosenbaum’s): “Two tragedies. One a tragedy because it was an accident. The other a tragedy because it was not.” The perception shared by the mayor and the press that the situation in Crown Heights was two sided, and that both sides required equal respect and equal consideration, bears examination. A staple of mayoral rhetoric, this notion serves a general public desire for a nostalgic view of black-Jewish relations.

Even today, in the wake of the Nelson verdict, there are those in addition to Mayor Dinkins, they include Jesse Jackson, the editorialists of the New York Times, and even leading spokesmen of the non-Orthodox Jewish community who define the problem as one of an interrupted “dialogue, ”a tragic rupture in the black-Jewish alliance to which both sides are understood to have contributed substantially.

In the ongoing search for the “root causes” of the rioting, he still hears little mention of anti-Semitism. Mayor Dinkins, it should be stipulated, seemed determined to do the right thing in Crown Heights. His failure to confront the anti-Semites forcefully was not a function of indifference, malice, or as some have charged racial prejudice. He failed to denounce black anti-Semitism not because he is black, but because he failed to see it. He virtually acknowledged as much in a speech following the Nelson verdict this past November at the Jewish Theological Seminary:

Now I've already spoken repeatedly in the strongest terms about this shameful, inexcusable crime, and of my utter sadness that it was committed by individuals who belong to the one segment of our mosaic that should know in the most personal way just how monstrous a crime lynching is the African American community. But some people are just too tied to the politics of the past they see everything through an ethnic prism and this, brothers and sisters, is the real enemy: not you and I, but this idea of “us” and “them.”... So far, so good; but then it turned out that by “us and them” the mayor had in mind not the black anti-Semites but those who had charged him with responding inadequately to the riot: Some people look at this large and very complicated picture and they see only two things: the mayor is African American and the rioters are African American and they conclude that, therefore, the mayor must have held the police back.

In gross contrast to his kid glove handling of the black demagogues who stoked the rioters for days on end, Dinkins was here attempting to play turnaround with his Jewish critics. For raising questions about his role in Crown Heights, they were being racially divisive: "There is not a single shred of evidence that I held the NYPD back and there never will be. And every time this utterly false charge is repeated, the social fabric of our city tears just a little bit more. It must stop."

To make matters worse, Dinkins warned of a backlash by black lawmakers against Jewish politicians; a warning which some found it hard to distinguish from a threat. But one can accept that Dinkins did not act as he did because he is black, and still argue that as mayor he did not move with appropriate swiftness and force to quell the rioting, or to discredit the claims of the race baiters behind it.

By failing to do so, Dinkins essentially granted immense credibility to those who preached to blacks against Jews. He caved in to them physically by not ordering a police crackdown, and then he caved in to them rhetorically by accepting their terms of discussion.

Those let down by Dinkins in Crown Heights were not only Jews, and not only the city’s white middle class - he had already let Asians down by standing aside during a black boycott of Korean grocery stores the year before - but most blacks as well. Alter all, the rioters in Crown Heights represented only a tiny percentage of the community, and their support within it was far from universal.

At least as often as a black person came up to me to denounce Jews and justify the riots that August, another would come up to me to express neighborly feelings for the Jews and to denounce the riots. These working and middle-class blacks were every bit as terrified as their Jewish neighbors by what was going on in the streets. They had homes and families and jobs; they had their heritage and their religion.

Yet every time they picked up a newspaper or turned on the TV, or just looked out their window, they saw the word “black” identified with the forces of lawlessness and hate. Nobody was offering an equally powerful alternative voice to those forces, not even the mayor of the City of New York.

As the Nelson jury reached its verdict this past November, the city asked for a delay of several hours before it would be announced. Crown Heights and the area around the Brooklyn court house were then flooded with police, in anticipation of black unrest in the case of a conviction. And perhaps there would have been disturbances, although Nelson’s trial had in fact never been taken up as a cause by anyone.

He had spent fourteen months in jail, unable to raise the $150, 000 bail, and aside from his family there was never any significant presence of supporters in the court. Even so, Mayor Dinkins’s response to the not guilty verdict was once again muted, especially when compared with his outright condemnation of the Rodney King verdict last summer.

”It is always difficult when a terrible crime has been committed and no party is found guilty, ” the mayor said. “It somehow leaves one’s sense of justice unfulfilled.”  Once more the mayor’s words were too little, too late (as they would be again when he first opposed and then welcomed a federal investigation into the case). Angry Hasidim poured out of the courthouse and marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, chanting “No justice, no peace.” There was some scattered violence in Crown Heights that night, perpetrated by both Hasidim and blacks, but as the Hasidim like to point out, nobody expected them to riot, and they did not.

The Hasidim of Crown Heights are no Gandhis. They tend to be openly critical of blacks, and their criticisms often smack of bigotry. Moreover, their uncompromising rejection of modern liberal society in favor of anachronistic, separatist ways makes them alien not only to their black neighbors but to just about everyone else, including the majority of their fellow Jews.

It does not, however, prevent them from being fundamentally law abiding. At once anti-individualistic and radically exclusive, the Hasidim are seen by many as, in the words of one local police officer, “pretty basically un-American.” But since when is it un-American to live by the words of that most American of poets, Robert Frost, “good fences make good neighbors”?

To the Hasidim, it is in the American spirit to live as they please, free from persecution. As far as they are concerned, they were minding their own business in August 1991 when they were attacked and the city failed to protect them.

Everything else that might be said, either about the riot or about them, is false or beside the point. Their spirituality and their isolationism have not, however, prevented the Hasidim from becoming a formidable thorn in Mayor Dinkins’s side. They have filed a class action suit against the city, enumerating their claims of inadequate protection during the riot and pointing to the erasure of a month’s worth of 911 emergency phone tapes which they had sought in evidence. In response to mounting criticism, the mayor spent much of November making conciliatory gestures toward Jewish leaders, but these were often tainted by a growing testiness.

He was particularly embittered when a few fliers were distributed among the Hasidim protesting the Nelson verdict, displaying his picture beneath the legend, “Wanted For Murder.” In smaller type, the fliers explained: During the rioting, looting, and assaults in Crown Heights on the night of August 19, 1991, Mayor David Dinkins instructed the N.Y. Police Dept. not to take any action, but to allow the rioters to “vent their rage.” We therefore indict Mayor David Dinkins as an accomplice in the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum.

The accusation was plainly over the top: the quotation cannot be attributed to the mayor or substantiated by any known evidence, and Rosenbaum’s murder took place before any city policy on the riot could have been formulated. Still, as violent reactions go in such charged situations, the flier seemed a relatively mild example of rhetorical excess. If such “Wanted” posters had been the grossest manifestation of rage by South Central Los Angeles blacks after the Rodney King verdict, their designers would probably have been hailed for their creative channeling of anger.

Ironically, it was Dinkins himself who kept the image of the fliers alive.The work of unidentified agitators, the fliers had been roundly repudiated by Jewish leaders when the mayor brought them up again in a special televised address on the eve of Thanksgiving. With pain in his voice, he declared: “The poster identified me by name and by picture .... In burying a seven-year-old boy and a quiet Bible scholar, did we bury decency too?”

By harping relentlessly on the most marginal and absurd charge against him, the mayor plainly sought to paint all his critics as hysterical provocateurs and racists and to place them on the defensive. When he told his Thanksgiving audience that “A few members of the clergy have forsaken the prayer book for the press release, ” he was not speaking of the black reverends who encouraged the Crown Heights riot, but of the Jews who would not let him forget it.

Still, Dinkins admitted for the first time in the Thanksgiving speech that ”errors in judgment” had been made in the police response to the riot, and he said, “When a mistake is made .... I am accountable because the buck does stop here at this desk.” He also acknowledged for the first time that black anti-Semitism played a role in Crown Heights, although the effect of his remark “Hatred, of any kind, whether it is black anti-Semitism or Jewish racism, cannot be tolerated” was blunted by equivocation.

David Dinkins was elected in 1989 as a “racial healer, ” after campaigning against his predecessor, Edward I. Koch, in language not so different from that of the “Wanted” poster he now decries. He is currently at the beginning of his bid for a second term, and the issues that will come back to haunt him in this campaign are the same issues that he stood on in his first campaign: law and order, and racial equality.

He has been accused of acting according to a racial double standard; if he means to regain the confidence of the city’s voters he will have to show the courage to fight the divisiveness that comes from the black community as fiercely as he does that which is turned against it. Simple political arithmetic dictates that in order to win, Dinkins must retain the Jewish support he had in 1989.

A “study” published two years ago by the New York African American Institute at SUNY Albany (the same outfit that sponsored a notoriously anti-Semitic speech by Leonard Jeffries in July 1991) contends that Jews are racists because they voted for Dinkins in smaller numbers than for previous Democratic candidates. But the statistics published in that same report show that Jews voted for Dinkins in larger percentages than any other group of white voters, and that without the Jewish vote he would have lost the election.

Dinkins has been mindful of this, and he has gone out of his way to appear solicitous of Jewish concerns. But the test of the mayor is not what he will say to Jews. It is what he will say to blacks about the black racism, the anti-Semitism, and the lawlessness that were so frighteningly manifested in Crown Heights and that were then tolerated and for too long justified by the mindless application of a false paradigm of black victimization.

A week later, Dinkins came under fire again when he leaped to judge as a bias crime the beating by Crown Heights Hasidim of a black burglary suspect. The quickness and emotion of his response stood in contrast to his delayed reaction to recent Jewish anger and injury.