Crown Heights, 1991

Today happens to be the 20th anniversary of an infamous series of riots and a sectarian murder in New York, something unfortunately still relevant to us today.

Crown Heights is a predominantly black sector of Brooklyn, yet particularly famous for its Hasidic Jewish community. The Crown Heights area is home to the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Hasidim, at 770 Eastern Parkway. 770 was the residence of the famed last Rebbe of the dynasty, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

On August 19th, 1991 the Lubavitcher Rebbe was being driven home from one of his weekly visits to his wife’s grave. A car in the Rebbe’s entourage struck two black children, killing the seven-year old Gavin Cato.  Cato was treated by the volunteer Jewish ambulance service Hatzolah, and transported to a hospital before he died.

Three hours after Cato’s death in hospital a gang of up to 20 black men assaulted and stabbed to death a visiting Australian student, Yankel Rosenbaum. For three days afterward, blacks rioted throughout the neighborhood shouting ‘death to Jews’, looting stores and intimidating the Orthodox Jewish population. The photo of the wounded man and his son above made the front page of the New York Post. Many others easily identifiable as Jews were similarly injured by projectiles or beatings on their way to work, study or prayer.

Several factors along with the sectarian rioting itself incensed the Jewish community. New York’s increasingly unpopular black mayor David Dinkins initially refused to increase the police presence in the neighborhood, and he was slow to recognize or acknowledge the anti-Semitic nature of the riots. The killer of Yankel Rosenbaum, Lemrick Nelson, was freed by a majority black jury despite strong evidence against him. This included his own confession, possession of the murder weapon and the fact a dying Rosenbaum identified Nelson in a line-up. Some of the black members of the jury actually attended a party honoring Nelson as a hero after the trial. Finally, black leader and professional kvetcher Al Sharpton was accused of stoking the flames by making reference to ”diamond dealers” and using similar anti-Jewish rhetoric while eulogizing at the Cato funeral. There was even a prominent banner at the service proclaiming ”Hitler did not do the job”. Such hatred was not displayed against Italian Americans after the notorious murders of black youths at Howard Beach and Bensonhurst by members of that community not long before.

The incident played a large part in the downfall of Democratic Mayor Dinkins and the election of the tough-on-crime Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was first Republican to hold the office since Fiorella La Guardia in the 1940’s (though John Lindsay was elected as a Republican with Liberal support in 1965, he later switched parties). It also led to one of the most fantastic pieces of television ever. Below is the full appearance made by Al Sharpton on the Jackie Mason Show. Sharpton faces a hostile crowd of New York Jews and representatives of the Korean community, who also had complaints against the man for launching a boycott against Korean stores in Flatbush. That boycott had massive racist overtones and was characterized by criminal behavior among black hoodlums, reflecting the racial tensions in  New York at the time. They don’t make TV like this anymore. Look out for the appearance of Curtis Sliwa, the founder and CEO of the Guardian Angels, a group of volunteer anti-crime patrollers. Sliwa certainly schools Sharpton in the debate. The Guardian Angels earned much praise for stepping into Crown Heights when the mayor would not, and Sliwa became a New York City hero for many residents.



About Cranky Notions
Reactionary. That fella from the Norris scandal.

4 Responses to Crown Heights, 1991

  1. Rob says:

    An interesting story which isn’t mentioned anymore. It does illustrate the uncomfortable reality that there are serious issues of anti-Semitism amongst the black community in the US: – little wonder when Michael Richards who played Kramer in Seinfeld went on a racist rant a few years back, the Jewish community in New York were extremely anxious to point out he wasn’t Jewish.

    • Crown Heights has fascinated me for a long time. Clearly, it marked a low-point in black-Jewish relations, which had been going downhill in New York since the ethnic politics of the teacher’s strike in 1968, well before Jesse Jackson’s Presidential run.

      Then there was the response of David Dinkins. Dinkins was/is a progressive leftist who portrayed himself as a ‘healer’ of the racial tensions in New York at the time. When the riots began, Dinkins refused to send out hundreds of reserve officers, claiming the disenchanted poor young involved blacks needed to ‘vent’. He showed startling naivete when it came to the perpetrators. It was less a case of poor blacks attacking signs of wealth or power or than it was plain old bigotry.

      Some Jews also complained the Brooklyn Orthodox community was abandoned by the mainstream, more assimilated, Jewish leadership. Brooklyn Jewry tends to be less left-liberal than the Manhattanites, as well as being more Orthodox in religious make-up. Journalist Sidney Zion led the charge in a piece called ‘Pogrom in Brooklyn’, claiming: ”… a Jew was lynched on the streets of New York, and the great Jewish leaders didn’t even come to his funeral”. Zion later confronted Abraham Foxman of the ADL and said ”You wouldn’t have perceived it as a local issue if it had happened at Congregation Emanu-El”, the historic Reform synagogue on Fifth Avenue.

      • Rob says:

        I was surprised to hear that Abe Foxman did nothing because I thought he was one of the good ones but I saw this letter online from 1998 which mentions his regret over the incident:

        Some classify the Hasidim as ultra-orthodox, although the label is often interchangeable with orthodox. The two groups are somewhat alienated, which might be one reason why the more mainstream community didn’t react as much.

      • Lubavitchers tend to be more engaged (look how they got Jon Voight!) than other communities though.

        Still, considering Giuliani won the mayoral election in 1993 with little over 50,000 votes, it can be said that were it not for Crown Heights and the weak response from City Hall, subsequent New York history would have been very different. Dinkins lost support in the key blocs of the NYPD and law enforcement, as well as Brooklyn’s Jewish community.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: