Crown Heights, 1991
August 19, 2011 4 Comments
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.