factors led to the explosive situation in
the early 1990s, the district had changed completely from a Jewish predominant
to a black majority, from neighborhood to neighborhood, except a few blocks
stretching from Schenectady Avenue on the North to about Bedford Avenue on the
South, and Eastern Parkway on the West to Empire Boulevard on the East, that
are retained by those Jews who preferred to stay in order to be closer to their
world headquarters. The Lubbavitcher
became surrounded by a culturally diverse ethnic group of blacks, mostly from
there are some elements of truth in the Realtors’ blockbusting scare
tactics. After blacks moved in, the
neighborhoods became congested,
services went down, landlords began to neglect their buildings, crime and other
vices began to go up and quality of life in the district plunged. The remaining Jews who could not move out
sought ways to salvage their community and improve quality of life for
themselves. A Hasidic private
surveillance patrol group was formed.
Anti-poverty organizations such as the Crown Heights Jewish Community
Council were formed to work towards revitalization.
Tensions started building between the two groups since from the advent of black integration from the late 1950s. There were charges from the Lubbavitcher community that blacks were bringing crime and deviance cultures into their neighborhoods. Blacks countered this by charges of harassment and illegal searches and interrogations from the Hasidim’s’ private security patrol forces and aggressive solicitations by Hasidim from black homeowners to sell their homes. There were charges and counter charges of beatings and unfair treatments from both groups. There were inequities cited on both sides, but more so by blacks, on political and economic issues such as their relationships with government, distribution of goods and services, redistricting and control of local school board by Hasidim (although they do not send their children to public schools). Typically, blacks also complain that the Lubbavitcher are favored over them by police in parking rights, and police protection including the one given to their leader’s escort entourage and their headquarters despite the constitutional issues of separation of church and state.
elements which contributed to the building up of tensions between the two
communities were some of the actions and rhetoric of local activists such as
Sonny Carson, Al Sharpton, and Mordechai Levy.
In the 1970s, Sonny Carson and his groupies brought into the consciousness
of the black residents of
The Grand Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson, the leader of the Lubbavitcher sect was returning from his weekly visit to his wife’s grave in Queens on August 19, 1991 with his motorcade when at about 8:20 p.m. one of the cars in his motorcade ran a red light at the corner of Utica Avenue and President Street and collided with an oncoming vehicle. The car, a blue colored station wagon being driven by an escort-trainee, Yosef Lifsh, (accompanied by two trainers, Yakov and Levi Spielman) veered off the street onto the sidewalk and killed a seven-year-old Gavin Cato, while seriously injuring his cousin Angela. Both were playing on the sidewalk in front of their apartment building when Gavin allegedly was fixing his bicycle chain at the time. It was not clear whether or not Gavin was killed instantly. Nonetheless, the two children were seen by their neighbors to be bleeding, the blood mixed with liquids leaking from the crashed car’s battery and radiator.
Few minutes later, a Hatzolah ambulance (a private ambulance service operated by the Hasidim) arrived on the scene looking for the patients. At the same instant, a city ambulance had arrived on the scene and was taking care of the two black children.
The police, knowing full well the
atmosphere at the time and the general climate of the neighborhood, ordered the
Hatzolah crew to take care of the injured Hasid driver, Yosef, and to get him
out of the place before a mob turned on him.
The Hatzolah crew did that quickly and drove Yosef away. The situation was instantaneously fitted into
the usual preferential treatment perception in
Activists and Rumor Circulation
In the midst of the hostilities, the police were caught in the middle because each community was charging them with serving only the interests of the other. Rumors were being speedily disseminated from the self-appointed leaders of both communities.
into the first night of the riot, the Hasidic community started accusing the
police of not responding quickly enough to the violence, therefore failing to
protect Jewish lives and properties in the neighborhood. Rumors were disseminated by the Hasidic
leaderships that the 77th precinct received orders from then mayor David
Dinkins not to take any action nor intervene with the riot immediately, because
the Mayor did not want to upset the black community of Crown Heights over the
Jews. The Hasidim demanded that both the
Mayor and his police commissioner Lee Brown be investigated. (Mayor Dinkins was cleared of these
allegations by a state report issued on July 20, 1993.) Meanwhile, the leader of the Jewish Defense
Organization, Mordechai Levy spread the rumor around that blacks were planning
if the driver of the car that killed Gavin Cato was not arrested by 4:00 p.m.
the following day, they were going to start shooting Jews in Crown
Heights. Mordechai allegedly volunteered
some of the members of his violent underground group to go to
The black community on the other hand became enraged that no concern or sympathy was shown over the death of Gavin Cato especially by the Hasidim, and launched their own attacks and rumors.
Led by the activists Sonny Carson, Al Sharpton, C. Vernon Mason, and Alton Maddox, the blacks also manufactured their own rumors and issued their own threats. Embittered over the arrest of Lemrick Nelson and the 15-year old youth, they alleged that Yosef Lifsh was an unlicensed driver and was drunk while driving the car. They demanded Yosef be arrested and charged with the murder of Gavin Cato by p. m., else, they (the leaders) are going to make citizen arrest and bring Yosef to Justice. As “” became part of the chant among the black crowd. They made charges that the police were arresting only black rioters while Jewish offenders were being gently escorted to their synagogue.
While these hostilities were going on, a few politicians and community leaders obviously detested the ugliness of the approaches of the activists and the so-called self-appointed leaders on both side. Behind the scene, the conscientious leaders worked for solutions to the violence and ways to bring the two communities to mutually accepting each other toward a peaceful coexistence. As the result of these efforts in time basketball leagues, and other cultural activities were initiated between the two communities. Indeed, on the following Caribbean Americans’ Labor Day parade, a few members of the Hasid leadership marched with blacks in the celebration of the carnival.
Nelson was acquitted on
question, however, is, do blacks normally react over vehicular manslaughter
cases the way they did in
did not always react towards accidents in the ways as manifested in the
 The Lubavitchers are a
highly orthodox sect of Judaism with their roots from a town now in
 The Rev. Canon Heron A. Sam in an interview
with the Amsterdam News stated that “One of the first acts I undertook upon
assuming office was to write a letter to Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the
spiritual leader of the Hasidic Jewish community informing him of my
appointment to St. Mark’s Church. At the
same time I pledged to him my commitment to cooperation for a strong and
healthy community in which peace and coexistence would be realizable
objectives. His reply was a very curt
note, hand written, in which he said our
communities had nothing in common and there is no need for us to meet”(Amsterdam
News, Saturday, August 31, 1991, p. 9, 82:35).
Just days after the accident that killed Gavin Cato leading to the
murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, the same Rev. Sam was invited by Channel Two news
for a television discussion together with Rabbi Abba Paltiel, a Lubaviticher,
on issues relating to
 While it might be true that Hasidim have
higher birth rates than blacks, the blacks in
 In July of 1978, when political pressures
came to bear, Mayor Koch finally terminated the stationing of a patrol car in
front of the Lubavitcher headquarters on