CROWN HEIGHTS

 

            Many factors led to the explosive situation in Crown Heights that began on the evening of August 19, 1991, between blacks and Jews.  There had been a stockpile of animosity and tension stretching from the early 1960s when blacks, especially of West Indian origins, started integrating the neighborhoods of Crown Heights.  The district was by then predominantly middle class Jewish including the Lubbavitcher sect of Hasidim.[1]  As blacks began to integrate, whites, mostly of Jewish background, started to move out.  There were a lot of blockbusting tactics from Realtors scaring Jewish homeowners about the perils of black integration and the changing neighborhoods which would drive quality of life and property values down and thus, the imperatives of selling their houses early for a good return on their investments.   In contrast to more assimilated Jews, the Lubbavitcher felt compelled to stay, despite the fact that the neighborhoods had changed dramatically, because their world headquarters is located in Crown Heights and the cost of relocation might be beyond their means.  According to Bobo and Hutchings, groups that faced this type of situation (as explained in the rational Self-Interest model) would fight the “invading” group in defense of their neighborhoods and cultural interests.

            By 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 the West Indies interspersed with African Americans, who are totally different from them physically, culturally, and religiously. Compounding with these factors is the theological belief that is held by the Lubbavitcher that gentiles have no virtue or goodness in them and that they have nothing in common, thus should have nothing to do with them.  Given this theological underpinning, we have two communities sharing the same space but living in two different worlds which are diametrically opposed to each other.[2]

            Indeed, there are some elements of truth in the Realtors’ blockbusting scare tactics.  After blacks moved in, the neighborhoods became congested[3], 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.  Crown Heights by the early 1990s consists of the middle class and the poor, black and Jewish; but the overwhelming majority of the poor have been black.

            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.[4]

            Other 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 Crown Heights an existence of inequalities in the way the anti-poverty funds allocated to the district were distributed.  There were errors in his calculation but the black residents preferred to ignore this and became more suspicious and angry at the Hasidim and their anti-poverty organizations.  There were a lot of upheavals over this issue and it left an indelible mark on blacks’ perception in regard to inequities in distribution of the districts scarce resources (see Stern 1991).  From there on, the Lubbavitcher are not to be trusted any longer by blacks and vice versa.  Tensions continue to grow, suspicions between the two communities increase and each group remains at an edge with the other.  Every minor incident in the community is readily decided on both sides in terms of favoritism, inequity, racism or anti-Semitism.  These dispositions led to the eruption on the evening of August 19, 1991 which came to be known as “Crown Heights.”

 

 

 

 

The Incident

            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 Crown Heights by the onlooking crowd which was mostly black.  They accused both the police and the Hatzolah crew of preferential treatment in leaving the two young black children on the sidewalk while quickly wheeling away the Hasidim to quick medical attention.  The situation looked so from a distance if one did not talk to the Hatzolah crew, the police, and the EMS officers on the scene.  It was chaotic.  The news spread like a wild fire and almost all the black residents went up in arms.  Terror gripped the entire neighborhood.  Black teenage groups went on the rampage.  Within few minutes, Crown Heights was on fire; patrol cars were trashed, police officers attacked, Yeshiva vans set afire, bottles were flying and glass was shattering all over.  Black youths were shouting “get the Jews, get the Jews” as they roamed the neighborhoods, beating any Caucasian-looking person, and Jews in particular.  About three hours after the accident, and just few blocks away from where the accident took place, on the same President Street, a Hasid scholar, Yankel Rosenbaum, visiting from Australia, was driving by in his car.  Rosenbaum was stopped by a pack of angry youngsters who were shouting “get the Jew, get the Jew.” He was then assaulted, and stabbed on both sides of his body around the chest and left bleeding on the hood of his automobile.  A day later, Lemrick Nelson, 16 years old and another 15-year-old were arrested and later charged.  The rest of the pack of youth who “acted in concert” with Lemrick and his co-defendant escaped justice because the police could not get any lead as to who they were, and where they lived.  Rosenbaum died a day later at the hospital amid the accusations within the Hasidic community of not receiving adequate medical attention at the Kings County Hospital.  The moods of the black community and that of the Jewish community in the City as a whole became very angry over the deaths of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum respectively.  Blacks were attacking every Caucasian looking person surfacing in Crown Heights, including the representatives of the media, government, and human rights organizations.  Jimmy Breslin, then a Newsday reporter was reportedly beaten and stripped bare of his clothes as he was getting out of a yellow cab onto the scene of the riot as a reporter.  The Hasidim, on the other hand, were attacking every suspect group of black teenagers in the neighborhoods.  For more than three days the situation in Crown Heights was chaotic.  This was exacerbate by the emergence of the self-appointed leaders and spokespersons of the two communities who traded charges, threats, and rumors against each other’s group.

 

 

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.

            Hours 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 Crown Heights to counter the imminent Jewish bloodbath.

            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 4:00 p. m., else, they (the leaders) are going to make citizen arrest and bring Yosef to Justice.  As “4:00 p.m. 4:00 p.m.” 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.

            Lemrick Nelson was acquitted on October 29, 1992 in a state court prompting another outrage from the Jewish community.  He was later arrested again and charged with violation of Rosenbaum’s civil rights on August 11, 1994, and on February 10, 1997, Nelson and his co-defendant Price were convicted of the federal civil rights charges.  Had there been no pressure from the Hasidim and other Jewish leaders, even the civil rights convictions would not have been consummated, and all the people responsible for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum would have continued to be at large.

            The question, however, is, do blacks normally react over vehicular manslaughter cases the way they did in Crown Heights?  The answer is emphatically no.  First, Crown Heights’ case was unique, given the contrast between the two groups who live in the closest proximity of each other and compounded by the religious attitudes of the Hasidim towards their black neighbors.  Both the politicians and the media failed to assess the gravity of these factors, instead only castigating the black community of Crown Heights for having the disposition for riots. 

            Blacks did not always react towards accidents in the ways as manifested in the Crown Heights incident.  In 1986, a black man was beaten to death by a group of six white men in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, after the bicycle he was riding accidentally ran into their automobile.  There was no riot by blacks.  These men were convicted and sentenced up to twenty-five-year jail term (see DeSantis 1991).  However, there is also the perception within the black community that too many blacks had been killed as a result of racial bias incidents; from the choking to death of the subway graffiti artist, Michael Stewart, the shooting to death of a Harlem grandmother, Eleanor Bumpers, by police, the killing of the New York City Transit Authority bus driver, Willie Turks, in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, and that of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, Queens (all in the 1980s).  And then came the (accidental) killing of Gavin Cato by a Hasid.  However, in this case it was the race and group affiliation of the person behind the wheel of the car rather than any criminal bias that incited the rioters and the protesters in Crown Heights.

            Since then, Crown Heights has become the epitome of African American and Jewish relations in the nation and left an indelible mark on the way the two communities perceive each other thereafter.  For Jews across the nation, the ugly specter of some black demonstrators chanting “Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler” and carrying signs that castigated Hitler for “not finishing the job” during World War II, was seen as a betrayal by the black community with which they had formed alliance and fought for justice during the civil rights era.  Blacks on the other side of the divide, hearing the Hasidim using derogatory words like “niggers”, “monkeys”, etc. time and again and during the riots, put the Jews in the same category of the larger white establishment which had, for so long, oppressed and deprived them of their basic human and civil rights.  Indeed, the communities of Crown Heights were torn apart by the violence that emanated from the accident on the evening of August 19, 1991.  It was barely four years after the Crown Heights incident that the few bridges built between the two communities were torn apart again by another explosive incident (as illustrated in chapter 6 below) in which a Jewish establishment called “Freddy’s” was burned down by an African American.

 

 

 

 


 



[1] The Lubavitchers are  a  highly orthodox sect of Judaism with their roots from a town now in Russia called Luvbavichi.  As part of the Hasids originating  from mid-18th century Poland, the Lubavitchers hold that all Jews (pious or ungodly) have a level of good and evil in their souls, but gentiles are not given to any good at all, that the good that they do are based on rational self interest only, therefore, even their kindness is nothing but sinful.  Their leader, the late Menachem Schneerson was considered by his followers as the Messiah on earth and duly respected so.

[2] 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 Crown Heights.  Rabbi Paltiel visibly refused in front of the television audience to sit next to Rev. Sam in the studio.  Such attitudes are typical of the Lubavitchers towards their black neighbors and greatly contributed to the tensions in Crown Heights.

[3] While it might be true that Hasidim have higher birth rates than blacks, the blacks in Crown Heights are mostly of immigrant composition who bunk up in crowded apartments with their extended families.  This is the way most immigrants help their relatives just arriving from their country of origin until they are able to stand on their own.  Crown Heights became congested mainly as the result of this immigrant factor rather than the birth rate.

[4] 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 Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue.  Nonetheless, the police escort service continues for their leader.