Crown Heights riots 20 years later: A referendum on race

OPINION - Two competing narratives have been employed to explain what transpired in this Brooklyn neighborhood in 1991...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

August 19 marks the twentieth anniversary of the infamous Crown Heights riots. In 1991, the Brooklyn, New York neighborhood was rocked by three days of unrest and racial discord that became a flashpoint in black-Jewish relations and altered New York City’s political landscape.

For those who are in need of a recap, this is what happened: On the evening of August 19, 1991, one of three vehicles — part of a motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect — veered onto the sidewalk and killed Gavin Cato, 7, the son of immigrants from Guyana. Gavin’s cousin, Angela Cato, 7, was seriously injured, and lay on the ground for 20 minutes or more as a Jewish ambulance took the driver away. Three hours later, Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hassidic Jewish Australian doctoral student, was murdered after a crowd of African-American teens reportedly shouted “Kill the Jew!”

Lemrick Nelson, Jr., who was 16 at the time, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2003 for fatally stabbing Rosenbaum. Meanwhile, a grand jury refused to indict Yosef Lifish, the driver of the car that killed Cato, who subsequently moved to Israel.

For good or for bad, perhaps more of the latter, the riots and the damage they created became a referendum on race relations. And they were perceived as a defining moment in black-Jewish relations in New York and elsewhere in the nation.

It was a time when the legendary clashes between black community activists and Jewish defense groups received widespread attention, as charges of black anti-Semitism came from the Jewish community, as well as calls to repudiate black leaders. Figures such as Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Jesse Jackson and City College professor Leonard Jeffries had faced scrutiny for comments that had offended members of the Jewish community.

Further, during this time the Anti-Defamation League had accused Rev. Al Sharpton of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism during the period following the riots, which he denied, as black-owned radio station WLIB was targeted by a Jewish activist group for on-air comments made during the riots. Segments of the Jewish community placed blame for Crown Heights at the doorstep of black leadership.

Twenty years later, Ari L. Goldman, a former New York Times reporter, has accused the newspaper of framing the riots as a racial conflict and ignoring what he characterized as “inherent” anti-Semitism. However, other observers have rejected this stereotyped, monolithic view of the black community as haters, and attributed the tensions more to very real “tribal rivalries” over power and real estate.

Two competing narratives have been employed to explain what transpired in this Brooklyn neighborhood in 1991. In the process, these narratives shed light on the history of black and Jewish Americans. A black narrative decries the unequal treatment that the justice system meted out in the two Crown Heights deaths.

While Rosenbaum’s death resulted in a conviction, the death of Gavin Cato led to a man escaping justice and fleeing the country, so the narrative goes. Meanwhile, some black voices have accused the Hasidic community of receiving special treatment, and of treating their black neighbors not unlike the manner in which Israeli settlers treat Palestinians in the West Bank.

One Jewish narrative (and it is only one) characterizes the conflict in Crown Heights as a pogrom against the Jewish community — like the violent mob-led massacres their ancestors faced in Europe, which seem somewhat analogous to the lynchings and race riots waged by segregationist whites against African-Americans under Jim Crow.

Under this narrative, Jewish- and African-Americans worked together during the civil rights movement, with the latter benefiting from strong material support and participation from the former. However, under this narrative, black folks, ungrateful and spiteful, turned their back on their Jewish brothers and sisters under the banner of “Black Power.” Emerging tensions between black and Jewish communities during the Civil Rights movement came to a head in the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville dispute, when black parents in the Brooklyn neighborhood — seeking greater local control over public schools — came into conflict with a predominantly white, Jewish teachers union. Later, disagreements over issues such as affirmative action and the occupation of the Palestinian people only made things worse.

The Crown Heights aftermath made its way into New York City electoral politics in dramatic fashion. David Dinkins, the city’s first and only black mayor, and his police department were accused of failing to act during the riots. Dinkins paid the ultimate price with a failed reelection bid and white backlash, resulting in the rise of Rudolph Giuliani and a Republican Party stranglehold on this predominantly liberal city. And New York, which is also majority-black-and-brown city, has not elected a mayor of color since Dinkins.

Although his supporters praised his “Broken Windows,” crime-fighter approach to cleaning up the streets, Mayor Giuliani was known in black and Latino neighborhoods for his severe and brutal police tactics. Allegations of police brutality, abuse and torture soared under his watch, with nearly 70,000 lawsuits, particularly involving victims of color.

Between 1994 and 1996, police brutality complaints increased 45 percent, according to official city records, and the city paid $70 million in settlements and judgments in police misconduct cases. The following year, New York City paid over $27.5 million. Perhaps this is the most enduring legacy of Crown Heights.

Since the watershed riots, attention on the state of black-Jewish relations has faded. Despite occasional flare ups, the hotbed tensions in Crown Heights have subsided from two decades ago. Although hostilities still exist, bridge-building efforts emerged after the riots, with mixed results and varying degrees of continuity. But the focus is now on issues such as black-on-black violence.

In addition, the community that was once 83 percent African- and Caribbean-American and less than 10 percent white, mostly Hasidic, is now 72 percent black, with increasing numbers of Jews and new immigrant groups. The Jewish community stayed in Brownsville, unlike other cases across the nation where Jewish Americans and other ethnic whites fled for suburbia when the neighborhood began to undergo a blackening — or a browning as it were.

Despite the changing times, it is apparent that it is difficult for old wounds to heal, or for people to move beyond the events of the past, however tragic. A West Hampton, Long Island synagogue postponed a panel discussion on Crown Heights that was to include Rev. Sharpton and other black and Jewish community leaders, after Rosenbaum’s family called Sharpton’s participation an insult, and the panel an attempt at revisionist history.

Typically, discussions of the Crown Heights riots encourage the tendency to romanticize about the Civil Rights era, if not encourage a sense of yearning and grief. In reality, the black and Jewish communities continue to work together — particularly in liberal and progressive circles. And in any case, they never really stopped working in interfaith and interracial alliances, and collaborating on social justice matters, whether in New York, Philadelphia or other cities.

To that extent, Crown Heights received far too much attention and we extrapolated far too much. This, as the media sensationalized a conflict in one Brooklyn community and blew our perceptions of black-Jewish tensions in America out of proportion.

Simultaneously, Crown Heights was imminently important from a political perspective, as it altered the course of New York’s political history and ended the brief stint that was Black Power in the Big Apple. The Big Apple’s African-American and Latino power base has not recovered since.