Reactions to the Riots in Crown Heights

The Crown Heights riots started on August 19, 1991 when a driver, Yosef Lifsh, of the motorcade escorting the former grand rebbe, lost control of his vehicle and crushed two black children, Gavin Cato and his cousin Angela. The violence started as soon as Lifsh stepped out of the vehicle intending to help the children. A crowd of angry black bystanders started to beat him and rob him. When the police and the Jewish medical ambulance arrived on scene the police directed them to take the Jewish driver first in order to remove the source of anger. Then soon after the ambulance left, the city hospital came and took the children to the hospital. Angela survived, however, Gavin died from his injuries. [1]

Gavin Cato

Shortly after the accident, many rumors were spread about the accident. There were false rumors saying that the driver was drunk and had no driver’s license. Additionally, many blacks witnessed Lifsh being taken care of first and were infuriated. As a result, a rumor had spread that the police and the Jewish ambulance showed preferential treatment towards the Lifsh and that if they had treated Gavin first, he might not have died. [2] These rumors spread quickly and the resentment from the false rumors soon exploded into violence, which included fire-bombings, looting, the throwing of rocks and glass bottles, and property damage. Three hours after the accident, a mob of black teens seeking revenge found Yankel Rosenbaum, an Orthodox Jewish scholar from Australia, and started to beat him up and stabbed him multiple times. The police found the suspect, Lemrick Nelson, Jr. and Rosenbaum was able to identify Nelson as his attacker before he died. [3] Rosenbaum was expected to survive because his wounds were not fatal, however, the hospital staff missed one of his wounds and he passed away a few hours after the mayor’s visit. [4] This mournful night was the start of the three days of violence and rioting in Crown Heights.

Yankel Rosenbaum

Many people reacted to this riot in many different ways which added to the increasing tensions. Past tensions between Jews and blacks have contributed to the different responses to the riots. There are many different causes for the tension between blacks and Jews such as economic clashes, a difference in class, Jewish racism, and black anti-Semitism, and intensity of discrimination. [5] Prior to this event, the Jewish in the neighborhood felt like Crown Heights was a perfect example of integration. However, blacks had a very different view on the coexistence of blacks and Jews. According to Dr. Vernal Cave, who had been a resident in Crown Heights for 36 years, “The Hasidim set up an apartheid situation in Crown Heights.” [6] Cave mentioned how Jews would receive preferential treatment from the police and on Saturdays, Jews would close their shops and block off the streets near their synagogues.  An important event that occurred in Los Angeles five months before really affected people’s reactions towards the riot. This was the infamous case of police brutality towards Rodney King. A video of the sickening act was widespread throughout the country and was a symbolism of the racism that was still prevalent in the nation. It caused many people to sympathize “the traditional historical narrative of race in America, the story of black victimization by white power.” [7] However, it also affected how the media, police, and mayor reacted to the riots.

The media incorrectly portrayed the riots as violence between blacks and Jews, emphasizing the racial frame of the riot. For example, the New York Times put out an article saying, “Hasidism and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn … yesterday as the two communities, separately and bitterly, each mourned a member killed, one is a traffic accident and the other stabbed in the racial melee that followed.” [8] This implied that the riots that followed were solely based on a racial conflict and that both blacks and Jews were being violent towards each other.  However, the riot was, in fact, a very one-sided violence of a black majority against the Jewish minority. There were hardly ever accounts of Jewish violence against blacks, and it was mostly black demonstrators that would throw rocks and bottles at Jews and loot local businesses. Media outlets failed to report about the anti-Semitism that was inherent during the riots and only focused on the racial frame. For example, in addition to signs commemorating Gavin’s death, there were signs saying, “Hitler didn’t do his job.” [9] Additionally, there were some demonstrators that would yell, “Heil Hitler,” “Death to the Jews” [10] and there was even one rioter who yelled at a journalist, Philip Gourevitch “Write this down. Jews are murderers. The black Hitler is coming this time.” [11] Additionally, the article implies that the deaths were equal morally and had equal weight in both communities. This is an incorrect view of the deaths because the death of Gavin was accidental, while the stabbing of Rosenbaum was deliberate and intended to hurt him. The media’s failure to report on the anti-semitism present in the riot showed how reporters were inclined to view conflicts with blacks as cases like the Rodney King’s case where blacks are the victims of oppression.

A flipped police car during the Crown Height riots.

The reactions of the police and the mayor were also very influential towards the riots. On the night of the incident, Mayor Dinkins visited the Gato children’s fathers and Rosenbaum before he died. When Dinkins initially heard about the riots, he was misinformed. He heard that the police had the neighborhood under control. As a result, when he visited Crown Heights two days into the riots, on Wednesday evening, he was astonished and furious to see the chaos and destruction in Crown Heights. [12] On that Wednesday afternoon, before visiting Crown Heights, Mayor Dinkins and Police Commissioner Brown Lee went to a press conference informed the press that they had the rioting under control and that the police did a good job restraining themselves even with the bottles and rocks being thrown at them. [13]

Police protecting themselves from the rain of bottles and rocks from the protesters.

On the contrary, the police did not have the situation under control and were seen to be complacent and not doing enough to stop the riots. On Tuesday night, the violence intensified so much that the police were forced to retreat. At the end of the night, “four businesses had been looted, a number of police cars damaged and several individuals assaulted, but the police had made only 12 arrests.” [14] During the riots, Commentary journalist, Philip Gourevitch witnessed “black rioters hurled rocks and bottles at a throng of Hasidim while policemen stood between the two groups, holding the line but doing nothing to stem the attack.” [15] The Jewish leaders complained that the police weren’t doing enough to stop the riot and were just allowing the rioters to destroy the neighborhood. There were not enough arrests and they weren’t using enough force. As a result, a few Jews assumed that the police were under orders to hold back and accused the police and mayor of inaction. [16] There were many views as to why the police hesitated to assert force. Gourevitch asked Captain Mescolotto why he thought the police were holding back, he revealed that the police felt restrained and held back because “a lot of them feel that they’re paying the price for Rodney King.” Many were hesitant to be caught on tape showing force towards a black person. [17] According to Ray Kelly, the first deputy commissioner during the time, there “the commanders on the ground were hesitant because they were trying to read the political tea leaves. You had an African-American mayor, African-American police commissioner, African-American chief of the department. So I think they weren’t certain as to which way the administration wanted them to go.[18] The reactions from the police force showed how they felt that this was a racial conflict and that if they forcefully put down the rioters, then they would also be part of the racial conflict.

When Dinkins and Police Commissioner Brown visited Crown Heights on Wednesday evening, to speak about the issue, he was faced with a crowd that jeered and threw rocks and bottles at him. After that, he realized the how serious and out of the control the riots were, he held a meeting with the Police Commissioner Brown to discuss the policing tactics and demanded that the police do whatever they could to stop the riots. On Thursday, August 22, 1,800 police officers were equipped with helmets and nightsticks and ready to face the rioters. The police were able to control the crowds by outnumbering them and making arrests before the crowd got violent. These new police tactics were working and by Friday morning, the streets of Crown Heights were quiet. [19]

The initial reactions to the Crown Heights riots by the media, police, and the mayor had a big impact on the riots and the aftermath. The mayor’s initial response underestimated the severity and caused the riots to get out of control. After realizing his mistake, he quickly made a plan of action with the police to stop and control the riots. Even after the riots ended, Dinkins made efforts to visit the Crown Heights community and reconcile the blacks and Jews. However, the media and the public saw his lateness to respond as incompetency. Resultingly, he lost the reelection in 1993. [20] The police’s initial reaction to the riots was hesitancy to use force, and that allowed the protesters to wreak havoc in the community. Finally, the media’s initial response to the riots was framing it as a racial conflict between blacks and Jews. The response from the media and late reactions of the police and mayor fueled the violence and prolonged the riots.