Posted on August 21, 2021

Could the Crown Heights Riots Recur?

Elliot Kaufman, Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2021

“The most serious anti-Semitic incident in American history,” as historian Edward S. Shapiro describes it, took place precisely 30 years ago when a mob took over the streets of Crown Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. Rioters killed one Orthodox Jew and beat dozens. Thousands were forced into hiding while windows shattered, police watched and Mayor David Dinkins stayed aloof. Members of the crowd shouted “Hitler should have finished the job” and “Death to the Jews.” Yet then as now, many liberals hesitated to pass judgment.

The Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish population has been growing in Crown Heights since 1940, but the neighborhood around it has changed. In 1960 Crown Heights was 71% white and 27% black. By 1970 the numbers had flipped. By 1990 it was around 80% black, including a large Caribbean-American population.

What happened is no mystery. As Jimmy Breslin wrote in 1993, “in all of America, wherever a large group of blacks settle, every white in sight flees.” Irish, Italians and other Jews left Crown Heights. But “the Lubavitchers do not run,” Breslin wrote. “These people in hats and beards are better than any other whites because they stayed and everybody else ran.” They might not have marched for civil rights in Selma, Ala., but neither did they decamp to the suburbs.

On the night of Monday, Aug. 19, 1991, the Lubavitcher rebbe was returning home from a visit to a cemetery. His motorcade’s third and final car, driven by Yosef Lifsh, had fallen behind and sped to catch up. Either running a red light or making a yellow one, his car collided with another at a Crown Heights intersection. It veered onto the sidewalk and struck 7-year-old cousins Gavin and Angela Cato. Gavin was killed, Angela seriously injured.

Mr. Lifsh got out and attempted to help, but a crowd began to beat him and his passengers. Nearby police struggled to control the situation until two ambulances arrived, one from Hatzalah, a volunteer Orthodox Jewish organization, and one from the city. Thinking quickly, officers ordered Hatzalah to take the injured Lubavitchers, while city medics attended to the children. That launched a rumor that the Jewish ambulance service had cared only about Jews and left Gavin Cato to die.

The crowd swelled for several hours on the hot summer night. Rumors spread that Mr. Lifsh had been drunk or had run down the children on purpose. Charles Price, a heroin addict and petty thief, was vocal. “We can’t take this anymore. They’re killing our children,” he said, according to witnesses. “The Jews get everything they want. The police are protecting them.” Finally, he made a move: “I’m going up to the Jew neighborhood. Who’s with me?”

Police were slow to mobilize. Had they arrived in force sooner, it’s possible the disturbance could have been limited to the accident scene. Instead, bands of youths split off, leaving a wake of destruction. Ten to 15 of them spotted Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, who was visiting from Australia to conduct archival research on Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe. Witnesses heard Mr. Price shout, “There’s one! Let’s go get him!” Rosenbaum was stabbed four times in the back and beaten, suffering a fractured skull. He died in the hospital after doctors missed one of his wounds.

The New York City Police Department chief, the highest-ranking uniformed officer, had retired four days earlier, and his replacement was on vacation. It was also the chief of patrol’s first night on the job. Nobody took charge, and police readied the next day only for demonstrations. But on Tuesday afternoon, the Rev. Al Sharpton and other agitators arrived to demand Mr. Lifsh’s arrest and threaten to take justice into their own hands. The protest that followed turned into an anti-Semitic hatefest and then a riot bigger than the previous night’s.

Eli Eber, proprietor of Eber’s liquor store, remembers guarding his shop, ready to shoot in self-defense. “We were like in a ghetto—surrounded,” he tells me. “There was police, but they didn’t do nothing.” Assistant Chief Thomas Gallagher, the police field commander, later explained that he exercised restraint because he believed aggressive action would aggravate the situation. The police union would threaten a job action amid the riot over the restrictive rules of engagement.


Jews were pelted with stones, pulled out of cars and attacked. A mother hit by a rock thrown through her window called 911 six times as rioters shook her door, but police never came. Almost half the 911 calls in the area were disposed of by operators as “unfounded,” an improbably high figure, according to state investigators. Many other calls were found to have been wrongly awarded low priority.

Told to hold the line, nearby police stood as hundreds of rioters threw objects. Eventually police were ordered to retreat. In what Mr. Shapiro calls “one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of the force,” around 200 NYPD officers turned away from the riot and ran haphazardly to their precinct. Only 12 arrests were made Tuesday night, and riots were ended not by police but heavy rain.

Police Commissioner Lee Brown held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to say the situation was under control. But police didn’t change tactics and kept deploying cops to fixed posts. That containment policy left the Jewish community at the mercy of roving bands, and there was no plan to end the violence.

Less than an hour after the press conference, the commissioner was himself attacked in Crown Heights and had to call a Code 10-13 for help. Nine officers were wounded coming to his aid. Eight others were shot and wounded that day, along with two motorists. Even Dinkins found himself under attack Wednesday after a meeting in the neighborhood. “Will you listen to me, please?” New York’s first black mayor pleaded with a crowd. People shouted “No!” and threw bottles.


Dinkins had to catch himself midsentence when he told a reporter Wednesday night, “I’m going to instruct the police commissioner—not that he needs instructions along these lines—to enforce the law.” Police brass did need that instruction, argues Brendan Finn, a lecturer at John Jay College and a former NYPD officer, in a 2012 book. Chiefs knew how to put down a riot, but “any action without direction” from City Hall “would be career suicide,” he writes. Ever since John Lindsay’s mayoralty (1966-73), confrontation with minority rioters had been too great a risk for senior officers. “Whatever you do, don’t do anything” became the prevailing wisdom, Mr. Finn writes. Much of the brass wasn’t going to budge, even after days of riots, unless Dinkins gave the order. Once he did, the riot ended.


{snip} Nabbing instigators didn’t provoke violence; it snuffed out the riot. {snip}


Incompetence is the charitable explanation. Dinkins had also allowed a racist boycott of Korean-owned grocery stores to go on for 16 months. Starting in 1990, black radicals led by Sonny Carson held signs that read: “Don’t Buy From Koreans.” They “shouted about slitting the throats of ‘slant-eyed gooks’ and threatened anyone who entered,” according to the Manhattan Institute’s Fred Siegel, who lived nearby. Retired NYPD chief Ray Powers later said word was sent from City Hall not to enforce a court injunction that banned picketing within 50 feet of the stores. {snip}


The threat of black nationalist anti-Semitism had been brewing for some time. Dorothy Rabinowitz, now with the Journal, wrote in 1978 that in Crown Heights “the public expression of anti-Semitic sentiment, as a means of conveying political antagonism, seems now to have become normal.” She cited “explicitly anti-Jewish tirades of Crown Heights leaders, the threats to burn down Jewish houses, the enlistments to riot.” {snip}


Liberal accounts strained for evenhandedness. Typical was the New York Times’s Aug. 21, 1991, headline: “Two Deaths Ignite Racial Clash in Tense Brooklyn Neighborhood.” But this was no clash; it was an attack on innocent Jews. {snip} Times reporter Ari Goldman later wrote that editors in Manhattan distorted the stories he phoned in from the field to fit a racial “frame” of white vs. black, playing down anti-Semitism.


Laurie Cumbo, majority leader of the New York City Council, represents part of Crown Heights. She calls the 1991 incident the “Crown Heights uprising.” “ ‘Riots’ give the impression of no basis,” she says in an interview. “An uprising comes from a level of a feeling of oppression.” Use of “uprising” and “rebellion” to characterize the violence was common in black nationalist literature at the time. Today it’s mainstream.


Dinkins made conciliatory gestures after the riot but mostly passed responsibility to the police. When the issue lingered, he lashed out at Jewish critics. (He later said of Lubavitch criticism: “It’s pure racism.”) {snip}

But New Yorkers tended to agree with the Lubavitchers. By 1993, 78% of whites, 76% of Hispanics and 44% of blacks rated Dinkins’s response to the riot negatively. The release of the state report, less than four months before the 1993 mayoral election, may have sealed the mayor’s fate. Rudy Giuliani defeated Dinkins by about 3 percentage points.


Could something like the Crown Heights riot recur? “On a dime, it could happen. Just embolden people,” says Mrs. Groner, who lives near the accident site. “It depends who’s going to be the mayor,” says Mr. Eber, the liquor-store owner. When it was Mr. Giuliani, “people were afraid of the law.” But in the summer of 2020, the authorities were passive in the face of looting after George Floyd’s murder.