What Caused The Crown Heights Riots?
08/09/11
Special To The Jewish Week
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‘Crown Heights was about ‘black anti-Semitism’!” Twenty years later, I still hear the trope.

The Crown Heights riots have resonated for years as a “flashpoint” between blacks and Jews in New York. Indeed, “Crown Heights” has become a code word for intractable neighborhood tension arising out of anti-Semitism emerging from the black community.

There is no question that a serious anti-Semitic outburst occurred in August 1991 — an anti-Semitic murder was committed. But what were the conditions in Crown Heights that led to the riots and the murder, beyond the striking of little Gavin Cato by a car in the Lubavitcher rebbe’s motorcade? The key question with respect to Crown Heights is not what happened there, but why; and whether the dynamics that caused Crown Heights were and are to be found elsewhere. Was Crown Heights sui generis? Or ought Crown Heights be extrapolated to the black population in general, and to other communities around the country?

The August 1991 events in Crown Heights had more to do with longstanding “tribal rivalries” — rivalries of real estate, power, culture — than with a deep-seated anti-Semitism, an anti-Semitism that indeed may not have been present in the black population, which was hardly monolithic (it was largely West Indian), in that neighborhood. The conditions that caused Crown Heights were unique to Crown Heights, and had little to do with anti-Semitism, even as anti-Semitism did become a factor in the subsequent riot.

What Crown Heights was all about was the dilemma of two groups — Jewish and black — each growing rapidly in a small geographic area with limited land, struggling over access to housing and access to political power. It was a tinderbox ready to be set off, as it eventually was. It did not take long for the situation to be exploited by individuals from outside the neighborhood who cynically used anti-Semitism to achieve their goals.

Further, what was the nature of the anti-Semitism that emerged during the riots? Was the anti-Semitism of the black street kid yelling “Kill the Jew!” in the frenzy of the riots the same as the anti-Semitism of jihadist crazies? We won’t know very much about what goes on in neighborhoods like Crown Heights — where “Kill the Jew!” was directed at the most visible manifestation of white power — until we are ready to mount a serious ethnographic study on the street.

Consider another neighborhood, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Williamsburg has many of the same ingredients as did Crown Heights — “tribal” rivalries over land and power, a well organized and politically savvy chasidic group (in this case, the Satmar chasidim), a minority group that feels it has been given the short end of the stick. Williamsburg has for years been a tinderbox that could explode as well. Same situation as Crown Heights, only in Williamsburg the community is made up of Hispanics and newly settled artists, and the streets never exploded.

Jerome Chanes was for 15 years national affairs director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC, now JCPA). He coordinated the national response to the Crown Heights riots.

Last Update:

08/24/2011 - 17:06

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@ Sumner : ‎I've known Al Sharpton since I was 12 years old. Like most people he has his faults, but his major asset is that he is unrelenting in his defense of Black people who have been browbeaten by the system and by racism, just like his mentor, Jesse Jackson. Many White people have a problem with that, and if they do it's just too bad. Al Sharpton spent much of his formative years in Crown Heights, Bed Stuy, East Flatbush, Brownsville and East New York like many of us from that part of town did. He is more than qualified to speak on Crown Heights or on any other subject that concerns Black people, or as an American, any subject at all, as are you. As for Tawana Brawley, I still find it hard to believe that a young girl would smear herself with feces and climb into a plastic bag. I also do not find it unreasonable that a family would want to back away from the media circus that ensued and quietly get on with ntheir lives as Ms. Brawley has done. I concur with Spike Lee's statement in "Do The Right Thing." "Tawana told the truth."

I guess it all comes down to what you choose to believe. As I stated, I PERSONALLY witnessed the change in Crown Heights from 1964 to 1985. Incidents like Howard Beach and later on Church Ave garnered much media attention. The truth is that the majority of people in those communities interact and get along most every day. They have the same priorities as others, go to work, raise their families, enjoy their life. The incident was escalated unnecessarily when the driver (who happened to be Jewish) was removed from the scene while Gavin Cato was still being attended. The perception was that the driver was more important to the police and EMT’s than the injured child. Add in the usual instigators that look to profile ANYTHING as being raced based and you have the riot that resulted in Yankel Rosenbaum’s death. IN this atmosphere, Rev. Al was not needed to incite things. Mayor Dinkins added a BAD decision by not allowing the police to immediately stop the riot. He later stated that he did not want the police to escalate the rioter's behavior. There were quite a few bad decisions that day. BTW, Tawana Brawley DID lie. She said that she was in the woods for 3 days in near freezing temperatures, but showed NO signs of exposure. She also visited an incarcerated boy friend during the time she was supposed to have been abducted. I attended Brooklyn Tech in the early 70’s. We use to run into Spike Lee in Fort Greene all the time at this diner where Fulton, Lafayette and Forte Greene Place intersect. I don’t need self proclaimed leaders to speak for me and you shouldn’t rubberstamp what they say either .

I completely concur with Jerome Chanes' article and find the assertion by Reuvain that the riot was a "pogrom" to be not only as absurd as he claims Mr. Chanes' article to be but also a lie that was unfortunately supported by the totally one-sided report that was released by Mario Cuomo in the aftermath of the riot. I am 59 years old, Afrikan American, spent my formative years in Crown Heights, and can recount numerous incidents of violence perpetrated by the Hassidic community (note that I said "Hassidic" not "Jewish") against the Black community, some of which I experienced first hand myself. Unfortunately, I cannot successfully recount these incidents within 300 words, but rest assured it is these incidents of violence and political favoritism conveyed by the police and the NewYork political establishment upon the Hassidic community that led to the Crown Heights riots and not any so-called "anti-semitism" by Blacks. The fact that Crown Heights was divided into 2 community boards is one such example of the political establishments' largese towards the Hassidic community in Crown Heights. The Crown Heights riots was an event that was bound to happen given the atmosphere that I have described. It is fortunate that as a consquence of the riots, efforts by people like Richard Greene of The Crown Heights Youth Collective has led to more dialogue between the Black and Hassidic communities and has created the "peace" that we enjoy today. I hope that Hassidic leaders in Crown Heights now realize acts of violence against Blacks will not be tollerated. Like Jews, Black folks will "Never Forget."

We moved to Crown Heights (77 Sullivan Place) off Bedford Ave. May 1964. Back then the Ebbets Field Apartments were two years old, were well maintained, had security in every building and the rental office came to your current residence before approving you. Lil Anthony 'Going Out of my head' was in 1680 Bedford, Gregory Hines' dad was in 1720 Bedford. The fast food was Deli's and Pizza. When I left in 1985 the Deli's were gone, the RKO Kenmore ran down and I no longer walked down Flatbush Ave from Empire Blvd to Church Ave any time of the night. C.H. with Prospect Park, the Botanical Gardens, Brooklyn Museum and Main library all within walking distance was special. Too bad people forgot how to get along in the later years. I live near people upstate who can't understand NYC and how people from different ethnic, racial, and religous backgrounds get along in the same or nearby neighborhoods. For the most part it works. Here they are seperated by exits on the NorthWay.

“Jerome Chanes .... He coordinated the national response to the Crown Heights riots.” What coordinated national response? Never heard of him before now but he clearly deserves the ADL/Abe Foxman Teats On A Bull Award because this guy's antennae couldn't tell the difference between a gentle summer breeze and a rock whizzing by one's head. Have a happy Al Sharpton Day.

What a absurd assertion. The write still does not get it twenty years later. It was not a riot, it was America's first pogrom, And if it was not Antisemitism what is.

Oy Vey for the Jewish people with such leaders of major Jewish organizations.

I am very glad you are remembering Crown Heights I
was afraid nobody did.

I like very much your insight but I wish you would have gone
even further about the consequences of the event to the greater
society.

It was really a catalyst for Republican rule in New York City and
the end of the welfare and crime society in N.Y.C.
that Mayor Dinkins and the Democrats had counted
on as their devoted followers and reliable voters.
This revolution is still going on today.

I wish you would have mentioned Yankel Rosenbaum
by name because has a great place in American history.

I hope the parents of Yankel Rosenbaum know that
many of us in America remember him and think
his tragic death in it's own way did much for
"my children's freedom and the freedom of all Americans "
since under Maypr Dinkins if you recall all of Manhattan
and not just Crown Heights had been taken over by
criminal elements and we were under a "Reign Of Terror ".

Yankel Rosenbam was "every man".

Walter Boes

I think the truth is some where in the middle. I sort of agree but you dismiss some facts. Rates of most crimes made consecutive declines during the last 3 years of Dinklins four-year term. Dinkins made a major commitment to rehabilitation of dilapidated housing in Harlem, the South Bronx and Brooklyn, more housing rehabilitated in a single term than Mr. Giuliani did in two terms. HE also invited Disney to come in an cleanup Times Square.. unless you miss the hookers and the peep shows, that a good thing.
I had not lived in Crown Heights since 1985 and I was more qualified to speak out than Sharpton. Remember this is the same Rev. AL that created the Tawana Brawley mess in Wappingers Falls, New York. Al later told his supporters not to vote for Dinkins because the Mayor would not support Al's buddy Alton Maddox from disbarment proceedings after the Brawley incident was said to be hoax.
BTW what would you call the events of Dec. 20, 1986, when a gang of white youths beat three black men who had stumbled into the neighborhood, chasing one of the three to his death when he was hit by a car crossing the Shore Parkway? Like I said. it's too bad Ny'ers forgot how to get along.

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