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Crown Heights Riots Take Place, 1991

On This Day in Jewish History: August 21st, 1991

On August 19, 1991 Yosef Lifsh was driving a car that was part of the motorcade for Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Lubavitcher Rebbe, and leader of the Chabad movement. A procession was taking place, led by one police car. The Rebbe was in a different car as Lifsh followed behind. As the motorcade crossed Utica Avenue, Lifsh soon realized that his station wagon had fallen behind and quickly accelerated to catch up, running a yellow or red light in the process. Lifsh’s vehicle hit another moving vehicle on Utica Avenue, went on to the sidewalk and struck a building pillar which fell and trapped 2 children. The stone pillar, weighing some 600 pounds, planted the children atop an iron grate that covered a building’s first-floor apartment window. The impact killed Gavin Cato, a 7 year old Guyanese boy while Angelo Cato, his cousin of the same age, was severely wounded.

Lifsh provided a clear defense for his actions. maintaining that the police escort gave him the right of way and that he purposely tried to avoid the sidewalk and aimed for the wall as the best way to stop the vehicle. The events that followed remain murky. Lifsh claimed that following the accident, he immediately attempted to lift the car that continued to trap the boys. When EMS arrived a few minutes later, they reported a scene in which Lifsh was being beaten and brutalized by several men. The Hatzolah ambulance service (a volunteer organization that provides emergency medical assistance to Jewish communities, globally) arrived shortly thereafter as did a New York ambulance (which brought Cato to the hospital) and police. Hatzolah tended to the wounds of Angela Cato while they waited for a second ambulance to arrive.

The driver for the Hatzolah, taking the advice of 2 police officers and a city ambulance official, safely removed Lifsh from the scene. This act prompted heavy criticism from community members who thought it was wrong for Lifsh to be taken away in a private ambulance while city-employed emergency medical professionals were still working on saving the children. Many blame the Hatzolah for not doing more to help Gavin Cato, arguing that it was the Hatzolah’s preference for Jews that led to the death of Gavin Cato. However, it’s important to note that such theories remain unsubstantiated. Other cruel and untrue rumors that Lifsh was driving under the influence and that the collision was on purpose, also circulated shortly thereafter.

Over 200 people gathered at the scene, many of whom were black agitators whose presence was used to taunt Lifsh while he was either there or about to be removed from the area with chants like “Jews! Jews! Jews!” before directing their animosity towards law enforcement. It wasn’t long before those in the crowd launched bottles and rocks onto the scene with one individual screaming “Let’s go to Kingston Avenue and get a Jew!.” The antisemitic order turned into a militant action, with young black individuals moving towards Kingston Avenue where they proceeded to throw rocks and bottle and vandalize vehicles. If it’s not clear at this point, the antisemitic agitators without any evidence of a hate crime against the Cato cousins, proceeded to engage in behavior with the primary intent of hurting Jews and their property.

If only the situation had ended there. Less than 5 hours after the riots started, Yankel Rosenbaum found himself surrounded by roughly 20 Black men. Rosenbaum, a 29 year old doctoral student studying at the University of Melbourne, was in the United States for research when he was stabbed multiple times in the back and horribly beaten. Most of the men would leave the scene, but not before they fractured Rosenbaum’s skull. Rosenbaum was able to pick out Lemrick Nelson Jr. from a police lineup provided by law enforcement. The doctor tending to his care failed to recognize a chest area stab wound and Rosenbaum died that evening as a result. While jury acquitted Nelson, who was charged as an adult in the case, he would go on to face a subsequent trial in 1997 and 2003 where he was given a 10- year prison sentence for violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights.

Rioting proceeded in Crown Heights for the next 3 days. Businesses were burned and looted, property defaced, more homes were damaged. Rioters were able to pick out the Jewish homes based on doorframes that held mezuzahs. Blacks and Jews threw rocks at each other. Pockets of Black marchers chanted various political and antisemitic slogans such as “No Justice, No Peace! and “Death to the Jews!” after which another 1,200 cops were dispatched to Crown Heights. In a march led by Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson, protesters walked through Crown Heights bearing antisemitic signs and an Israeli flag was burned. Law enforcement was under assault. Rioters attacked them too, throwing anything they could, bottles, bricks, anything that could make an impact. Police officers were shot at, and by the time the riots ended 152 police officers were injured along with 38 civilians.

Swaths of the black community used the Crown Heights incident as the latest example of how Jews were given special treatment over blacks in the area and cited the police officers’ recommendation that Lifsh be protected at the expense of Cato as a prime example. While delivering the eulogy for Gavin Cato, Al Sharpton applied his own antisemitic twist to the events, thus further politicizing the horrible situation and distorting the narrative, when he referred to Crown Heights’ Jews as “diamond merchants” and said “It’s an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights.” A banner which read “Hitler did not do the job.” was also present at the funeral.

A grand jury made up of 25 people, 10 black, 5 hispanic and 8 white, decided not to indict Lifsh. The grand jury’s decision came an hour after Lifsh’s delivered his testimony. Shortly thereafter he moved to Israel. In February 1993, a year and a half after the Crown Heights Riots, New York cartoonist Art Spiegelman, in his first New Yorker cover, drew a picture which depicted a Hasidic Jew and a Black West Indian woman kissing for the issue that coincided with Valentines Day. Provocative to its core, the cover, while causing controversy amongst New Yorker staff, registered many meanings and feelings, one of which was unity and reconciliation.

The Crown Heights Riots came at a politically pressing moment. Mayor David Dinkins was embarking on a second term at the time. When he met with the Rebbe who hoped the Mayor could provide the city with peace, Dinkins replied, “To both sides.” To that, the Rebbe responded, “We are not two sides. We are one side. We are one people living in one city under one administration and under one God. May God protect the police and all the people of the city.” Dinkins did not win reelection.


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