The Crown Heights Riots

The outbreak of violence in 1991 was fueled by anti-Semitism.


Over several days in late August 1991, the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Crown Heights pulsated with sporadic street violence, as predominantly black protesters targeted members and institutions of the Lubavitch Jewish community.

Though the Crown Heights Riots were concentrated in a small subsection of the inner-city neighborhood that had long been known for its well-heeled brownstones and eclectic ethnic makeup, the three days of strife in 1991 spurred changes that far outstretched their immediate effects.

The Car Accident

Around 8:00 PM on Monday, August 19, 1991, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the international leader and Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch movement was returning to his home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after a visit to the Old Montefiore Cemetery in adjacent Queens

Each time the Rebbe made this trip–his only excursion out of Crown Heights–he was provided a police escort. With the New York Police Department squad car in the lead, the Rebbe riding in the second car, and a station wagon following close behind, the three-vehicle procession advanced west on President Street. Though meant to be a tightly coordinated caravan, the rear station wagon, driven by 22-year-old Yosef Lifsch, briefly lost the group. Lifsch tried to close this gap as he approached the intersection of President Street and Utica Avenue.

crown heights

What happened next remains disputed through today. Whether Lifsch ran through a red light or did not slow at a yellow, his car contacted another that was traveling on Utica Avenue. As Lifsch lost command of his car, the momentum of the impact carried his station wagon into a wall, and then slid it along until it came to rest on the body of seven-year-old Gavin Cato. The son of Guyanese immigrants, Cato had been playing with his cousin on the sidewalk. He was instantly killed.

First on the scene was Hatzolah, a Lubavitch-funded private ambulance service, quickly followed by the police. Passersby gathered, forming a group that soon numbered in the hundreds. Concerned for the safety of Lifsch and his passengers, the police directed Hatzolah to take them–and not Cato or his cousin–to the hospital. Instead of easing the situation, it inflamed the crowd, who suspected preferential treatment.

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Ben Havumaki works as an investigator in New York City.

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