The Crown Heights Riots

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

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If some had read intent into Lifsch's automobile accident, the favoritism the police appeared to be showing the Lubavitch passengers was seen as yet another example of the privilege the Jewish minority enjoyed at the expense of the black majority in Crown Heights. While the Lubavitchers represented only 11% of Crown Heights' citizenry, they were widely thought to wield great influence with the police and city government.

Ensuing Violence

Anger turned to violence. Charles Price, a 37-year-old area resident who had come to the scene of the accident, harangued the masses with claims that, "The Jews get everything they want. They're killing our children." Another male implored the group to, "go to Kingston Avenue [a major thoroughfare in the Jewish section of Crown Heights] and get the Jews," The group made good on its promise.

Approximately three hours after Lifsch lost control of his car, Yankel Rosenbaum--a 29-year-old Jewish student from Australia--was killed by a group consisting mostly of neighborhood youth, in what would be interpreted as a retaliatory slaying. And in the few hours following the accident, a Yeshiva van was set on fire, neighborhood youth threw bottles at Jews and Jewish institutions, and one fired a gun at a police officer.

For the next three days and four nights, sporadic rioting rocked Crown Heights. While not the exclusive province of black youth, the assaults, intimidation, and destruction were mostly perpetrated against Crown Heights' Lubavitch community, and mostly at the hands of young rioters

A summary of the three days reads like a laundry list of violence: On August 20, approximately 500 mostly young blacks returned to the scene of Lifsch's accident. Vehicles were set ablaze, a shoe store was ransacked, and reporters and photographers were beaten. The next day, hundreds of marchers gathered at 770 Eastern Parkway--Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters. An Israeli flag was burned. Lubavitchers took to the streets in response. Groups of blacks and Jews assailed each other with bottles. On Thursday, August 22, the tenor began to change, gradually, as the NYPD shifted its tactics.

Some blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric was expounded by some community leaders who headed non-violent marches and protests parallel to the street violence. Speaking of the accident at Cato's funeral, Al Sharpton famously said "The world will tell us that he (Cato) was killed by accident. Yes, it was a social accident?It's an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights."

Suggesting Jewish community responsibility for the death of Cato--and condoning the violence that was then ravaging the streets--some of the rioters proudly alluded to the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany: a banner was seen at Cato's funeral stating, "Hitler did not finish his job."

Aftermath & Lasting Effects

In the aftermath of the Crown Heights Riots, New York State governor Mario Cuomo and the state's director of criminal justice, Richard Girgenti, ordered an official investigation. The Girgenti Report, as it became known, was strongly critical of the New York City Police Department--which he called "uncoordinated and ineffective"--and its commissioner, Lee Brown.

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Ben Havumaki

Ben Havumaki works as an investigator in New York City.