The Crown Heights Riots

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

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Initially, the Department had practiced a strategy of containment in response to mounting violence in the streets, directing its officers only to stop the spread of disorder, but not to try to dispel it. While the report cleared New York City Mayor David Dinkens of deliberately hamstringing his officers, Brown was faulted for being aloof.

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Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence from the statements of individual patrolmen suggests that some officers were prohibited from aggressively countering the violence they met on the streets. Many Lubavitchers were disappointed to find they could not get adequate protection from the police department during the riot.

The hands-off approach that the police first took gelled with Mayor Dinkens' political persona. He was elected in 1989 on a peacemaking platform--in contrast to his opponent Rudolph Giuliani, who took a more conservative "law and order" line. Indeed, even during the riots, Dinkens tried to calm both sides with rhetoric of unity, at one point telling a crowd of protestors, "Increase the peace," and "I care about you--I care about you very desperately."

In the 1993 mayoral race, Dinkens would pay for the failure of his benign approach. A significant contingent of Jews who had supported him in 1989 decamped for the Giuliani ticket, and this contributed to Dinkens' loss.

The most unexpected consequence? Healing and cooperation in Crown Heights. While relations between the Lubavitch community and its Crown Heights neighbors have certainly not been placid since 1991, some notable developments, including the creation of a mediation center in 1998, have heralded a developing coexistence.

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Ben Havumaki

Ben Havumaki works as an investigator in New York City.