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The Crown Heights Riots, 30 Years Later

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The Crown Heights Riots, 30 Years Later

10 Blocks podcast August 25, 2021
Public safety
The Social Order
New York

Elliot Kaufman joins Theodore Kupfer to discuss Kaufman's report on the Crown Heights riots, which happened 30 years ago last weekend.

Audio Transcript

Teddy Kupfer: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Teddy Kupfer, an associate editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Elliot Kaufman, the letters editor of the Wall Street Journal. Elliot wrote a piece for that newspaper on the Crown Heights riots, which happened 30 years ago this past weekend. The piece ran over the weekend. Today we'll discuss his article, the riots, and their legacy. Elliot, thank you for joining us.

Elliot Kaufman: Thanks for having me on, Teddy.

Teddy Kupfer: So Elliot, neither of us was alive 30 years ago. I will confess that right off the bat. But you talked to a lot of people who not only were alive back then, but were living in Crown Heights and were involved in the events that unfolded. The result was a really comprehensive and excellent article that appeared in the Journal's opinion section.

Before we dive into what exactly happened on August 19, 1991, however, I want to talk about the cultural and historical circumstances in the years leading up to the riots. There's a broad city-wide angle here. New York was a different place in the early 1990s. There were about 2,200 murders in the city that year. David Dinkins was the mayor. NYPD leadership had not yet embarked on the aggressive program of crime control that it pursued under Rudolph Giuliani. In a City Journal article from 2013, Fred Siegel calls Dinkins' response to the riots "paralytic."

But then there is also the local color. As you mention in your story, many whites, including Jews, left the neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s as crime crested. But the Lubavitch community stuck around. I was reading an article for chabad.org by Dovid Margolin, and he asked the question, "What indeed were the Jews still doing in Crown Heights?" He cites the stand of Menachem Schneerson, the Rebbe, who announced in 1969 that he wouldn't leave the community because doing so would put others at risk. I definitely recommend that listeners check out that article as well. In the ensuing years, crime spilled over from Bed-Stuy and Brownsville. Jews took measures to protect themselves, including erecting private community patrols.

Now, these two angles, the city story of lawlessness, the local story of the demography and cultural history of Crown Heights, these aren't mutually exclusive considerations. But as you were writing your piece, I'm curious how you disentangled them. As we try to understand what happened back then, how should we balance these two approaches?

Elliot Kaufman: It's a great question, Teddy. It's hard to understand what happened if you don't arrive at it thinking of the background of massive crime and disorder. It was a different New York City. The police, their action, I mean, I think one of the most galling aspects of the story is how could police let an antisemitic riot go on, not just one night before they can react, but three whole nights? Night after night. It was a different police force.

In general, if you want to start analyzing what happened in the riot . . . for instance, many liberal and black accounts of what happened begin with what the Lubavitch community did wrong, what the Orthodox Jewish community was doing wrong. Now, I think that's a strange place to start considering they were under attack and no matter what they were doing wrong politically, presumably it can't justify physical, deadly violence. So I don't start there.

But even if you want to start there, the complaints are things like, "Well, they had disproportionate police protection." But then you have to ask, "Why did they want police protection in that way? Why was that necessary for them?" The answer is incredible crime, incredible violence in the area. That's definitely the backdrop for everything, and I think just that drumbeat of violence gave everything a kind of all or nothing feel in the community. People talk about it on both sides as if they were under attack. I think it's hard to understand how things could escalate so much without considering that.

But at the same time, in the neighborhood you do have something different. As you say, this is a large white Jewish community in the midst of an even larger black community. You just don't see that in many places. Other riots, for instance, you have Korean grocery stores singled out, but there you have a kind of island of another group in say a large, poor black area. Here you have a whole community living side by side. They didn't run. They had to find a way to live alongside, and tensions were created and spilled over and escalated to remarkable violence that I think shook a lot of New Yorkers and had them realize not only what kind of antisemitism was there, but what kind of uncontrolled violence was there. In 1991, this happened, a trial dragged on, it was major news in 1992 and then a state investigation of what happened came out four weeks before a mayoral election in 1993, and many people believe played a large role in the election of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and ultimately the renewal of the City.

Teddy Kupfer: That's fascinating. We were just talking before the episode about how these riots were covered or really under-covered nationally, but as you're suggesting, maybe there's a case that they had an underrated influence on New York's trajectory throughout the 1990s.

I want to move on. We should talk about the incident itself. It was framed at the time in the major newspapers as an eruption of tensions between Jews and blacks. It was said that the African-American community had legitimate or at least understandable grievances against the Lubavitch community. Your piece points out however, that really only one side was the aggressor in this instance.

So why don't you describe what happened over those three days and how the story was covered. You can go ahead and retell what precipitated the occasion, how the riots unfolded, what the response was like, and then the media coverage, if that's not too much to bite off in one answer.

Elliot Kaufman: Well, the New York Times, Village Voice approach is to say that these were racial clashes. "Clashes" is kind of ambiguous. Often one framing is to write about two deaths that kind of came about because of what happened. But what I want to explain is that the two deaths, I don't think there's a comparison because one was a car accident and one was a lynching, in David Dinkins's term. I think good people of all races know the difference between those two.

Maybe I can start August 19, 1991. The Rebbe, who's the leader of the Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish community, he is driving home with his motorcade of three cars: a police car, his car, and then one other car bringing up the rear. They are driving back from Queens where he was visiting his father-in-law's grave at a cemetery. On the way back, they are back in Crown Heights and going up President Street, they cross Utica Avenue at 8:20 PM.

Now, the third car bringing up the rear in the motorcade was lagging behind, and so it sped up over the speed limit, and either, depending on which witnesses you believe, either made it through a yellow light or ran a red light and ended up hitting a northbound car on Utica Avenue at the intersection. It then veers out of control, travels about 60 feet, knocks over a stone pillar, ends up hitting two seven-year-old children, children of Guyanese immigrants, pinning them to the sidewalk, to the wall. Gavin Cato is killed. His cousin, Angela Cato, is seriously injured. Awful, awful, tragic situation. The driver of the car, a Lubavitch man named Yosef Lifsh gets out of the car and like a normal conscientious person, tries to help out.

However, a crowd had gathered at the busy intersection, and immediately he is set upon and physically attacked. His passengers also. Luckily, a police car nearby stopped, got there and tried to kind of tamp down the situation. But already, and this kind of gives you a sense of either what tensions were there or perhaps what antisemitism was there, violence is breaking out at the scene in response to the car accident. The Jews there are under attack. When the ambulances arrive, two of them arrive in the same minute actually, 8:25 PM. One of them comes from a volunteer Orthodox Jewish-run service, one of them comes from the city. To try to put an end to the violence and just get things in control, the police officers there order the Orthodox Jewish-run volunteer ambulance service to just take away the injured Lubavitchers. Get them out of there.

Now, I think that's a very understandable decision because the city EMTs were right there to then treat the injured children. However, and tragically, this seeded the rumor that the Jewish ambulance service only cared about Jews and left black children on the sidewalk to die. Not only was this a very powerful rumor on the street that night and the following nights, but even when the riot's over, Al Sharpton at the funeral for Gavin Cato is calling it an apartheid ambulance service. Allegations like that which have no bearing in fact are being thrown around.

From the scene of the accident, more rumors grow. They say Yosef Lifsh was drunk or he deliberately chased down the children, killed them on purpose out of a kind of racist Jewish malice. You have to kind of ask where these assumptions come from because they're not the most natural assumptions. Now, the crowd kind of grows in the hours following, and police did not mobilize quickly enough to kind of put a stop to it then. In the early hours of a riot, showing up in force is the most important thing a police force can do. It didn't do it.

So from the area of just under three hours later, roving bands of rioters, young black youths, kind of split off from the area, kind of egged on by local agitators saying things like, "The Jews get everything they want. They're killing our children. We can't stand for this. I'm going up to the Jewish neighborhood." Who's with me," one guy says according to witnesses. People follow, they go and throw stones, break windows, overturn cars, and beat up any Jew they can find in the streets. One of them, 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum, was visiting from Australia. Wrong place, wrong time. On the street, ten to 15 black youths find him, point at him. One of them says, "There's one. Let's go get him." They run, beat him up. He is stabbed four times in the back, beaten viciously, suffers a fractured skull and is taken to the hospital where doctors then miss one of his wounds. He dies.

David Dinkins, as I said, later calls it a lynching, which I think is an appropriate and evocative term. From there, the next morning and afternoon outside agitators arrive. Al Sharpton, Herb Daughtry Sr., Sonny Carson—perhaps these are familiar names from the time—start giving inflammatory speeches at demonstrations, which then become antisemitic hatefests. Chants of "Heil Hitler," and, "Hitler should have finished the job," and, "Kill the Jews. Death to the Jews," are heard everywhere and demonstrations become antisemitic hatefests, become riots once again. Police just are not prepared for a second day of rioting, and then unbelievably, they're not prepared for a third day of rioting.

The commissioner, Lee Brown, who has kind of mocked at the time as "out-of-town Lee Brown," gives a press conference Wednesday afternoon in which he declares victory and praises police officers for showing restraint, which basically means standing around and pursuing a kind of containment policy, which left the Jews there at the mercy of these roving bands of rioters, which kind of ran circles around officers who were deployed to fix posts. Those tactics don't change even Wednesday, and so you get this crazy situation where the commissioner declared victory, and then under an hour later, he himself is attacked in the Crown Heights area, has to radio in help, and nine officers are wounded saving him basically.

Later on that same day, eight officers would be shot and wounded, two civilians in cars would be shot and wounded, and you can read transcripts of these harrowing 911 calls from Jews and non-Jews saying, "Jews are being stoned in the streets. They're being pulled out of cars and beaten up in the streets, and police are just standing there not doing anything." Many of these calls were dismissed by 911 operators as unfounded or assigned low priority. The state investigation afterwards would be very critical of the 911 response.

Anyways, you get this horrible situation, and things only really change when the commissioner is attacked Wednesday afternoon and then Dinkins himself, the mayor, is attacked. He had gone into Crown Heights after staying aloof for previous two nights and two days. He shows up to kind of meet with the community, a crowd forms, he tries to speak with it, and even with a loudspeaker, he cannot be heard because they won't listen to him. Then they throw bottles at him. He has to take cover. Dinkins after that finally realized something has to change. Ray Kelly, a familiar name to your listeners no doubt, was first deputy at the time. He kind of breaks the chain of command, takes over, and as soon as the order is given to put an end to the riot Thursday morning, afternoon, the riot's over. Police know how to put it down and under Kelly's leadership, they do promptly.

Teddy Kupfer: That's a pretty comprehensive retelling. Thank you for that. So I want to move on, ask you a little bit about your reporting process. So just tell me about it. It comes through in your story. You talked to a lot of people, from Jewish and black community leaders to former public officials. Tell us a little bit about whom you spoke to, what it was like, what stuck out to them, what people remembered and what they think now, looking back.

Elliot Kaufman: So my process was research and reporting. So I was going back doing a lot of reading, both of scholarly accounts of what happened and also newspaper archives at the time, old magazine articles, that sort of thing. But there's no substitute for just speaking to people and hearing about what happened.

I spoke to Eli Eber, proprietor of Eber's Liquor Store in Crown Heights, and he recalls hiding in the store. Rocks thrown at his store. He's there hiding with a gun, terrified, but ready to use it if he has to. He says his children, young children at the time, it left a mark on them, even still. Most of all, he remembers seeing police just standing there. Why aren't they doing anything? Everyone I spoke to in the Lubavitch community believes that David Dinkins ordered the police to hold back.

That was a very common belief, and there isn't evidence for it. Now, perhaps somebody can say there was a verbal order given, and we'll never prove it. But from the evidence that we do have, and I do like to stick to the evidence, the evidence we do have is in a sense even more damning. It's that David Dinkins stayed aloof. He really wasn't involved in the details or the strategy of police response at all. Instead, he tried to convene meetings of kind of community leaders and bring in social services employees, these sorts of things, which were kind of his M.O. but which were inadequate to the situation. But it's kind of interesting to see how that story is there.

And then I also spoke to the Reverend Herb Daughtry, Sr., who was one of those outside agitators there and right off the bat he told me, "Don't ask me anything about Crown Heights now because I haven't really been back, and so I don't know what's happening there." I think that's kind of indicative of the situation. These are people who were traveling from civil rights incident to civil rights incident, trying to stir something up and then leaving afterwards while the neighborhood had to deal with the fallout. But if you listen to Herb Daughtry, he paints a picture—this goes back to your first question—he paints a picture of a very peaceable black community that is under assault, under constant assault by Hasidic Jewish violence. While he can point to certain incidents, and everyone points to the same incidents . . . one thing in 1978, for instance comes up all the time, and then a kind of political maneuver in 1977 comes up all the time. . . . It just seems like in the grand scheme of things, an inversion of reality of what was going on there.

While there were Orthodox Jewish community patrols that sometimes overstepped, as I said earlier, they were there for a reason. And that's because the bulk of the violence was going the other way. But it's kind of interesting to hear how these stories are remembered, and in some cases they're even perfected the wrong way. For instance, Yankel Rosenbaum is almost always described as a rabbinical student, even in press coverage for the 30th anniversary. But it also happened right away. In fact, he wasn't. He was a secular doctoral student who happened to be an Orthodox Jew. On the other side, Al Sharpton's memoir claims that all three cars in the Lubavitch motorcade ran through a red light. Now, nobody alleges that. But if you're trying to tell a story of how Lubavitchers were doing whatever they want and disobeying the law and acting with impunity, that kind of detail becomes helpful or just becomes misremembered.

But I mean, speaking to people, I got a real sense of the anger at the police response on both sides, but also some sorts of revisionist accounts. For instance, speaking to New York City Council Majority Leader, Laurie Cumbo, who represents parts of Crown Heights, she calls it the "Crown Heights uprising." In fact, she called it the Crown Heights riots once, but then corrected herself and said, I should call it the uprising. I asked her why, and she says, Riots give the impression that there was no basis for it. That it was just senseless violence. I'm listening to this thinking, "Yeah, that sounds about right actually." But then she says: No. Uprising comes from a feeling of oppression. And there is this liberal way of looking at it that the New York Times adopted right from the start and which has been with us ever since, as looking at it as a white-black question. As soon as you do that, liberals are very comfortable being extraordinarily sympathetic to black rioters and analyzing their complaints and looking at white victims as yes, victims in a sense, but complicit.

I think that framing ignores antisemitism, ignores that they weren't just whites, they were an even smaller minority group. Although I don't accept the legitimacy of the framing, even if they were white Christians. But putting that aside, I think it's very easy to kind of bring it into a racial frame and then let white liberals run the kind of normal script of analysis. That script doesn't fit here when you have a riot, not by victims of racism, but as Philip Gourevitch wrote in 1993, by racists. Targeting Jews because they were Jews and reaching for Nazi metaphors because that was what's most readily available when you see yourself engaged in an attack against Jews.

Teddy Kupfer: Fascinating. I would like to go long on what the uprising would have been against, what the nature, source of the complaints against the Orthodox community would have been. But unfortunately we just don't have the time. So I'll move on to my last question. A lot has changed in 30 years between now and then. Newspapers no longer have the gatekeeping power that they once did. Violent crime is way down from its peaks. So an optimist would say that something like this really can't happen again. Social and independent media should allow citizens to sort of bypass misleading media narratives. The instance where The New York Times editor sort of distorted reporter Ari Goldman's notes from the field during the riots, that shouldn't be able to happen because a video would disprove it. And a safer more prosperous city, on the other hand, should render crime and especially riots less likely.

I was in Crown Heights on Tuesday for a Manhattan Institute event with Ray Kelly, Ari Goldman, and Hannah Meyers of MI, and residents were discussing how roads such as Eastern Parkway, Lefferts Avenue, these aren't really the de facto borders between the two communities that they once were. There's a case for optimism.

But recent months, I think, temper it. We saw last summer that the mainstream media do still wield a lot of narrative power as they, depending on how you want to describe it, helped instigate a civil conflict or participated in a cultural cascade based on really a faulty premise in the summer of 2020. Meanwhile, New York violent crime is up and so are hate crimes against Jews, which spiked before the pandemic. I think that's kind of been lost as so many things have happened in the last year or two, but they've ticked back up this summer. Data for May are certainly sobering. We're running out of time, but I want you to answer the question in your headline. Could the Crown Heights riots recur?

Elliot Kaufman: Well, if I had a straightforward answer to that, I would have made the answer the headline, but I don't necessarily. So leave that . . .

Teddy Kupfer: An old trick of journalism.

Elliot Kaufman: Yeah. I want to say, no, it couldn't happen, and I think everyone wants to say that. Everyone also knows there are good reasons why it seems less likely now. The drop of crime in the background is something, and speaking to a council member Cumbo and also a Lubovitch leader, Rabbi Schochet, people make these points saying, "Things don't feel the same way. It doesn't seem like everything is zero-sum. Like everything is life or death now." I think that's true. You don't have the same kind of things in the background. You also don't have the same kinds of agitators. People forget what the context was, but in 1990, the Nation of Islam released its infamous book, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, arguing that Jews were responsible for the Atlantic slave trade.

This influences not only the street, but also scholars, also prominent people in the media, also rap artists. Journalists there at the time say rioters come up to them and spout things that they clearly got from people like Louis Farrakhan or Elijah Muhammad talking about Jews and the slave trade. That kind of thing is out there in the ether. Two weeks before the riot, Professor Leonard Jeffries, chairman of black studies at City College in New York, gives a antisemitic speech about Jews and the slave trade and running Hollywood to denigrate the black image. When Jews criticize him, he is defended strongly by Al Sharpton and Derrick Bell at Harvard. Derrick Bell, known as the godfather of critical race theory.

You have these kinds of leaders in the community, both at the highest levels but also people who have the ability, like Sharpton and Daughtry, to get out there in the street and rile up a crowd. Daughtry making threats of violence regularly, comparing Lubavitchers to the KKK, which is a comparison that he stuck with when I spoke to him. Willing to make inflammatory statements targeted at Jews and targeted at a specific Jewish group. So you ask yourself, "Given the riots that we saw in New York last summer, what if there was a charismatic leader who was willing to point the finger in that way? Are we so confident that something like this could not recur?" When I talked to Lubavitchers, none of them said, "No, it couldn't happen." One of them, Yehudis Groner, widow of the late Rabbi Leibel Groner, told me, "On a dime, it could happen. It just emboldened people," she said.

Eber, whom I mentioned previously, told me, "It depends who's going to be mayor." He said, "If Giuliani were mayor, no chance. But the guy we have now, and who knows what follows?" One thing that I think is notable to talk about is also the police here. There had been decades, really since the late '60s in the John Lindsay mayoralty, of political interference with the police that had made it abundantly clear to the police brass that the quickest way to ruin a multi-decade career and kind of get yourself fired, tossed out on the street, is to have a confrontation with any kind of rioters or anything with a political valence in an underprivileged minority area. So a kind of ingrained philosophy of police restraint had set in. Even though there's no evidence that David Dinkins ordered police to hold back, police brass were not going to initiate a major confrontation unless they got City Hall approval. Like I said, when they finally got it, they put down the riot that day.

So I think again, when we look at what's happening with the police now, a kind of fear of a viral video, a confrontation gone wrong, a philosophy of restraint at all costs, avoiding proactive policing, kind of as we saw last summer, yes, policing the riots, but not stopping them. Letting them peter out under their own accord. Containing them, let's say. These kinds of philosophies are becoming more popular. You have to ask if enough things were to go wrong and there's still antisemitism out there in the ether and maybe a charismatic leader says something inflammatory, could something like this happen? I think it could. I'm not sure those things are necessarily likely. But I guess to answer your question, it's something New York City needs to think about, especially when it thinks about how it wants to handle crime, what kind of police force it wants to have when something bad happens.

Teddy Kupfer: Well on that note, thank you very much, Elliot, for joining us. Don't forget listeners to check out Elliot's article in The Wall Street Journal. It ran on August 20th. You can also check out video of the Manhattan Institute's event on the Crown Heights riots, which I had mentioned, held this week with Ari Goldman, Ray Kelly and Hannah Meyers. That either is or should be on MI's website soon. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_ MI. Elliot, what's your Twitter?

Elliot Kaufman: I think it's @elliotkaufman6.

Teddy Kupfer: Well, there you go. As always, if you like what you heard on the podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Once again, Elliot, thank you for joining us.

Elliot Kaufman: Thanks, Teddy.

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Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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