Thursday, August 18, 2011

20 Years Since Crown Heights Pogrom

Twenty years ago tomorrow, the first and thank God the only anti-Jewish pogrom in American history erupted in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. The precipitating event was a fatal automobile accident, when a car from a motorcade, accompanying the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, of Blessed Memory, hit a car in an intersection, veered out of control onto the sidewalk, and struck and killed a seven-year old African-American youngster, Gavin Cato. Before police could arrive, Yosef Lifish, the driver, had been beaten up by local Dominican and African American bystanders. When a local ambulance service, run by the Lubavitcher community, arrived on the scene, the police ordered the ambulance to remove Lifish from the scene to protect his safety. This action started a false rumor that the Chasidic ambulance crew had refused to treat Gavin Cato, which further infuriated the crowd.

Some three hours later, a mob of about 20 black men attacked Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old University of Melbourne student in the United States conducting research for his doctorate. They stabbed him several times in the back and beat him severely, fracturing his skull. Before being taken to the hospital, Rosenbaum was able to identify 16-year-old Lemrick Nelson, Jr. as his assailant in a line-up shown to him by the police. Rosenbaum died later that night. Nelson was charged with murder and acquitted, but later convicted of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights; he eventually admitted that he had indeed stabbed Rosenbaum. For murdering Yankel Rosenbaum, Nelson received a prison sentence of only 10 years.

Here is the description of the ensuing rioting from Wikepedia:

For three days following the accident, numerous African Americans and Caribbean Americans of the neighborhood, joined by growing numbers of non-residents, rioted in Crown Heights. In the rioting of the ensuing three days, many of the rioters "did not even live in Crown Heights."

During the riots, Jews were injured, stores were looted, and cars and homes were damaged. The rioters identified Jewish homes by the mezuzot affixed to the front doors. Rioters marched through Crown Heights carrying anti-Semitic signs and an Israeli flag was burned. Rioters threw bricks and bottles at police; shots were fired at police and police cars were pelted and overturned, including the Police Commissioner’s car.

An additional 350 police officers were added to the regular duty roster on August 20 and were assigned to Crown Heights in an attempt to quell the rioting. After episodes of rock- and bottle-throwing involving hundreds of blacks and Jews, and after groups of blacks marched through Crown Heights chanting "No Justice, No Peace!", "Death to the Jews!", and "Whose streets? Our streets!", an additional 1,200 police officers were sent to confront rioters in Crown Heights. Riots escalated to the extent that a detachment of 200 police officers was overwhelmed and had to retreat for their safety. On August 22, over 1,800 police officers, including mounted and motorcycle units, had been dispatched to stop the attacks on people and property.

By the time the three days of rioting ended, 152 police officers and 38 civilians were injured, 27 vehicles were destroyed, seven stores were looted or burned,and 225 cases of robbery and burglary were committed. At least 129 arrests were made during the riots, including 122 blacks and seven whites. Property damage was estimated at one million dollars.

On August 26, 1991, just days after the riots subsided, Reverend Al Sharpton spoke at the funeral of Gavin Cato. Rather than trying to ease racial strife, he chose to incite it further, leading mourners at Gavin Cato's funeral in chants of "No Justice, No Peace." Here is a documented excerpt from Sharpton's funeral oration:

The world will tell us he 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. ... Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid. ... All we want to say is what Jesus said: If you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise, no meetings, no kaffe klatsch, no skinnin' and grinnin'. Pay for your deeds.

Sharpton has never apologized for his anti-semitic remarks. Later, after the driver Yosef Lifish was cleared of all charges, and emigrated to Israel for his own safety, Sharpton traveled to Israel to try to serve Lifish in a civil lawsuit brought by the Cato family. When bystanders shouted at him to "go to hell," he responded, "I already am in hell; I'm in Israel." Outrage against Sharpton arose again this week, when it was announced that he was invited to participate in a synagogue's program on Jewish-African American relations 20 years after the Crown Heights riots. Reverend Sharpton wisely withdrew from the program.

There was at least one good outcome of the Crown Heights riot--it ended the political career of Mayor David Dinkins, who was viewed as having grossly mishandled the situation. His successor Rudy Giuliani, during his electoral campaign against Dinkins, was one of the first people to correctly describe the Crown Heights riots for what they were--an anti-semitic pogrom.

As the 20th anniversary of the riots approached, Ari Goldblum, back then a New York Times reporter covering the riots, recalled in New York Jewish Week how the Times typically reported the story as "racial strife," as if both Jews and blacks were rioting and fighting in the streets. Exasperated by how his stories of anti-semitic attacks were being rewritten and distorted, he finally blew up at his editors, yelling over the phone, "I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? ‘Hasidim and blacks clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.”

The retrospective of Jane Eisner, the editor of the Forward, closely follows the New York Times analysis so decried by Mr. Goldblum. She wrote how back in 1977, 14 years before the riots, on her first visit to Crown Heights, she already witnessed the smoldering racial atmosphere in the Brooklyn neighborhood, which she attributed to African American resentment over the political clout wielded by the Lubavitcher Chasidim:

When I was spending a lot of time in Crown Heights, I learned that blacks there were still smarting after losing a fierce political battle over redistricting in 1976, which they believed allowed the Lubavitchers to gain special law enforcement protection and other perks.

“The issue, basically, was power,” said the Rev. Hebert D. Daughtry, then pastor of the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church. Daughtry remains a rambunctious civil rights activist. He told me that the Hasidim “had actualized all the verbiage of the black power people. They knew they’d be able to bring their numbers into play to control goods and services, so they went after it and got it. They were able to achieve a political end and keep everything else intact.”

Although she tempers her analysis by saying that the Lubavitchers, facing a rising crime wave in Crown Heights in those decades, had good reason to seek political cloout, the overall tone of her article frankly outraged me. Here is my comment:

So Rev. Daughtry, a "civil rights activist" (like Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped provoke and perpetuate the Crown Heights riots), believes that the cause of the first pogrom in U.S. history was that the Jews had seized power and control of the government in their Brooklyn neighborhood. But of course that has been the rallying cry of anti-Semites from Khelnytsky through Goebbels to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood today. It is patronizing and indeed racist to so "explain" the actions of the black rioters. I may resent the political gains of another ethnic or racial group. That resentment does not entitle me to riot and commit murder in their community.

I apologize to Reverend Sharpton for suggesting he provoked the Crown Heights riots. He only perpetuated the rancorous atmosphere with his funeral oration. Other than that caveat, I stand by my comment. Do you agree with me?


Blogger Chase said...

Yes, I agree completely.

If only a major news organization had the guts to honor the anniversary and show the "reverend" Al Sharpton from then. And on the week Rev Al got his own msnbc talk show!

Sunday, September 04, 2011 1:47:00 PM  

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