In recent weeks, an opaque two-line prayer began to jump out from the siddur at Crown Heights chasidim: “Al tirah,” “Don’t be afraid of sudden terror when it comes,” for come it will.
It has been coming, without warning, for weeks: A surprise and powerful punch to a random chasid’s face by a random young black — at least eight times in Crown Heights, according to police, with at least three punch-outs to Jews elsewhere in Brooklyn. The punch often leaves the Jew unconscious, crumpled on the sidewalk. Nothing is stolen. Often nothing is said. Young blacks call it the “knockout game.” Young black teens, their faces blurred to defy identification, told WCBS television that kids do it because they think “it’s fun.” “They just want to see if you got enough strength to knock somebody out.”
In several recent incidents, terror has come to chasidic families on Friday nights. Towards midnight, as the family sleeps, thieves use automobile jacks to pry open the window bars of private homes, stealing the silver and anything else that can be carried.
Terror comes with a rock thrown at a young boy’s head; with a hot cup of coffee, in a paper bag, thrown at the face of a yeshiva boy on his way to school; with a broomstick beating the head of an older woman; with another woman told to cross the street or be stabbed. Devorah Halberstam, whose son Ari was shot in 1994 by an Arab gunman on the Brooklyn Bridge, admitted that coming home late at night, last week, she ran the block-and-half from her car to her home.
Twenty years after the riots and violent home invasions of 1991, a palpable tension is back in Crown Heights. Police wear riot helmets as they watch from horseback. A Brooklyn South police command van is parked on the corner of Kingston Avenue and Eastern Parkway. In the night, a half-dozen police cars, red lights whirling as the cars are idling, wait outside 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad Lubavitch headquarters.
Is “knockout” anti-Semitic? It feels that way to many, but it may be more racial than anything else. There have knockouts from St. Louis to Syracuse, always with black punchers and white victims (and seven dead ones), but only in New York have all the victims been Jewish. Blacks also call the game “Polar Bear Hunting” because the victims are white.
New York police have been cautious with linking the New York crimes to the national ones. Asked about knockout, Chief Owen Monaghan of Brooklyn South told us, “There have been a series of assaults. That’s what we’re talking about. The knockout issue is significant in other areas, as we’ve seen on the Internet, but we’re dealing with specific crimes right here and that’s being actively being investigated by the hate crimes task force.”
The blacks of Crown Heights have “grievances,” that most haunted of urban words. Laurie Cumbo, 38, who is black and newly elected to the City Council representing part of Crown Heights, told us that when she was campaigning she heard many in the African-American and Caribbean community complaining that “Many of the buildings are owned by the Jewish community and [black tenants felt] there was a deliberate movement to push them out of their homes. What they would say to me is [the Jews are] doing this, not fixing that, making noise, they’re trying to push me out.’
“They tell me, ‘You better do something about this.’ They fear an ultimate takeover,” Cumbo continues. “Many [blacks living in private homes] talk about how proud they are, that no matter how many ‘bags of money’ were brought to their doors [by Jews] to buy their homes, they’re not selling.”
Young blacks might be picking up on the resentment. “It may be one of those things,” says Cumbo, “that when they come home their parents are talking, ‘those damn Jews,’ not that they’re talking to the kids but kids hear.”
Rabbi Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, says of the landlord and real estate charges, “I don’t hear that kind of complaint.” Whoever says that “is living 20 years in the past,” when the complaints were first widely heard, coincidentally or not, at the time of the riot.
As for “bags of money,” he says, “Look, you may have individuals going around to see what homes are available, but there’s no systematic effort to displace people. That is just not going on.”
On many of the street lamps are posters for Yud Tet Kislev, a chasidic day for spiritual elevation, and posters from the Guardian Angels safety patrol for the more earthly danger: “Be aware of your surroundings. Avoid being distracted by cell phone or electronic devices. If you are a victim… call the police from a safe location.”
On the sidewalk outside the Kol Tuv (“It’s all good!”) grocery, a chasid explains, “There’s been cell phone snatchings. They would just come up from behind and grab it out of your hand. So, initially the reaction was, OK, we won’t use our phones out in the open. … Now this is worse. With knockout, they are not even looking to take anything but just inflict harm. My wife and I had a conversation about being afraid to go out at night. My son walks home from school and I tell him to walk with his friends. It’s frightening. Absolutely frightening.”
The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council invited more than 70 blacks, Jews, educators, clergy and politicians to a summit meeting last week over breakfast.
Some of the black school principals said what was needed was dialogue and education. “Yeah,” said Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, “we need to do all those things. … But people in this community were attacked [and] adults were belted in the face. … It’s a pretty incredible thing that we have to explain that its not OK to belt people in the street… I’m all for teaching the kids, but something that would be more effective would be arrests. … I remember 1991, what happened in this community. People called it a pogrom. There was Jewish blood in the street.”
(After last week’s knockout attack of a Jewish man in Borough Park, the first in that neighborhood, police arrested Amrit Marajh, 28. Released on $750 bail, Marjh claimed innocence and said he even had a Jewish girlfriend.)
Cumbo said violent behavior “is not to be tolerated… At the same time, we don’t want to ruin the lives of young people who are too young to understand. We want to do this in such a way that this kind of immature and dangerous behavior does not condemn individuals for the rest of their lives.” She called for black-Jewish dialogue. “Perhaps a basketball tournament, perhaps a youth panel discussion, where young people can talk about each other’s culture.”
After the breakfast, one Jewish participant, who asked not to be identified, was incredulous: “Basketball? A youth conversation? If women were being raped here, would we tell the women to dialogue with young men before we caught the rapists? If there was a Ku Klux Klan rally, we would tell young blacks to play sports with whites, until we knew which of the white kids was at such a rally?”
Rev. Al Sharpton, still despised by many Jews in Crown Heights for his anti-Semitic speeches and inflammatory marches during the Crown Heights riot, was not at the summit but nevertheless issued a strong statement condemning the knockouts this past week: “This kind of behavior is deplorable… We would not be silent if it was the other way around. We cannot be silent or in any way reluctant to confront it when it is coming from our own community. Kids are randomly knocking out people [from] another race — some specifically going at Jewish people. This kind of insane thuggery –there is nothing cute about that.”
On the sidewalk outside the Kol Tuv, olive oil Chanukah candles were on sale. In the gloaming, young girls in long skirts were walking home from school and mothers pushed baby carriages. Yellow school buses from United Lubavitcher Yeshiva rolled down Montgomery Street. Chasidic clarinet music was piped into the streets.
All over Crown Heights, it was time for evening prayer in the shuls and shtiebels. “Don’t be afraid of the sudden terror,” though come it will. This is a world of brokenness and mystery, but blessed is the God “who brings on the darkness.”