Yankel Rosenbaum would be 49 today, most likely surrounded by a large family and living in New York or in his native Melbourne. A twist of fate kept that from happening and Rosenbaum, whom I never met but feel as if knew him, happened to walk home down the wrong street on a hate-filled summer night two decades ago this week. For Rosenbaum, it was a perfect storm of bad luck and incompetence in city and police leadership and later in the emergency room at Kings County Hospital that lead to his death.
The Crown Heights riots, which we commemorate on this 20th anniversary, were also the product of a perfect storm, a complimentary-sounding term first popularized by the 1997 novel of that name by Sebastian Junger and the 2000 film adaption. There can be no discussion about what happened on those streets without the question of whether it can happen again today or in the future. I believe that something like it can happen again: The events in London and elsewhere illustrate the precarious thread from which public order is suspended.
There are 8 million people in New York City and roughly 40,000 cops. Order and civility in the city depends on the overwhelming majority of people obeying the law. If even one percent of the city were to be stirred up into some kind of fury and inclined to riot or loot, the police, even with help from state police or the national guard, would be overwhelmed.
It’s not clear that the police were outnumbered on the streets of Crown Heights 20 years ago, just that they were paralyzed. I always marvel at the infamous photo of the police car overturned on Eastern Parkway and wonder what the occupants of that car and their colleagues were doing while it happened.
Still, I believe nothing quite like the Crown Heights riots can recur, precisely because, like a rare combination of weather conditions, so many factors contributed to it.
The most important of which was the shocking death of Gavin Cato, who would be 27 today and likely raising his own family, perhaps not far from the neighborhood where he didn’t get to grow up. There can be nothing more shocking than the violent death of a child, and the many people who witnessed it on that busy streetcorner had to have been traumatized by the site of a child pinned under a stationwagon.
Of all the mistakes that were made on that day and those afterward, perhaps the most dangerous was a well-intentioned one, when an officer on the scene, because of the angry reaction of the crowd to the Hatzolah ambulance that arrived on the scene, instructed the ambulance crew to leave the scene. Within seconds — even without the Internet or cell phones — the rumor spread that the chasidic medical technicians were unconcerned about the fate of Gavin and his cousin, Angela, and only interested in treating the Jewish driver of the car that struck them.
Without that misinformation it’s unlikely that that level of anger and violence would have spread out like a forest fire from the scene. But there are other factors that sustained the blaze, including the large presence of young people from outside the neighborhood who had been at a concert nearby and immediately picked up the rumor as they left.
The next factor was the initial police response. Exhaustive depositions in the civil suit by the Crown Heights community against the city and NYPD have never turned up proof that Mayor David Dinkins told the police to let the rioters vent their frustration rather than crack down. (The suit was settled at the behest of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and never went before a jury.) But it is clear that such a decision was made on some level of the police department, and that Dinkins should have interceded. He admitted as much at a press conference years later — following the settlement of the civil suit — when The Jewish Week asked what he might have done differently with the benefit of hindsight, and he said he perhaps should have realized the police response was ineffective sooner. (On the third day, after bottles were thrown at the mayor in Crown Heights, he ordered a crackdown.)
Based on conversations I have had with cops, there is a certain logic to letting some situations play themselves out with minimal police interference — such as in the case of an emotionally disturbed person who can be contained and does not represent an immediate threat. (This is a procedure cops ignored in the case of Gideon Busch eight years later, when they forced him out of his home and pepper-sprayed him.) But observation and containment makes no sense whatsoever in a riot situation, when the exact opposite approach is necessary. Multiple early arrests, even of those who would be later released without charges, would have immediately sent a message that the cops had no tolerance for mayhem. The lack of action sent the opposite message, and word quickly spread around the city, bringing more outsiders in.
There are other factors, such as the hot weather and lack of summer jobs, but noting these flirt with justification of criminal behavior, of which there is absolutely none. It’s clear that longstanding resentment against Jews and the notion of better police protection given to the Lubavitch — a notion all too tragically dispelled — boiled over that day and community leaders on both sides have now spent years opening lines of communication to make sure that never happens again.
Another factor in this perfect storm — many would say the most significant factor — was the conduct of one leader.
I held off writing this post this week, hoping to be able to have another chance to discuss the riots with Rev. Al Sharpton, as I have had the occasion to do once or twice. The reverend didn’t respond to several phone calls and emails, and on Thursday, faced with a barrage of criticism from Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman, he backed out of an appearance at the Hampton Synagogue on Sunday, at which he would surely have been questioned about his role by audience members. In a letter to Rabbi Marc Schneier, the reverend seemed to choose his words carefully, saying the state report on the riots never found that he participated in violence.
Then, on Sunday, the Daily News published an op-ed by Reverend Sharpton in which he went further than he ever has in admitting to fanning the flames, saying that "Our language and tone [ostensibly referring to himself and sidekicks Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason] sometimes exacerbated tensions and played to the extremists rather than raising the issue of the value of this young man [Gavin Cato] whom we were so concerned about."
What’s missing is an acknowledgment that he was one of the extremists, and not just on that day but for months afterward when he continued to press for the prosecution of Yosef Lifsh, the driver of the car that struck Gavin Cato. Even after a grand jury determined that Lifsh was not criminally responsible, Sharpton followed him to Israel to attempt to serve him with a civil subpoena, further fueling the idea of special treatment for the chasidim that kept the streets burning for three days.
(In a letter to the editor this week, Mark Baker, one of the lawyers representing Lifsh, details the great pains Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes and his staff went through to ensure a fair process in determining whether to bring charges.)
As Reverend Sharpton notes in his letter to Rabbi Schneier, he has undergone a substantial transformation; When the public was outraged over the police shootings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, he gave voice to outrage and comforted family members but organized peaceful and dignified protests, giving us a glimpse of the person that should have been on the streets in 1991, much as Rudy Giuliani’s response to 9/11 made us wish he we had that mayor for the prior seven years.
It is likely any of these mistakes — trauma, misinformation, demagoguery, official incompetence, bad community communication — can recur again, but less likely that they’ll all happen at the same time, making Crown Heights, God willing, a singular event in history.