Is Crown Heights Over?
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Is Crown Heights Over?

For a dozen years the Crown Heights riots and murder case have shown a stubborn persistence in the headlines.
First came the jury verdict that acquitted Lemrick Nelson Jr. of murdering Yankel Rosenbaum. Then the state investigation of the riots, the repercussions in the 1993 mayoral race, the civil suit and the federal investigation.
Then came the settlement of the civil suit, a federal civil rights conviction against Nelson, a reversal, a new trial and ultimately another conviction that seems, finally, to be the last chapter in what arguably was the most resilient case of racial strife in New York City history.
Calling Nelson’s attack on Rosenbaum a "horrendous and pathetic act of racial and religious bigotry," Judge Frederic Block in Federal District Court in Brooklyn last week sentenced Nelson to 10 years for violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights. Nelson, 28, already has served the bulk of the sentence.
After his release inside of a year, Nelson will have to live in a Newark halfway house to undergo vocational training. He also will be subject to supervision and psychotherapy for three more years.
Nelson has the right to appeal the sentence, but he probably would be free before the process was completed.
Prosecutors and Rosenbaum’s family wanted a longer sentence for Nelson, who over the years has benefited from a series of legal developments, most of them beyond his control. (See accompanying story.)
Following the sentencing, Rosenbaumís brother said he and his family were not reconciled with the outcome.
"If there is any way [to pursue this], we will do it," Norman Rosenbaum said.
Rosenbaum suggested that the judgeís statement during the sentencing that Nelson had committed perjury during the trial with statements regarding his former profession of innocence might lead to a new prosecution on that charge.
But after the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Roslyn Mauskopf said the event spelled "closure on this sad chapter of New York’s history," suggesting no further action.
Too much time has elapsed for the Rosenbaum family to consider a civil, wrongful death suit against Nelson, who was 16 at the time of the attack.
"This is the end of Crown Heights as far as the litigation and as far as active case law," said attorney Franklyn Snitow, who successfully sued New York City on behalf of the Crown Heights Jewish community, charging that police failed to quell the riots.
But Snitow believes the events of August 1991 are a civics lesson that should remain in the city’s collective consciousness.
"There will never be an end of a story that involves a pogrom not only by those who participated in the violence but by city officials who found it expedient to allow people to vent their rage at the expense of Jewish people," he said.
Nevertheless, while Nelson’s imminent release from jail may stir some passion on both sides of the divide, it is likely that Crown Heights will again be better known as a neighborhood than a political issue.
"There is a differentiation between the chasidic community and the Rosenbaum family," said Rabbi Shea Hecht of the Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education in Crown Heights. "For the Rosenbaum family, as much time as they need to bring closure and as many legal actions as they need to bring closure, let peace be upon them.
"But for Jews in Crown Heights and even beyond Crown Heights, we have to move on."
Fred Siegel, a history professor at Cooper Union and civic commentator, said the relative calm during the recent blackout showed that present-day New York City is a different place than it was in 1991.
"Once [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani re-established the rule of law, the norms and expectations about violence were changed," Siegel said. "Violent racial confrontation seems to be ending. The growth of the immigrant population, the incorporation of African Americans into the political and economic system, have dampened the fires of violence.
"Is there an end to racial tensions? No. Are we where we were 10 years ago? No."
Siegel said police have also learned important lessons about deployment strategy from the failures of Crown Heights.
"Even if there were another outburst, it would be ended quickly," he said.
Peace has prevailed in the neighborhood for so long that it almost seems cliched to point out after each development that Crown Heights remains calm. There has never been an incident remotely similar to the riots of 1991, sparked by the death of a black child struck by a car driven by a member of the Lubavitcher rebbe’s motorcade.
Even several similar accidents, some eerily taking place on or around the anniversaries of the fatal crash, have not stirred up passions to the level of that night, when a perfect storm of hot weather, misinformation, pre-existing tensions and official ineptitude ignited a powder keg.
"There is a level of communication that has blossomed and flourished to the point that now we have people in place at all times who can pick up a cell phone or a beeper," said Richard Green, director of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, a leader in bridge building in the area. "Clear, correct and consistent information is what keeps a community like this going."
Green said the ongoing legal wars in the case have never had an effect on relations between blacks and Jews on the ground.
"From the legal end of it, that track has reached its terminal," he said.
"What happens next is to continue the healing process, as we’ve been doing since 1991. The courts never really had an effect on that."

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