It was Aug. 19, 1991. Homes were abandoned as hurricanes made landfall in the Carolinas, storming up the Atlantic coast on the way to Maine. That same night, in Mikhail Gorbachev’s summer dacha, men with guns attempted a coup that put the Soviet Union to its death. And in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, a runaway station wagon, driven by a chasid, was sent reeling from a collision with a third car at the intersection of Utica and President Street causing the station wagon to jump the sidewalk, pinning two young black cousins, Gavin and Angela Cato, against a brick wall, with Gavin soon to die.
Then it got worse, if that’s possible, with the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, shouts of “Kill the Jews,” the most violent anti-Jewish rioting in American history, four days and nights that had Kingston Avenue resembling nothing if not the unbridled terrors of Kishinev or Kielce, albeit with fewer dead.
According to the Girgenti Report, commissioned by Gov. Mario Cuomo to examine the events, the riot “differed from most others in New York City history because it involved the aggression of one group against another.” Most riots in the 1960s were directed against the police. In Crown Heights, though, “Much of the criminal activity… was targeted against the chasidic community in a way rarely witnessed….”
For years, the city was raw with resentment — racial, religious, and political. John Taylor, writing in New York magazine in 1993, noted that “Not only were Jews singled out for attack — a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a pogrom — but just as happened during Kristallnacht, the anti-Semitic rampage seemed to the Jews on the streets to have official sanction. Police on patrol in Crown Heights, threatened with suspension if they moved from their designated positions, at times did nothing to stop the violence they observed. It is a frightening enough experience to be in danger and feel that the people who are supposed to protect you are present but will not protect you.”
There was the perception that Mayor David Dinkins’ “courteous demeanor,” added New York magazine, “masks a racial bitterness,” a belief “that the expression of black rage was, up to a point, justified … he was fearful of alienating his black base, and wanted,” until it became impossible, “to avoid siding with whites in a race riot.”
That week of rioting changed New York for the next 20 years. Voters have yet to again trust the police department to a Democratic mayor, electing only Republican mayors since 1993, five elections in a row, the Democrat’s longest mayoral losing streak in the history of New York.
It didn’t help Democrats that Al Sharpton, one of the most vocal agitators in Crown Heights — calling Jews “diamond merchants,” shouting “Whose streets? Our streets,” telling crowds during the riot, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house” — was a candidate and kingmaker treated with respect and deference in several Democratic primaries for many years after.
And yet, David Pollock, associate executive director of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, points out that the Crown Heights community did not wither after the riot, it got stronger. The Lubavitcher rebbe’s edict against the white flight that cleared out other Jewish neighborhoods was honored by his chasidim after the riot. Chabad didn’t run.
“Crown Heights has been gentrifying over the years,” said Pollock. “There has been an increase in the white community, chasidic and non-chasidic, and the black population has dropped over the past 20 years. That’s a function of gentrification as well as the aging of the black community.”
There’s even been an influx of “hipsters,” said the JCRC’s Bob Kaplan. At times over the years things have gotten heated but “we were able to chill things out before they boiled up.”
One highly publicized example of gentrification in the private sector is Basil’s, a kosher bistro on the so-called black side, the poor side of Eastern Parkway. On a recent Sunday, the upscale Basil’s ($4 cokes, $32 entrees, $125 bottles of wine) was packed with 29 Jews but only two blacks — the waitresses.
Dinkins’ supporters were protective of the first black mayor. Arthur Browne, metropolitan editor of the Daily News, mourned during the riot for a mayor whose election “lifted the aspirations of so many.”
During the week of the riot, the Anti-Defamation League, so good at reacting to skinheads in Idaho, issued a vanilla statement, expressing condolences to the Cato and Rosenbaum families. The American Jewish Congress, issued a statement that week, saying Dinkins deserved to be “commended.” The Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations issued a statement headlined: “Reform Jewish group praises Mayor Dinkins for brave effort to restore calm to Crown Heights. Asks city commission to hear complaints of discrimination against blacks…”
The Girgenti Report disagreed with these mainstream Jewish groups. Not only were the riots deemed anti-Semitic but the report said Dinkins “did not act in a timely and decisive manner in requiring the police department to meet his own stated objectives: ‘to protect the lives, safety and property of the residents of Crown Heights, and to quickly restore peace and order to the community.’”
Former Mayor Ed Koch later said of Dinkins, “I think he’s doing very well with Jewish leaders and very badly with the Jewish community.”
Not long after the riot, ADL national director Abe Foxman admitted to The New York Times that he was wrong. "Anti-Semitism is all over the place in Crown Heights," said Foxman. "It is ugly, it is classical and it is deadly. And the fact that it is American and it is black should not make it invisible or tolerable." Foxman added that his initial hesitation to say so was motivated by his liberalism, "a quest for social justice and a desire not to hurt those who were hurt" in the past," even as Jews were being hurt in the moment..
Deep into the riot, the Police Benevolent Association posted a notice on precinct bulletin boards: “Over the last three nights, New York’s finest have been transformed into New York’s ‘Lamest.’ Lame … because of the response that police officers under an actual state of siege have been allowed to put forth….” The PBA told its members “not to serve as lame sitting ducks; they need not retreat and cower in fear…”
From 1991 through the mayoral election of 1993, the literalism of whether a pogrom had to be government sponsored continued to be a test (created by Dinkins) for whether one was with or against Dinkins, even whether the critic was racist or not. Of course, blacks used the word "ghetto" to describe their poor neighborhood, even though that was not the literal or historical definition of a ghetto, either (it was a government-designated area for Jews in Italian cities). To the Jewish community that mostly arrived in Crown Heights as refugees, an anti-Semitic riot, with Jews feeling unprotected, sure seemed like a pogrom, just as Dinkins said that Rosenbaum’s murder reminded him of a "lynching.” Everyone gives a name to their own nightmares.
Of course, back in Europe, not all pogroms were government sponsored. Some were inspired by church sermons on Easter and Halloween, and some were spontaneous eruptions of culturally approved bullying. What all pogroms had in common was passivity by the local police until an anti-Jewish rampage ran its course. A divisive debate over the meaning of pogrom, lasting for more than two years, could have easily been ended if the mayor simply said to the victims of Crown Heights, yes, I understand why you experienced it as a pogrom.
Let’s listen to voices from the past recorded in the Girgenti Report, telephone calls to 911 on the riot’s second night:
Caller: “Utica — Utica and Schenectady. There’s no police in sight. There’s a mob of about 200 people.”
911: “Sir, we have numerous officers in the area.”
Caller: “There’s nobody on this block! Nobody! Between Utica and Schenectady — nobody! The police are staying away, they’re afraid! We need the riot squad, damn it.”
The caller is heard on the tape yelling to his wife, “Get in the back, get in the back with the kids!”
Caller: “They have just come in through the door and they’re attacking my wife! … They’re storming in through the windows — they’re breaking the windows!”
The police never came.
Did we say there was a hurricane heading up the coast? By the time it hit Brooklyn it was no longer a hurricane but a storm, and by midnight on the second night it did what the police couldn’t or wouldn’t. The rain scattered the mob. By Friday morning, the sky and streets seemed to clear. It was over.
Twenty years later, the rain and glaziers have done their job, washing away the blood and replacing the broken glass.
There is a sign on the Greater New Harvest Church in Crown Heights, “Surely the Lord is in this place.” The full verse continues, “but I, I didn’t know it” — not in that long ago August.