There is no shortage of reminders these days of how easily the peace can be disrupted in America and around the world, and how thin is the fabric of law and order. Protests turn to disturbances easily, all too often resulting in senseless violence, and all too often directed against people who have no connection to the grievance that sparked the unrest.
The Crown Heights riots of 1991 were a different and, fortunately still singular series of events in America, because it was the first time, perhaps since a lynch mob killed Leo Frank in 1915 Georgia, that a rampant violent mob targeted Jews. Hopefully it will be the last.
Much has been analyzed about this in the years culminating in the recent 25th anniversary, but the main takeaway is that misinformation and anger can travel at the speed of fire, especially when the fuel is Antisemitism.
Looking back from the age of social media and lessons learned, it’s hard to understand how the rumor that a Jewish ambulance squad refused to treat a dying black child, Gavin Cato, spread so quickly, and for so long, without being effectively dispelled. For it was the police who told the Hatzolah crew, who wanted nothing more than the chance to save a life, to leave the scene for their own safety.
A “perfect storm” of tragedy mixed with dysfunction followed. First and foremost, it was the trauma of a 7-year-old child’s life ended in a horrific car crash and his cousin injured. Then, rumors from witnesses who viewed the incident through the prism of their own perception of favored treatment in the community by the police of chasidic Jews (mostly because the Chabad headquarters on Eastern Parkway, which regularly received hundreds of visitors from around the world was given a police sentry.)
There was a lack of sufficient official, accurate information channeled through community leaders when it was needed most, while hundreds of young visitors to the neighborhood were leaving a nearby concert. Top that off with weak leadership at the top of the police command and in City Hall, where the buck stops.
Into this nest of chaos, as police, for whatever reason, failed to forcefully quell the riots with mass arrests — word of a crackdown would have spread just as quickly as the accident news and dissuaded more people from joining the budding riot — walked Yankel Rosenbaum, who may well have had no idea what had caused his adopted community to erupt. One man was later convicted of inciting the mob with “get the Jew” as it did just that, but there had to be many others.
The vacuum of competence seemed to follow Rosenbaum from the unprotected streets to Kings County Hospital, where an untreated stab wound later lead to his death.
The next day things would go from bad to worse. The Rev. Al Sharpton, then an angry preacher who in short years prior seen black men murdered in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, and had himself had been stabbed in the chest by a white man, was unable to change the narrative when he arrived in Crown Heights, viewing this as another case of racism, almost as if the chasidic driver had targeted the child. The streets echoed with chants of “No justice, no peace,” even though there was already no peace, and there had been no chance yet to properly analyze the accident facts. (No charges were filed, and media reports noted that charges in such cases were rare.)
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of these events in 2011, Rev. Sharpton admirably reflected on his actions and noted in a Daily News op-ed that he should have chosen his words at the time, especially at the funeral of Gavin Cato, more carefully.
“With the wisdom of hindsight, let’s be clear,” he wrote. “Our language and tone sometimes exacerbated tensions and played to the extremists rather than raising the issue of the value of this young man whom we were so concerned about.” He added that he also should have expressed concern about the value of Yankel Rosenbaum’s life and that “there was no justification or excuse for violence.”
Not enough, according to Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman, who noted that the preacher has yet to demand justice from the 28 people who took part in the mob that attacked Yankel. Few if any people have ever been charged with lesser counts of vandalizing property and terrorizing Crown Heights Jews in their homes.
Looking back on the events, we are still reminded of how much people wanted to see an alternative version of events: blacks and Jews scuffling with each other over neighborhood issues, as the New York Times tried to cast it, or just indignation by the rioters over legitimate grievances spilling over into unfortunate violence because of the August heat, and the lack of good summer youth jobs.
But the truth, as Norman Rosenbaum put it, was that the riots at their core were a result of people, mostly agitators from outside Crown Heights, exploiting a tragedy to vent their resentment of Jews in general and the Crown Heights chasidim in particular, and inflict harm on innocent people.
If we are to learn any lesson at all, it is less about community cooperation and communication and more about the responsibility of leaders such as Sharpton and Mayor David Dinkins to act quickly and unambiguously in the first moments of any outbreak of tension and potential misinformation to quickly call for calm, and in the case of police, to present legal consequences to those who won’t heed those calls.
Investigators have never dis-proven what Mayor Dinkins has long maintained: That he never ordered the police to hold back and let the rioters vent. But that doesn’t matter. As his successor, Rudy Giuliani showed, the city’s chief executive gets the credit when things are running well because he appoints the people in charge and they answer to him. The 1993 election that ousted Dinkins showed the flip side. And in a situation like Crown Heights, the mayor should not defer to the police chief. He should be the police chief.
I believe that absent this perfect storm scenario of tragedy and failure, events like these would not recur. Today we’re able to Tweet and email accurate information to catch up to falsehoods and quickly organize leaders to restore calm; and with police alertness perpetually high out of terrorism concerns, it’s likely a strong presence, with the benefit of hindsight, would quickly overwhelm the streets.
New Yorkers, too, have learned to vote smarter. Hopefully when they look at a race for City Hall, they’ll factor in the important question of, when there’s a perfect storm, who will be holding the umbrella?