Hillary's Crown Heights Problem

If Rudy Giuliani plays the race card, he most likely will try to attack Former Mayor David Dinkins's legacy in one of the city's ethnic hotbeds

In the event Giuliani signals he intends to fight nasty, Dinkins will rely on the media to expose the mayor as a hypocrite who condones racism. In fairness, he argues, reporters might want to question Giuliani's coddling of former deputy mayor John Dyson after Dyson authored a racist memo on welfare reform. In the 1994 memo to Peter Powers, another Giuliani senior aide, Dyson referred to a Daily News article that questioned whether Powers and Giuliani were capable of running a diverse city like New York. "Do not worry," Dyson wrote. "Two white guys have been running this city of immigrants for over 200 years."

There were no persistent front-page stories or editorials calling on Giuliani to fire, in columnist Bob Herbert's words, the "arrogant and obnoxious" Dyson. That, Dinkins complains, smacks of a racist double standard. "The media reported it but . . . if they thought I had said something anti-Semitic or had a relationship with someone who they suspected of being anti-Semitic, they would have been all over me," he charges. "He said some crap like that— in writing, mind you— and got away with it."

Dyson, incredibly, also got away with a "watermelon" insult during a dispute over whether the city should retain a company owned by a black woman. "The City Comptroller ought to know the difference between a bid and a watermelon," Dyson remarked.

Holding the Race Card: Jewish Demonstrators in Crown Heights
photo: Meg Handler
Holding the Race Card: Jewish Demonstrators in Crown Heights

"So you tell me about Rudy playing the race card," Dinkins says. "I don't think it's in his interest to attempt to play it," he reiterates, "because if you're going to play the race card as far as Crown Heights goes, it's not an appropriate issue."

Raising Crown Heights raises the temper of Bill Lynch, a deputy mayor under Dinkins who is now one of Mrs. Clinton's top advisers. In fact, Crown Heights evokes a poignant response from the veteran Democratic operative who underwent open heart surgery and a kidney transplant, which some friends contend were hastened by racist media criticism of his role in the handling of the tragic events.

While insisting "we did the right thing there," Lynch snapped, "I don't want to talk about it! . . . This is traumatic enough for my family and me. . . . I'm sitting here with a scar above my heart and a scar on my stomach with a kidney from my kid. Leave it the fuck alone! If you go back and look over the records, during that period I went temporarily blind."

Even in the Age of Giuliani, it is not as easy for people like Victor A. Kovner to leave the "wrenching agony arising from [the] tragic incidents" in Crown Heights "the fuck alone."

On June 15, as Kovner stepped to the podium to receive the Stanley M. Isaacs Human Relations Award from the New York chapter of the American Jewish Committee, the events that triggered the race riot weighed on the mind of the widely respected civil libertarian, who was chief corporation counsel during the Dinkins administration.

If what Kovner told his audience does not resonate with Giuliani and those who have egged him on over Crown Heights, perhaps nothing will change their views about the debacle and the circumstances that began it all.

"Widely overlooked then— and today— were the deeply held grievances of the African American community, which never understood why the outrage of the Jewish community regarding the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum failed to include expressions of regret for the death of Gavin Cato, the child who was killed in what was unquestionably an accident that evening," said Kovner, whose law firm represents the Voice.

"When anyone, especially African Americans, would remind us that the deaths [of] Rosenbaum and Cato were tragedies to both communities, they would be denigrated by those who argued that is was near-blasphemous to equate an automobile accident with a murder, as if the grief of either family was any the greater. But for several years, the public debate, led by vocal forces in Brooklyn, insisted that Crown Heights was a one-sided tragedy. . . .

"It was widely known that the Lubavitcher Rebbe's daily trips through several African American neighborhoods to the Old Montefiore Cemetery were resented because they were invariably accompanied by a police escort, which resulted in his procession moving at above normal speeds through densely populated neighborhoods. Why should a religious leader be entitled to such extraordinary special protection, many of his Brooklyn neighbors would ask. It was widely believed that the reason for that escort was that it would not be safe for this revered figure, thought by many to be the Messiah himself, to travel through unfriendly neighborhoods unprotected. Surely, many reasoned, the African American community should understand the importance of the Rebbe and the reasons to accord him such singular protection at public expense.

"Once again, such a presumption— protection from a hostile African American community— was simply wrong. In fact, the special police protection for Rabbi Schneerson was first granted during the 1970s because of tension between the Lubavitchers and the Satmar community, another Hasidic sect with equally devout adherents in Brooklyn. It was to protect the Rebbe from Satmar threats that police were first assigned to give him unprecedented special protection. And, over time, that daily escort elicited resentment that festered for more than a decade prior to that fateful August evening. Here was yet another example of misunderstandings that exacerbated deep wounds whose scars remain. Indeed, there are those— including those in high office— who still seek to exploit those scars, making more urgent the need for organizations that are committed to overcoming such tensions."

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