Faded Rage

As a Divided Community Begins to Forget, a Court Reopens Old Wounds in Crown Heights

Saeed Abdullah is a street vendor in Crown Heights. He spends his days at the corner of Utica and President, at his small stand, where piles of children's gloves compete for space with hair pomade and Lick Me All Over body oil. "The boy that was killed?" he replies, when asked about Gavin Cato, the seven-year-old boy whose 1991 death sparked the Crown Heights riot, a four-day spree of violence that exposed New York City's deep racial fault lines. "I wouldn't know nothing about that, I only been here two years."

Abdullah pauses for a moment. "A lot of TV cameras been coming 'round, they stand over there," he says, pointing to a barren stretch of sidewalk.

Nearby, several teenagers stand talking. The names of the three principals in the riot—Gavin Cato, the Black youth run down by a car from the Lubavitch Grand Rabbi's motorcade; Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic Jew pulled from his car hours later and stabbed to death; and Lemrick Nelson Jr., a Black teenager convicted of Rosenbaum's killing—draw a blank from them. "1991? No, I didn't live here back then," says 16-year-old Jovon Paul. "There was a riot right here in this neighborhood?" he asks in wonderment, when told about the events. His friend, Yannick John, was raised in Crown Heights. But he was five years old in 1991. His memories are vague.

Outside 1681 President Street, where Gavin Cato was killed
photo: Michael Kamber
Outside 1681 President Street, where Gavin Cato was killed

Memories were prodded last week when a federal appeals court threw out the conviction of Lemrick Nelson Jr. The judges ruled that in an effort to maintain a racially balanced jury, the trial judge, David G. Trager of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, seated a Jewish juror who had admitted possible bias against the defendant. Prosecutors are now deciding whether Nelson will be retried or set free.

Within hours of the court's decision, scores of reporters and TV crews descended on Crown Heights, looking for signs of renewed racial tension. What they found instead was a neighborhood largely indifferent to the ruling. In an area flooded with new immigrants—West Indians, Jews, and more recently Asians and Africans—many residents had never heard of the riots. Others had vague memories, faded like photos left too long in the sun. Still others said they remembered the event well but had not spoken of it in years: "We're trying to put it behind us. It was a long time ago," one Jewish man intoned.

To those who remember, the amnesia is shocking. It is hard to describe the climate of racial animosity in New York in 1991; people spoke of little else. The previous several years had yielded a crop of death for Black New Yorkers. Eleanor Bumpurs was killed by the NYPD; Yusef Hawkins and Michael Stewart by white mobs. The city was still reeling from the Tawana Brawley media circus, in which Al Sharpton represented a Black teenager from Wappingers Falls who claimed she was kidnapped and raped by a group of white men.

And then there were the tensions particular to Black/Jewish relations in Crown Heights, a neighborhood of 134,000 that a 1984 Carnegie Corporation of New York report described as "awash in a sea of ethnocentrism, prejudice, and violent conflict." There were the Jewish Defense League patrols accused of randomly harassing Black residents, the struggles over housing, the fight for control of federal poverty grants, and an epidemic of street crime.

The powder keg exploded outside of 1681 President Street, a sooty redbrick building set back from the street. It was here, on the evening of August 19, 1991, that a station wagon ran a red light, caroming off another car and onto the sidewalk where seven-year-old Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants, was fixing the chain on his bicycle. Cato was dragged under the car; his cousin Angela pinned against a window grate. The station wagon was part of Lubavitcher leader Rebbe Menachem Schneerson's motorcade. As a large crowd gathered, the uninjured driver, Yosef Lifsh, was whisked away by the Hatzolah, a Jewish ambulance service, while Gavin Cato lay trapped under the car. Later, it would be revealed that a police officer, worried for the driver's safety, had ordered Lisef's removal. None of this mattered on the warm August evening. Word quickly spread through the crowd that the Jew was being treated while the Black boy was left to die.

Within hours of Cato's death, Yankel Rosenbaum, a yeshiva student from Australia, was pulled from his car and stabbed. For four days the violence continued, as Blacks rampaged through the streets. "Get the Jews out!" was their rallying cry. Shots were fired, Jews chased down and

beaten. Utica Gold Exchange, N.Y. Chicken, Sneaker King, and other stores were looted. The Reverend Al Sharpton and activist Sonny Carson organized rallies.

The four-day disturbance—an uprising, a riot, or a pogrom, depending on whom you talk to—changed New York City irrevocably. It exposed to the world the racial strife that permeated New York City. It severely damaged the reputation of David Dinkins, the city's first African American mayor; sparked a white voter backlash; and was instrumental in Rudy Giuliani's defeat of Dinkins in the next election.

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