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.
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.
Physically, little has changed in Crown Heights since then. The neighborhood is still largely working class and ethnically diverse. Eastern Parkway is the world headquarters and central synagogue of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, the group to which most of Crown Heights’ Jewish population belongs. Inside the large brick building, men rock back and forth, murmuring, lost deep in prayer as young Lubavitchers from all over the world sit in small groups, studying feverishly. A few sleep fitfully, their heads resting on the books of Jewish law. Other men roam about, trying to put together a minyan—the required group of 10 men—so that they might hold a small service. A homeless man wanders through, shaking a cup. Above in the balcony, in the women’s section, faces peer down through gaps in the glass.
In the corner, on a raised platform, sits a rolled-up carpet and a large armchair. In this chair once sat Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, the longtime Lubavitch leader who kept the Jews in Crown Heights in the face of white flight to the suburbs. Later, at the afternoon service, the carpet will be rolled out and the empty chair will be set in its rightful place, that it might welcome the Rabbi should he return as the Messiah, as some here believe he will.
A visitor approaches several young Jews and asks them about the recent court decision that may set Yankel Rosenbaum’s convicted killer free. Like these men, Rosenbaum was a student here, yet they have not heard of him or of the riots of 1991. “You should ask one of the men with the big beards,” advises one young scholar. “They have been here longer.”
“How do I feel about the court ruling?” asks Rabbi Praeger, a small elderly man with an appropriately long gray beard. “I don’t feel at all. It’s a legal issue. Lemrick Nelson is guilty, I know it, and we will let the courts deal with it.” As for the Black community, “you can’t blame an entire community,” he says. “You have to find the individual responsible. Like Al Sharpton. He was out there inciting the people. Al Sharpton was busing people in to Crown Heights.”
His anger at Al Sharpton aside, Rabbi Praeger’s remarks are surprisingly conciliatory. Ten years ago, rumors abounded of weapons caches on both sides of the racial divide; at least one Hasid showed a reporter a handgun, holstered under his black coat. Today, there is still little voluntary interaction between Blacks and Jews. Yet the two groups tolerate each other, and part of the reason is the success of various community organizations, all heavily funded with tax dollars and foundation grants over the last decade. Mothers to Mothers, Project CARE, and the Crown Heights Youth Collective, among others, have organized dialogue and activities between Blacks and Jews. The kids occasionally play basketball together, Jewish and Black mothers sit down to talk, priests and rabbis have each other’s cell phone numbers.
Jimmy Breslin, who in 1991 wrote numerous columns about Crown Heights for Newsday, shows no surprise that the neighborhood has moved on. He tells of a recent journey back to the neighborhood: “I went to Utica and President, tried to find my one contact. At the pizza joint, they told me he was in the fucking can [jail]; he was gone. I don’t know anyone else. How many years ago was it now? Come on, 10 years, the neighborhood’s changed twice already,” he says.
Notwithstanding the fact that he was beaten, his clothes ripped off, and the taxi he was riding in burned, Breslin believes consciousness has faded because the events weren’t that remarkable in the first place. “[The media] overstated what happened there. They used it to scare people,” he says. “There was no pogrom, there was no riot. How can you have a riot—how many people were killed? Two, and one died in hospital of outrageous negligence [Yankel Rosenbaum died of internal bleeding after doctors failed to locate one of his stab wounds]. How many stores looted? Seven, seven stores, that’s all. So I’m sorry, you don’t have a riot. How many shots fired, none. Look it up,” he says. (At least one store was burned; the police reported dozens of shots fired and at least 188 injuries.)
Perhaps those with the largest stake in memorializing the events are Yankel Rosenbaum’s family. Isaac Abraham, spokesperson for the Rosenbaums, becomes livid when asked about assertions that the events were overstated, or that the community should move on and put Rosenbaum’s death behind it.
“What do people mean when they say we should put this behind us? What is the definition of that? Do you think the African American community would be silent if this happened in the African American community? The fine line in the sand is, ‘If [the victim] is Jewish, let’s forget about it; if he’s gay, or African American, let’s even prosecute him after 50 years.’
“You have to remember what was going on in the South, so it doesn’t happen again. You have to remember what happened to Rodney King, but nobody wants to remember what an African American person did to Reginald Denny, and pulled him out of his truck and beat the hell out of him because he was white. That’s something people want to forget, and people want to forget what happened to Yankel Rosenbaum. No, you have to remember what happened to Yankel Rosenbaum. If you remember that, you know it’ll never happen again.”
Just down President Street from the spot where Gavin Cato was killed, there is a small storefront, a cross welded to the fence post. Above the roll-down steel gate, the sign reads “Eternal Sacred Order of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church.” Inside, two dozen parishioners, Nigerian Pentecostals, are reading psalms and singing hymns. The church is only six months old. “We have a lot of members around here,” explains Sunny Diri, the pastor. These new immigrants have come to find new opportunities, not fight old battles.
Diri’s congregants arrive with picnic coolers and bags of fruit. They change into their white robes and four-cornered white hats. As the service gets under way, the men pound out rhythms on congas under the sagging, stained ceiling tiles as two women stand barefoot, swaying softly, singing, “Jesus watches over me.” Diri leads the congregation through passages from Revelations, and then they take turns testifying, asking the Lord for protection from sickness, from loss of work, from the kidnapping of their children. “I spoke with my family back home in Nigeria,” says a man. “And they are fine. Thank you, Lord.” A score of young children kneel in prayer at the folding chairs, some sneaking snacks from a clandestine bag of Doritos as they follow along on tattered Bibles.
Diri has no problems with his Jewish neighbors; they have much in common, he believes. Historians, he points out, refer to “Judeo-Christian” religions. “The main difference between us is the Jesus thing,” he explains. “We believe Jesus is the Messiah.”
Diri was one of the earlier immigrants from Nigeria; unlike many of his parishioners, he was in Crown Heights in 1991. “It was a bad time,” he says. “Tense, dangerous.”
Relations have improved dramatically in the decade since the riots, yet, for many here, the devil is in the details. “On the 10th anniversary, everyone wanted to come together, to show solidarity,” says the director of a community organization, who asks to remain anonymous. “But mention the details, and the tensions—the wounds—just open up. We had to say discussion of the details was off limits.”
Pastor Diri agrees. “I just try to forget about it,” he says. “If we keep looking back, we bring up issues we should not bring up. We keep hearing about who killed Yankel Rosenbaum, but I keep thinking, ‘What happened to the driver—why was he not brought to justice? Where is he now?’ They talk about the Black guys who started the riot, but they never talk about the Jewish driver who killed Gavin Cato. So I say it’s better to just forget it. It’s 10 years now—the boy is dead, the driver is gone. Let’s just forget about it and continue with life.”
“The Crown Heights Quiets” by Dasun Allah