From City Hall to the housing project hallways, in the days since the announcements of the reversals of the federal convictions of Lemrick Nelson Jr. and Charles Price for violating the civil rights of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish student stabbed to death during the infamous 1991 Crown Heights uprising, and of the city’s $400,000 settlement with the family of Gavin Cato, the young man whose death sparked days of unrest and deadly rioting, the reaction in the Black community runs the gamut from apathy to agitation, from contempt to compassion, and from understanding to utter disgust.
At the Crown Heights Youth Collective community center, the main concern is about the lighting in the dining area for the evening dinner party, but the center is also the home base of 53-year-old Richard Green, one of the most visible and most vocal residents of all of Crown Heights. Besides serving as a mediator between the police and Black youth of Crown Heights, Green also has been an adviser to the Cato family and is currently a member of Bloomberg’s transition team. While people choose sides in back rooms, barrooms, and in the press, Green isn’t feeding into any Jewish-Black hoopla either way. “At my age,” says Green, “I can’t do nothing but tell the truth.” And to the Black community, Green’s truth may be a hot iron poker searing through the eye.
He feels that Black leaders are largely to blame for some of the same conditions that they contend over. He feels that they should be teaching the Black community to build itself instead of complaining about other communities. “Our leadership? Where is our leadership? The Honorable Elijah Muhammad gave us leadership,” says Green. “Martin Luther King gave us leadership.” He feels that Black leaders today are more concerned with being arrested at high-profile demonstrations than with giving their people a rest.
On Fox 5’s Good Day New York, Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman Rosenbaum, reacted to the court’s decision by vowing to pursue justice, and if the courts fail to deliver justice, to “make it work.” While Green, who was also on the program, recognizes Rosenbaum’s statements as indicative of his personal grief, others view Rosenbaum’s statements as indicative of the attitude of the entire Jewish community toward the judicial process.
“The whole understanding is that you don’t mess with them,” says Larry Hester, 27, a longtime resident of Crown Heights. “Mess with them and they’ll go all out to get you.”
Hester and many others in the Black community also express concern with the expansion of the Jewish community and feels that Jewish people are buying up all of the property in the neighborhood. While Green feels that Hester’s perceptions are true, he feels that the Black community should concern itself not with Jewish expansion but with its own economic future.
“If the Hasidic community gets to buy a building, and we don’t get together and buy that building, who’s to be blamed for that?” asks Green. He cites the Ebbets Field complex as an example. The Jewish community purchased the housing development when the Black community could have united and done the same thing.
As for the $400,000 city settlement to Carmel Cato, Gavin’s father, some members of the Black activist community feel that it was a “sellout” and that by accepting it he was “paid off.” They feel that Cato should never have settled with the city and that he should have taken his case all the way to court.
“Who was going to take it to court for him?” asks Green. “You know what they’ve done to poor Carmel Cato? After the trial, those same people left him. He went from pillar to post, didn’t have a place to stay, [the family] got burned out, he didn’t have a job, went through a whole lot of chaos and these same militants left him.”
Green says that Cato is happy with the settlement. But in an exclusive interview with Cato in the Daily Challenge, a pro-Black newspaper, Cato didn’t seem content. “It’s still not over,” Cato told the paper. “I want the city to do the right thing. I want the Jewish community to give the family some money, and I want Yosef Lifsh [the driver of the car that killed Cato] to face justice for killing my child.”
On January 9, Mayor Bloomberg was quoted as saying that his “way of thinking is the original court decision is the correct one,” and therein lies the dilemma. In the 1992 decision, Lemrick Nelson was acquitted of murder in the fatal stabbing of Rosenbaum. It was at a second, federal trial in 1997 that Nelson and Price were convicted of violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights.
Members of the Black community find it appalling that laws passed to protect Blacks from legal lynchings from all-White juries in the segregated South were used to convict a young Black man who had been acquitted by a racially diverse state jury. Meanwhile, no one has been held accountable for the death of Gavin Cato and for the injuries sustained by Angela Cato, his cousin. Blacks feel that this situation is indicative of the disproportionate power of the Jewish community and the powerlessness of their own.
With Cato reportedly calling for a meeting with Bloomberg and with both Cato and community activists vowing that it is not over, thinking all is well within the Black community is not dealing with the situation in its entirety.
For now, the streets of Crown Heights are quiet. Quiet as it is always quiet just before the storm.
“Faded Rage: As a Divided Community Begins to Forget, a Court Reopens Old Wounds in Crown Heights” by Michael Kamber