This year’s mayoral election is doubling as a kind of history lesson, as taught by two increasingly cranky middle-aged men who can’t stop issuing passive-aggressive press releases about each other. First, we learned about Bill de Blasio’s past as a young über-liberal who spent time in Nicaragua, pulling for the Sandinistas. Then we heard about young Joe Lhota’s love for Barry Goldwater and hatred of “Marxist tyranny.” We are, thank God, moving forward in time just a bit, and appear to have made it all the way to the 90s: now Lhota is accusing his rival of having a “role” in the deadly Crown Heights riots of 1991, which pitted the neighborhood’s black and Orthodox residents against each other.
The two candidates’ squabbling over the Orthodox vote actually began last week, when Lhota visited a Borough Park synagogue, then stood by awkwardly while three women in the group with him were quickly asked to leave. They were a Daily News reporter, a Lhota aide, and an NYPD officer, and there is, to be clear, no way that Lhota could’ve won that one. If he’d insisted the women stay, he would have offended the shul members, since men and women are always separated in Orthodox synagogues. And in allowing them to be kicked out, he offended the Daily News reporter, who went on to write the headline, “Joe Lhota does nothing as women with him are kicked out of Brooklyn synagogue.”
De Blasio–who has a surprisingly strong Orthodox base of support, considering how conservative most Haredi communities are–was quick to pounce on the incident. A spokesman told the Daily News, “We’ve never invited press to an event where women would not be allowed.”
Now, Lhota’s trying to make up the difference. On Saturday, a different Daily News reporter ran a piece saying that, as a young City Hall aide, de Blasio had a “front-row seat” to the 1991 Crown Heights riots.
As a reminder: Crown Heights erupted in violence in August of that year, after a 22-year-old Orthodox man hit two black children with his car, killing one of them. Yosef Lifsh was driving a station wagon, part of a motorcade carrying Rabbi Menachem Schneerson and some of his followers, when the car collided with another vehicle in an intersection and careened onto the sidwalk, hitting two black children, cousins Angela and Gavin Cato. Lifsh was apparently dragged from his car by a crowd and beaten before the police and ambulances arrived. Seven-year-old Gavin died en route to the hospital, while Angela survived.
What followed were three more days of violence, in which one more person died: Yankel Rosenbaum, a 23-year-old visiting from Australia, who was stabbed to death by 16-year-old Lemrick Nelson. Dozens more people were injured, and the riots left Crown Heights’ Jewish and black residents at odds (to put it mildly) for years to come.
It doesn’t appear from the Daily News piece that de Blasio played any major part in the city’s response to the riots. As an aide to Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch, he told the paper that he received phone calls from Jewish leaders who demanded more police on the street. A report later commissioned by Governor Mario Cuomo and overseen by the state’s director of criminal justice painted what the New York Times called a “scathing portrait of ineptitude and miscommunication,” holding Mayor David Dinkins, top police commanders, and City Hall leaders responsible for letting the violence continue unchecked for so long.
In particular, two crisis workers at City Hall, according to the Times, “told investigators they repeatedly had informed Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch and another mayoral aide of their concern,” saying the violence was veering out of control, and that police officers had at one point given up their positions and beaten a retreat. (It’s not clear whether that aide was de Blasio or someone else.) But the report also added that it seemed unlikely that Lynch would have withheld information from the mayor, and ultimately faulted Dinkins for not acting “to quickly restore peace and order to the community.”
The Daily News reports that de Blasio’s campaign staff “refused to make him available for a more in-depth interview or answer written questions about his role.”
That was enough for Lhota, who promptly tweeted this:
Why won’t @deBlasioNYC answer questions about his role in CH Riots? Response caused further violence & division http://t.co/TOG6dYc2L2
— Joe Lhota for Mayor (@JoeLhota4Mayor) October 20, 2013
De Blasio didn’t publicly respond to the charges.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 21, 2013