Crown Heights is a densely populated community in Brooklyn, New York City. The Community has a large percentage of African Americans and Caribbean Americans living in it. Crown Heights also contains a significant number of Hasidic Jews. On Monday, August 19,1991, Yosef Lifsh was driving a station wagon with three passengers, as part of a three-car motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement. The two lead cars crossed Utica Avenue on a green light. Lifsh’s vehicle crossed Utica on either a yellow or red light. Lifsh’s vehicle struck another car, veered onto the sidewalk, knocked a 600 lb. stone pillar down and pinned two children against an iron grate covering the window of an apartment.
Members of the EMS unit, who arrived on the scene three minutes after the accident, witnessed Lifsh being beaten and pulled out of the station wagon by three or four men. A volunteer private ambulance from Hatzolah ambulance arrived on the scene first followed by police and a city ambulance. Two attending police officers, and a technician from the city ambulance directed the Hatzolah driver to remove Lifsh from the scene for his safety, while one child, 7-year-old Galvin Cato, was being removed from beneath the station wagon. Cato was eventually removed and taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after. The other child, 7-year-old Angela Cato, survived but was severely injured.
Members of the Black community were outraged that Lifsh was taken from the scene by a private ambulance service while city emergency workers were still trying to free the children who were pinned under the car. Many members in the black community were previously concerned that the number of Jews in the community had increased and that they were buying all the property in Crown Heights.
Later that evening, a big crowd and rumors about the accident grew. People threw bottles and rocks and someone reportedly shouted, “Lets go to Kingston Avenue and get a Jew!” Three hours later a group of 20 young black men surrounded Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Australian Jewish student. The youth stabbed him several times in the back and beat him severely, fracturing his skull. Rosenbaum was conscious enough to identify 16-year-old Lemrick Nelson Jr.as his assailant before they took him to the hospital. Rosenbaum died later that night because the doctor failed to notice a stab wound to his chest.
For three days after the accident, many African Americans and Caribbean Americans of the neighborhood and non residents, rioted in Crown Heights. During the riots, Jews were injured, stores were looted, and cars and homes were damaged. The rioters identified Jewish homes by the mezuzot affixed to the front doors. After many more episodes of rock and bottle throwing involving Blacks and Jews, and after groups of Blacks marched through Crown Heights chanting “No Justice, No Peace!”, “Death to the Jews!”, and “Whose streets? Our streets!”, an additional 1,200 police officers were sent in to quell the disturbance.
On the 3rd day of the disturbances, Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson led a March. The marchers proceeded through Crown Heights carrying anti-Semitic signs and burning an Israeli flag. Rioters threw bricks and bottles at police; shots were fired at police and police cars were pelted and overturned, including the police commissioner’s car.
By the time the rioting ended, 152 police officers and 38 civilians were injured, 27 vehicles were destroyed, seven stores were looted or burned, and 225 cases of robbery and burglary were committed. 129 arrests were made during the riots, 122 were black and the remaining seven were white. Property damage was estimated at one million dollars.
A grand jury composed of 10 Black, 8 white and 5 Hispanic jurors found no cause to indict Lifsh. Under New York law, the single act of losing control of a car is not criminal negligence, even if death or injury resulted. Lifsh later moved to Isreal because he claimed his life was threatened. Nelson was charged with murder as an adult, he was acquitted at trial. Later he was convicted in federal court of violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights. Nelson was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
A report called the Girgenti Report was composed that investigated the riot and the Nelson trial. The report was critical of Police commissioner Lee Brown. It also criticized mayor David Dinkins in the report for poor handling of the riots. The Crown Heights riots were an important issue in the 1993 NYC mayoral election. The riots contributed to the defeat of Dinkins by Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani and others opposed to Dinkins used the word “Pogrom” repeatedly to characterize the riot to discredit the mayor’s response to the riot. Pogrom is a violent riot aimed at the massacre or expulsion of an ethnic or religious group, particularly Jews. The riots weren’t state sponsored and Dinkins is not anti-Semitic, yet the damage was done and Dinkins would lose the election.
Mistakes were Made:
This story shows how a single mistake (running the yellow or red light) can compound into other mistakes. Mix those mistakes with rumors, tragedy and misunderstandings and you get the Crown Heights riots. All these aforementioned elements are found in most starts of riots around the world, but especially in the U.S. Luckily this particular type of race riot hasn’t repeated itself. Let’s learn from this tragic story so another Crown Heights riot doesn’t occur.
Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on July 20, 2020.