Crown Heights Jews Feel Vindicated by Report Critical of Mayor Dinkins
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Crown Heights Jews Feel Vindicated by Report Critical of Mayor Dinkins

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The Jewish community of Crown Heights has reacted with a sense of vindication to a report prepared by a New York state task force that firmly criticized New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ handling of the riots that tore apart that Brooklyn neighborhood in August 1991.

The report, authored by the state’s director of criminal justice, Richard Girgenti, at the behest of Gov. Mario Cuomo, lays the blame for the riots squarely at the feet of Dinkins and, secondarily, faults several of his top aides and then-Police Commissioner Lee Brown, who was recently confirmed as President Clinton’s new drug czar.

According to the long-awaited, 600-page report, “The Mayor, as the city’s Chief Executive, did not act in a timely and decisive manner.

“He must take the ultimate responsibility for all government action,” the report continues. “In order to make this responsibility meaningful, he must be fully engaged in the entire process.”

The report refers to the three days of rioting as the worst racial unrest in New York in over 20 years. The riots broke out after a Hasidic driver in the Lubavitcher rebbe’s motorcade accidentally killed a black child, Gavin Cato.

Blacks reacted violently and a mob of youths that night stabbed to death Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic rabbinical student from Australia.

The only person charged in that crime, Lemrick Nelson Jr., 17, was cleared by a jury last year, sparking anger among Jewish groups.

Since shortly after the riots ended, some in the Jewish community claimed that the mayor gave orders to “hold back” the police.

While the Girgenti report clears Dinkins of that allegation, the mayor is criticized as being so disengaged and remote that he was unaware that the rioting was raging out of control until late in the third day, when he visited Crown Heights and was pelted with bottles and rocks himself.


The report states that Dinkins’ aides, including Herbert Block, then chief liaison to the Jewish community, and Bill Lynch and Milton Mollen, then deputy mayors, were remiss in their responsibility to the mayor.

They apparently did not communicate the messages being passed along to them that police were not responding to Crown Heights residents’ desperate calls for help, the report says.

Yet, as community leaders point out, Dinkins also had other sources of information, including television and newspaper accounts.

“He must have been blind not to see it. Even blind people could hear it, it was all over the media,” one black Crown Heights resident said Tuesday.

Only on the night of Wednesday, Aug. 23, after Dinkins was personally pelted with rocks and bottles when he went to Crown Heights to meet with black community leaders did he order Police Commissioner Brown to take more effective action to quell the raging violence, says the report.

According to Rabbi Joseph Spielman, chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, “The report clearly vindicates our position that the mayor had responsibility that he did not exercise, to the detriment of the Jewish community.”

“This has to give a psychological boost to our community,” said Jacob Goldstein, chairman for 14 years of Community Board 9, which covers part of Crown Heights.

“The Jews in Crown Heights feel that everything they’ve been saying is now in print. What they said all along happened did happen. It’s the emes (truth),” he added.

But another Jewish communal leader in Crown Heights said the report will not have much of an impact on most neighborhood residents.

“In Crown Heights itself it’s been chewed over so much. We’ve reached a point where our response is more philosophical. We’ve gone through the motions so many times. The legal work remains,” said Rabbi Sholem Ber Hecht, chairman of the executive committee of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education.


Hecht was referring to the civil suit against city officials filed by the family of Yankel Rosenbaum and by the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council.

“The people here want the mayor to take the responsibility,” said Hecht. During his recent trip to Israel, Dinkins “said he takes it but hasn’t said it here, to us,” Hecht added.

Another area resident, David Lazerson, called Dinkins’ recent reclamation of responsibility “too little, too late.

“The mayor should have owned up to it a year and a half ago,” said Lazerson, the Lubavitcher who is director of Project CURE, which brings black and Jewish teen-age boys in Brooklyn together to play basketball and beautify the neighborhood.

Several Crown Heights residents, both Jewish and blacks, said they were anxious for the spotlight to be turned off their area so that they can get on with the work of living as neighbors.

“Crown Heights is a wonderful, peaceful community most of the time. We’ve got problems, but it’s not what the media kicks it up to be,” said Lazerson.

As if to prove his point, on the day the report came out, it was business as usual in the neighborhood, with the exception of the flurry of reporters who were scouring the streets.

“Personally, I believe the report,” said one African American resident, who asked not to be named. “But the point is something has to be done. The problem is not within the community, it is with criminals outside.”

This individual was in Crown Heights at the time of the riots and believes that fixing the blame is not the solution to any problem that exists in the neighborhood.

“Some criticize the mayor, but that is not the answer,” he said.

Many in the community said the problems come from the outside. “The blacks are coming to know our religion and there is peace in our neighborhood,” said a worker at a store on Kingston Avenue, in the heart of Crown Heights, that sells Jewish religious articles.

“We were here. We saw the blood and terror. It’s obvious that people outside of the neighborhood took part in the riot,” said the worker, who identified himself only as Aryeh.


In a separate interview, Myrtle Whitmore, a black resident of Crown Heights for 40 years, agreed with Aryeh’s assessment.

“To begin with, the violence came from youths outside our neighborhood who came into the community, rampaged and left. We, the decent community, was left unprotected and intimidated,” she said.

Whitmore, who is president of the Brooklyn Civic Council and the Crown Heights Taxpayer and Civic Association, said that “in the two years since it happened the only time we’ve had a disturbance is if someone comes in with a TV camera or comes in from the outside.”

A federal inquiry by the Justice Department into the rioting and possible violations of victims’ civil rights was initiated last year and has been stalled for months.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was handdelivered a copy of the Girgenti report Tuesday morning and later in the day pledged to oversee the investigation personally.

According to a statement by Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who met with her Tuesday, Reno said that “several issued in today’s state report would require additional federal scrutiny.

“The attorney general indicated that a decision regarding possible federal prosecution would be announced within two or three weeks,” said Schumer.

Michael Miller, executive director of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, said, “We’re hopeful that Girgenti’s report will serve as a catalyst for a full investigation.

“We hope it will ensure that justice will be provided to residents of Crown Heights who were victimized, and we hope it will help to ensure every community as well that nothing of this type will ever befall any community again.”

(Contributing to this report was JTA staff intern Kenneth Dancyger.)

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