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Behind the Headlines: Crown Heights’ Jewish Leaders Still Charge Official Neglect

August 21, 1996
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When Lubavitch Jews in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn called police and city officials for help as blacks rioted against them five years ago this week, they received no immediate response.

Now, leaders of the Crown Heights Jewish community are charging that police are neglecting them in an effort to placate the black community, lest the long- simmering tensions spark into violence once more.

As residents of the neighborhood look back, both blacks and Jews, in separate interviews, make it clear that the resentments are far from resolved and that the community continues to walk a fine line between tension and violence.

The feeling in the neighborhood between the two communities “is medium, maybe medium-plus. Five years ago it was worse,” said Josef Motchkin, a resident of the neighborhood for 30 years.

The 1991 violence was ignited when a car driven by a Lubavitcher spun out of control onto a sidewalk where two black children played. One was injured and the other, 7-year-old Gavin Cato, was killed.

Angry black residents began beating the car’s driver. A private Hatzolah ambulance was first to arrive and began attending to the child pinned under the car.

When the city ambulance arrived, the technician instructed the Hatzolah driver to take the Lubavitch driver to the hospital, to remove him from the escalating scene.

That infuriated some of the black residents crowding around, and rumors of the Jew being taken away first while a black child remained under the car quickly flew through the neighborhood.

Some began running down the streets yelling, “Get the Jews!”

A young Orthodox Holocaust researcher from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, was fatally stabbed that night by a mob of 10 to 15 angry black teens and men.

The violence continued for three days until hundreds of police officers — clad in riot gear — came on foot, on motorcycle and on horseback and restored a restive calm.

Until then, Jewish residents of Crown Heights and reporters were beaten up, cars were overturned and set afire, and stores were looted and firebombed by furious black residents and outsiders as they rampaged through the streets.

At a memorial service-cum-political rally Monday in honor of Rosenbaum, speaker after speaker said the Jewish residents are still being neglected by government officials.

They all called on authorities to bring Rosenbaum’s murderers to justice.

Several speakers on the Republican-dominated dais condemned what they described as U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s sluggish investigation into Rosenbaum’s case.

After federal officials were pressured by political figures and Jewish community leaders, Reno initiated an investigation, which led last week to the federal indictment of Lemrick Nelson and Charles Price.

Nelson, 21, was indicted on federal charges of violating Yankel Rosenbaum’s civil rights, and a second suspect was indicted for the first time.

Nelson was earlier acquitted of criminal charges brought against him by the state.

Price, 43, has been identified by prosecutors as the man whose tirades against Jews helped ignite the riots Aug. 19, 1991.

Several speakers at the rally, attended by many of New York’s top political figures, applauded Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader who is now the Republican presidential candidate, for writing to Reno three years ago, urging her to quickly bring Rosenbaum’s killers to justice.

“Without Dole’s support, we would not have been able to go forward,” Yankel’s brother Norman Rosenbaum said in an interview.

“To Senator Dole — thank you and good luck,” Isaac Abraham, an organizer of the event, said to loud applause.

Rosenbaum, whose once-red beard is now mostly gray, said he had lost count of the dozens of trips he has made to New York and Washington from his home in Australia to try to get his brother’s murderers punished.

Five years after the unrest, people in the neighborhood — both black and Jewish — say their day-to-day relationship is cordial and respectful.

Most of the time.

There have been a series of violent clashes in the last several months. Lubavitchers accuse blacks of beating up Jews and yelling anti-Semitic epithets. Members of the Chasidic neighborhood patrol, known as Shmira, were arrested after being accused of beating up a black man.

“It’s hard to say if things are changed,” said Sylvia Houzell, a retired executive secretary who is black and has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years.

“I never had any problems myself, but I didn’t feel comfortable for a long time” after the riots.

It was only a month ago that she first felt comfortable going into a bagel shop on Kingston Avenue, a street dominated by Jewish-owned stores.

The clerk behind the counter “was pleasant and I felt relieved about it,” Houzell said.

Richard Green, chief executive of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, has, since the 1991 unrest, been trying to forge better relationships between blacks and Jews, and is a key liaison for the black community, the Lubavitchers and police.

“Things are working here,” he said in an interview before the memorial service. “We’re doing what we didn’t do before — we’re talking.”

But the communities were unable to come together even to commemorate Rosenbaum’s murder.

Members of a group called Stop the Violence, founded by New York City police officer James Davis, who is black, placed a wreath Sunday at the spot where Rosenbaum was fatally wounded.

Monday’s memorial was sponsored by the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. Few black people besides Green attended the service, which attracted about 200 Lubavitchers.

Lubavitchers say being neglected by city officials and police during the riots in 1991 was an experience few have forgotten.

The state government’s official investigation into the riots found that city authorities and police had not responded appropriately.

Today, leaders of the Crown Heights Jewish community claim that the police have, during the last 18 months, begun again to systematically and consciously neglect them to keep the black community placated.

According to Faigie Horowitz, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, police fear that the black community will again riot if too many black people are arrested for crimes.

As a result, she and others said, there is a conscious effort being made by the police precinct to dissuade Jews who are crime victims from filing complaints.

“There is a clear effort to stop the Jews from pressing charges, from complaining, to make sure that Jews drop the charges when they are victims of crimes by blacks in the neighborhood,” Sara Karasik, program director at the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, said in an interview in the council’s office.

“The police are neglecting us, mistreating us and this is a pattern,” she said. “Police-community relations are lower than they’ve been at any time since 1991.”

The precinct’s commanding officer denied the charges.

“When there is conflict, our job is to make arrests when they have to be made and not to when it’s not appropriate,” said Deputy Inspector Joseph Fox, the commanding officer of the 71st Police Precinct. “These things happen and not everybody is always happy.”

Fox said he speaks frequently with the leaders of both communities in the neighborhood because he wants to prevent anything like the 1991 riots from happening again.

“When there is an incident that could result in community unrest and conflict between the Chasidic and African American community, we’re on the phone with leaders of the groups right away,” Fox said.

“Where you have such diverse groups together — and, let’s face it, there have been conflicts — it just makes good sense to limit the spread of misinformation.”

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