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Behind the Headlines: One Year After Crown Heights Riots, Streets Calm, but Fear Ever Present

August 24, 1992
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

August returned to Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section with the sound of screeching tires — a car speeding out of control, smashing the life out of a pregnant woman.

A man, barefoot on a grassy traffic island across from Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, exploded in a primal scream over the blood that flowed from the woman’s body.

Dozens of people, blacks and Hasidim, ran to the scene, as concerned for their own lives as they were for the person hit: Was the driver Jewish? Was the victim black?

As it turned out, both were black. Blacks and Hasidim alike seemed as relieved as they could be in the presence of death — there would be no riot, at least not tonight.

On everyone’s mind this Aug. 4 was the memory of last Aug. 19, when 7-year-old Gavin Cato, a black boy, was accidentally killed by a Lubavitcher’s runaway car, leading to four days of anti-Semitic rioting.

This was the week before Tisha B’Av, a week the Lubavitchers say is "fraught with danger and misfortune."

The Hasidim may have nothing to fear but fear itself, but there is plenty of that going around. Sirens and the sounds of broken glass reverberate on the streets, "boom box" radios blare the poetry of death.

Some Hasidim say there is nothing more to fear in Crown Heights than in any other urban battlefield; others hear in the rustle of leaves the hoof beats of a new pogrom.


According to Rabbi Joseph Spielman, chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, there has been "a certain continuous, low-level harassment by the (black) kids. If they want to get a rise out of a Jew, they say, ‘We’re gonna burn you down,’ or ‘Wait until Aug. 19.’"

Spielman says that despite a year of fencemending, he still hears the old charges against the Lubavitchers, that they are "standoffish" and "don’t want anything to do with the blacks."

"I don’t see that as a legitimate complaint," he says. "The fact that we live near people, we have to have barbecues together? We have to play ball with them? We are, by nature, introverted, but not in a biased way."

David Lazerson, a young Lubavitcher in the community, has taken a different approach, organizing black-Hasidic basketball games, informal dialogues, cross-cultural murals and Jewish rap music performances.

But that’s not for Spielman. Lazerson "means well," he says. "But I’m European, he’s American. There was a swastika on my birth certificate, OK. So my attitude toward fraternization is somewhat different."

The Lubavitchers are a strictly disciplined, authoritarian community. Yet when it comes to the issue of how to confront the single most obvious threat to Crown Heights — the blacks’ sometimes violent resentment of Hasidim — the Lubavitch response has been akin to a Chinese fire drill, everyone carrying ladders and hoses and pointing in different directions.

In one corner of Crown Heights, some Lubavitchers work on their plans to enter the belly of the beast, trying to find angry blacks with whom to play basketball and paint a mural. On the next block, other Lubavitchers work on forming vigilante groups such as Shmira (meaning "watch" or "guard").

Shmira has been putting up posters in synagogues and Jewish buildings warning Hasidim of every major or minor incident in the general vicinity involving a Jewish victim, leading to the impression that the community is infested with anti-Semites waiting to jump out of a bush.

One poster, telling of a black man’s attack on a Hasidic woman in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, advises the Hasidim that if they see the suspect — a tall black man with broad shoulders and a slender waist, missing two eyeteeth — they should call Shmira rather than the police.


According to Capt. Joseph Fox of the 71st Precinct, "there haven’t been any major problems since (the riot). There’s been a share of bias-related crimes, but not more or less than any other (police) command in the city."

However, Robert Troise, an officer in the precinct, was recently quoted as saying that in "the last few days the tension has been building up because of the anniversary. The possibility of another outbreak is on everyone’s mind."

Although most Hasidim cannot believe it, many blacks in the neighborhood are afraid. One pigtailed black girl, painting with watercolors on the stoop of her President Street home, picked up her paints and papers and ran indoors when a Hasidic passerby asked her a question.

Other blacks in the neighborhood are more bitter. A woman in the Cato household told The Jewish Week: "There’s still no justice. Almost a year has gone by," and the driver of the car that killed Gavin Cato and severely injured his cousin Angela "is still not in jail. Jews are still getting away with a lot of things."

Colin Moore — the attorney for the Cato family in their negligence suits against Yosef Lifsh, the driver of the car that killed Cato–told The Jewish Week that Crown Heights remains a community ready to erupt.

According to Moore, "nothing really has been resolved" since last August. "There still is the basic issue of the double standard" regarding "most governmental services."

The Hasidic Jews are "the beneficiary of police protection and swift police response, while the black community remains neglected," he says.


Rosalyn Malamud, a Hasidic woman living a few houses from Lubavitch headquarters, senses the black mood and says, "Sure, I’m scared."

She points out that at the place on President Street where Cato was killed, there is a cross freshly painted on the sidewalk with blood-red paint. By the brick apartment wall where Cato was knocked off his bicycle, a wreath stands on a tripod, with fresh flowers.

An ersatz African flag, with black, red, green and yellow stripes, is nailed to wooden slats on the apartment house, bearing the slogan: "Equal justice under law for all."

"There’s still a high rate of unemployment, of illiteracy, of unwed mothers, of drugs. The mood is set," says Malamud. "And it’s not my fault."

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