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Crown Heights Remains Restive As Violence and Rioting Die Down

August 27, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The mood in Crown Heights, after the funeral of 7-year-old Gavin Cato, is restive.

Those attending the funeral were restrained, but highly supportive of the incendiary rhetoric offered from the pulpit by the Rev. Al Sharpton and other radical black leaders.

For now, no further demonstrations by the black community are planned, but the tension remains, even if the sense of imminent danger that has blanketed the Brooklyn neighborhood since last week, when a Hasidic Jew killed the black child in a traffic accident, is waning.

The accident sparked several days of riots by blacks.

The weeklong rampage that left an innocent Jewish bystander dead, more than 200 people injured and 155 arrested, seems to be petering out. Slowly reasserting itself is the quiescent coexistence that has enabled blacks and Hasidim to live side by side here for 30 years, sharing small talk and an occasional fragile friendship.

All but three or four of those arrested were black, according to the police department’s public information department, and 164 of the 229 people injured were police officers.

Those who live in the neighborhood are weary of the rioting — or pogroms, according to many Jews — and of an extraordinarily heavy police presence.

On Saturday, 2,000 police officers in riot gear carpeted the area on foot, motorcycle and horseback. Others circled overhead in helicopters, all in an attempt to prevent demonstrating blacks, led in a march by Sharpton, from continuing the riots that kept the neighborhood’s Jews barricaded inside their homes earlier in the week.

The police presence was increased dramatically mid-week after the 300 to 400 officers who were on the scene Monday and Tuesday were unable to keep rampaging blacks from throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails from rooftops.


During that violence, rocks were thrown at Jews near the corner of Kingston Ave. and Eastern Parkway, where the headquarters of the Lu-bavitch movement is located, as blacks yelled “Heil Hitler,” and “Hitler didn’t finish the job.”

Jews, police and reporters were attacked by roaming gangs of blacks.

Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year old Australian Talmud student with no connection to the accident, was stabbed to death by a gang of 10 black youth just three hours after Cato was killed.

Only one of the 10 has been charged in the murder. The others are still at large, according to Lubavitch sources.

Attorney Barry Slotnick, retained by the Lubavitcher community as legal adviser, is planning to ask federal authorities to file civil-rights charges against those involved in Rosenbaum’s murder, he announced Sunday.

“The Jews of this community will not be scapegoated,” Slotnick said. “The racist hustlers from the outside would like to make this an issue of race. It is not. It is an issue of justice.”

Ironically, a call for justice has been the battle cry of the black community throughout the last week — a community that feels that its Hasidic neighbors are awarded preferential treatment by police and walk away with more than their fair share of public housing.

Those charges are being investigated, Mayor David Dinkins said in a speech at the First Baptist Church in Crown Heights on Sunday.

Dinkins also met Sunday with the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

During their three-minute meeting, the rebbe, who in his public remarks has not directly discussed the violence plaguing his neighborhood, urged the mayor to “use your influence in the quiet atmosphere.


“It’s not two sides,” the frail rabbi said. “It’s one side, because we are one people in the city of New York under one administration protected by one God.”

Windows in Crown Heights remain boarded up in the aftermath of the week’s terror and a dozen burned-out cars and vans still stand where they were firebombed, mute testimony to the rancor and chaos that overtook the area.

The threat of more violence has not completely passed — about 500 police officers patrolling the neighborhood attest to that.

And even when it has, it will take “Mashiach and a lot of hard work by people of good will” to get things in Crown Heights back to the way they were, said Herbert Block, the assistant to Mayor Dinkins who serves as the main liaison to the Jewish community.

A grand jury is presently considering whether to indict Yosef Lifsh, the driver of the car which killed Gavin Cato.

The black community is demanding his indictment.

But the grand jury is unlikely to do so, because running a red light — the only violation Lifsh is alleged to have committed — is not considered sufficient to establish the requisite criminal negligence.

On Aug. 19, at about 8:30 p.m., Lifsh, who had two passengers in his car, ran a red light trying to keep up with the other cars in a motorcade escorting the Lubavitcher rebbe home from a visit to his wife’s grave.

Lifsh lost control of the car and jumped the curb, fatally striking Cato and injuring the boy’s 7-year-old cousin, Angela, both of whom were playing on the sidewalk.

When an ambulance from Hatzolah, a Jewish volunteer service, arrived, the driver was told by police to “take your guy and get out of here,” as the black crowd at the scene grew more agitated.

Two city ambulances were at the scene taking care of the children, the Hatzolah medics were told.


When blacks in the crowd saw the Hatzolah ambulance leave, a rumor spread that the Jews had ignored the injured children.

Chaos was not as widespread by week’s end, and last Friday there was little unrest as black community leaders, including Sharpton, Alton Maddox Jr. and Sonny Carson, met with Dinkins.

They did not agree to call off Saturday’s march, which took place and was, for the most part, peaceful.

On Sunday, Ruvain and Saura Brenenson, neighbors of the Cato family, took flowers and a letter of condolence to the mourners. They would have gone earlier, they said, but they had been told that it would not be safe for them to do so.

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