- Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brooklyn Riot
Significant events like riots are not only part of history, they generate their own histories, and so it is with the riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1991. When a member of the convoy escorting the Lubavitcher Hasidic Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson collided with an oncoming car, the resulting crash wounded one Guyanese child, Angela Cato, and killed her cousin, Gavin. Crowds gathered and became protesters; protesters became rioters. A few hours after the accident, several young black men shouting antisemitic insults stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, a non-Hasidic, Jewish student, who died of his wounds early the next morning.
The riot continued for three days before police brought it under control. The anger on both sides took far longer to calm, and the many conflicts it raised—between black and Jewish community groups; between Lubavitcher and non-Lubavitcher Jews; between West Indian and native-born Blacks; between black and white New York residents; between Mayor Dinkins and many of his constituents; and between the Democratic mayor and the Republican Senator D'Amato and Dinkins's Republican challenger Rudolph Giuliani—affected both local and national politics for more than a decade.
It is these intertwined histories that Edward Shapiro relates in a book both thorough and compelling. Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, Crown Heights is a systematic examination of community understandings of and attitudes toward the various events surrounding the riot: the precipitating accident, the deaths first of Cato and then of Rosenbaum, the slowness of police to quell the violence, the performance of Mayor David Dinkins, and the several trials of Charles Price and Lemrick Nelson, Jr., accused of murdering Rosenbaum. Not only did Blacks and Jews differ in their analysis of each of these issues, they differed on whether the riot itself should be understood as rooted in antisemitism, racism, political impotence, poverty, neighborhood frictions, or the cynical manipulation of agitators.
But neither the Jewish community nor the black community were themselves monolithic; many Jews were suspicious of the Hasidic community and critical of its insularity; native-born African-Americans and West Indian immigrants had had a history of conflict beginning well before 1991. Thus internal divisions over the events proved as sharp as the more visible external ones, and Shapiro is careful to point these out as well as assess the merits of their respective claims. [End Page 108]
Shapiro uses journalistic accounts, legal documents, political essays, speeches, and historical and sociological analyses to good effect, identifying claims and counter-claims, and evaluating their probity with evidence and a careful reading of historical context. He strives for balance, although the archives he consulted and interviews he conducted appear to be almost exclusively within the Jewish community. There may be good reason for this; nevertheless Shapiro is far more effective in articulating the Jewish perspectives than those of African-Americans or West Indians, which he is able to unearth only from published sources. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, Shapiro himself seems to have concluded that the riot was indeed centrally an expression of antisemitism, and the municipal responses to it motivated more by political correctness than moral rigor (although he is reticent to express his views explicitly). The whole episode was, therefore, more threatening and dangerous to the Jewish community than many there acknowledged. Still, Shapiro flags failings on the Lubavitcher side as well, beginning with the Rebbe's refusal to offer condolences to the Cato family or express his sorrow for the events that occurred.
Those who remember the riot as well as those who study it will appreciate the range of views Shapiro presents and his detailed investigations, although given the intensity of emotions surrounding the Crown Heights riot, in the end few are likely to alter their views.
Cheryl Greenberg is Professor of History at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Her most recent book is Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century (2006).