The summer of 1991 was a scorcher in New York. The absence of rain and the torrid temperatures pushed the African and Caribbean-American residents of Crown Heights, where there was a paucity of air conditioning, out on to the streets. Milling about, their conversations often centered upon the politically and racially charged environment.
Tensions were high because unemployment was high, and services that the City provided were down. It was an embittered time for these two Crown Heights communities. An economically struggling group’s proximity to a flourishing Jewish community may naturally have spawned feelings of envy in the former and notions of preferential treatment for Jews.
Racial issues had plagued the Koch administration and attention to trying to repair the rifts was sidelined by a corruption scandal that involved several New York City Democrats. A new face was indicated, and David Dinkins was pledging far more than just being a new face; he was guaranteeing hope and solace to a fractured city.
The City’s first African-American mayor entered office assuring racial healing, and famously referred to the City’s demographic diversity as a “gorgeous mosaic.” It was assumed that an African-American mayor would soothe the city’s restive Blacks and Hispanics and restore a degree of racial harmony and perception of fair treatment after the contentious Koch era.
Blacks viewed Dinkins as their great hope and he was also heavily supported by the Jewish community. His ability to deliver was similar to buying a scratch-and-win lottery ticket: a brief thrill that made no practical sense in the long run. Two years into his term the problems remained and the frustration compounded.
Dinkins was not delivering on his pledges and was afflicted by setbacks. His first crisis erupted a few weeks into his term when a Haitian woman in Brooklyn claimed that she was beaten by a Korean grocer. An African-American mob led by rabble-rouser Sonny boycotted the grocery in response to the shopkeeper’s perceived racial assault. Matters got out of hand when the cops failed to restrain the angry crowds and the mayor neglected to visit the shopkeeper. The New York Post heckled, “DAVE, DO SOMETHING!” and Dinkins was indelibly branded a wimp.
Between that inauspicious beginning and August 1991, there was nothing gorgeous left to the mosaic. During that hot summer, rumor was that the Jewish minority in Crown Heights was expanding and buying up neighborhood property.
Mother of All Opportunities
Pent up emotions seek release. As a rule, they do not leak out; but burst forth like sparks. It is up to the leaders to confront the conflagration; they can either douse or fan the flames. The Rev. Al Sharpton never met a racial flare-up he couldn’t swell into a fiery protest march. When opportunity knocked, he and his associates broke down the door. In the summer of 1991 there was the Mother of all Opportunities.
It was the custom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, to regularly visit the grave of his father-in-law, the Frierdikka Rebbe, zt”l, buried in the Cambria Heights section of Queens, NY. Travel to the cemetery was carried out in a three-car convoy consisting of a police car, the car transporting the Rebbe, and a car with two or three students.
At 8:20 p.m. on Monday, August 19, 1991, the convoy had reached the integrated section of Crown Heights1 and was nearing the Jewish area. The lead and middle car crossed Utica Avenue on a green light (with the police car flashing its lights and sounding its siren at the intersection to indicate a motorcade) and proceeded along President Street, but the rear vehicle driven by 22-year old Yosef Lifsh, fell behind. As Lifsh’s station-wagon reached the Utica junction, a car driven by an African American ran a red light and collided into Lifsh’s car. The thrust of the crash forced Lifsh’s car up onto the sidewalk where he maneuvered the car away from the adults on the curb and steered toward the wall ahead to arrest the vaulting station-wagon.
Gavin and Angela Cato, seven-year-old cousins, children of Guyanese immigrants, were on the sidewalk in the path of the runaway car. The two were pinned against the wall; Gavin died instantly and Angela was severely injured.
Lifsh immediately attempted to pry the car off the children. His efforts were in vain as a mob began to attack him and the other two passengers in the car. A Hatzolah ambulance arrived on the scene and was pelted by rocks and bottles.
Soon after, a second Hatzolah ambulance pulled up, followed by EMS and the police. The police were on hand as there was a BB King concert that evening, and they insisted that Hatzolah remove Lifsh immediately, who was severely beaten. They then demanded that all of the Lubavitchers evacuate at once, but the Hatzolah team that was treating Angela Cato would not abandon the scene of an injured individual. This argument became moot as EMS took over and the Lubavitchers departed just as, according to the New York Times, more than 250 neighborhood residents, mostly black teenagers, closed in, shouting “Jews! Jews! Jews!”
It was immaterial that the run-over child was a consequence of a collision caused by a black driver running a red light. With the exception of a $135 fine, no further legal — or civil — action was taken against the black driver. Yosef Lifsh on the other hand, was brought before a Grand Jury. The jury, composed of 10 African Americans, 8 Caucasians, and 5 Latinos, found no cause to indict. There was no reason for charges to have ever been raised, but considering the lynching atmosphere, the dismissal was an achievement.
An NBC film crew that was in Crown Heights to cover the concert captured the jeering, explosion of glass bottles2 and the rioting. The agitation and crowds increased all evening until someone reportedly shouted, “Let’s go to Kingston Avenue and get a Jew!”
A number of black youths set off toward the predominantly Jewish area of Kingston Avenue, half-a-mile westward. All along the way, the mob — that was nearing 400 — vandalized property and heaved rocks and bottles. When they encountered a storefront with a mezuzah they smashed the windows, and when a car was identified as Jewish-owned (usually by a bumper sticker) it was torched.3
Charles Price, megaphone in hand, declared, “We’ve got to kill Jews, they’re killing our kids!” Other racial hucksters echoed via bull horn, “We’re taking back our streets!”
Although there were numerous police units present, thanks to the conclusion of the concert, they maintained spectator status. The three rules for riot confrontation: contain, disperse and arrest, were meticulously avoided. The instructions from One Police Plaza were unequivocal, “Do not intervene.” Later it was revealed (and subsequently denied) that the instructions from the police commissioner, undoubtedly in collusion with the mayor’s office were, “Let them vent.”4
The police stood by as a mob bent on murder gutted anything perceived to be Jewish in their path; their route could be traced by the carnage.
Meet the Victim
Yankel Rosenbaum from Melbourne, Australia, was doing research in New York towards his doctoral thesis on “Issues of conflict in the shtetl from 1882 to 1932.” A 6’5” yeshivah student, history scholar and black belt in karate, he also had degrees in commerce and law, out of concern that he would not find gainful employment in academia.
Yankel’s research would take him to Bar Ilan, NYU, Columbia, Oxford — anywhere where there were Jewish study departments — as well as to the archives of the USSR. Yankel was awarded the “never-granted” security clearance to visit all of Russia’s archives.5 There wasn’t an archive of Jewish historical interest in America that did not become his second home.
Yankel spent his mornings learning and tending to his business that financed his study. His afternoons were devoted to his research and he would usually return to Crown Heights late at night where he had an apartment on Montgomery Street.
Because of his busy schedule he had arranged a haircut for himself at 11:00 p.m. with a Lubavitch student who moonlighted as a barber. He was on his way to the haircut when he encountered the mob that had just turned the corner of Union Street and New York Avenue. The gang had found just what they were searching for.
“There’s a Jew,” announced a scout, and 400-odd hoodlums set off after their prey. Yankel raced back to Lubavitch headquarters located at 770 Eastern Parkway, but he never made it. They nabbed him and began striking him against the fence of the S. Marks School on the corner of President Street and New York Avenue. This was seen by eyewitnesses and observed by cops.
As the police refrained from protecting him, he began to implement some desperate selfdefense — thoroughly ineffectual against a mob — but significantly painful to those closest to a man trained in the martial arts.
To further uneven the playing field, Lemerick Nelsen removed a knife and impaled the helpless student. Only then did the police see fit to move, causing the mob to move on in search of additional victims.
Yankel Rosenbaum sustained serious wounds, but he was not [yet] in mortal danger. What he desperately needed was immediate medical attention, which he shockingly did not get. Bleeding profusely, he was all on his own. Yankel staggered into the gutter for help where three brothers-in-law: Meir Rivkin, Shaya Boymelgreen and Yankel Fellig encountered him. Because of his erratic walking they mistook him for drunk; concerned, they yelled at him to, “Get off the street!”
“I’ve been stabbed,” he stammered. The three raced out of their car and laid Yankel on the hood. Someone called 911 — as Hatzolah was instructed to keep their ambulances out of view. When the ambulance arrived a few minutes later, Shaya was cradling Yankel on the hood of the car.
Meanwhile, the police were rounding up suspects and bringing them over to Yankel to identify. He had been stabbed in the forehead and sustained four wounds to his neck and back, but he was still alert. With pensive sobriety he pointed, “him” “not him.” When Lemrick Nelson was brought before him, Yankel mustered the strength to sit up and erupt, “Why did you stab me?”
Yankel managed to finger several others, including Cleon Taylor. The next morning the DA voided Taylor’s arrest. All of the others that Yankel identified were also dismissed, leaving only Nelson behind bars.
The EMTs were preparing to depart when Yankel’s friend, Chaim Meir Lieberman, ran out to investigate all of the sirens. He hadn’t summoned an ambulance, although his wife had to get to the hospital to give birth. Yankel recognized Chaim Meir and beckoned him.
Yankel requested Chaim Meir to escort him in the ambulance. But in light of his wife’s critical need to get to the hospital, Lieberman ran to confer with her as the ambulance transporting Yankel Rosenbaum departed with Meir Rivkin stepping in to accompany him.
Emergency care for grave wounds is to perform initial patch up and prime for surgery. Alacritive, expert attention to this formula often spells the difference between life and death.
But in Kings County Medical Center, through a series of gross blunders on the part of the hospital, Yankel Rosenbaum was allowed to bleed to death. Though the paramedics had informed the hospital of two serious stab wounds, only one was attended to. The wound on his left side went virtually neglected for over an hour, allowing blood to accumulate in Yankel’s chest.
At 2:05 Yankel succumbed to his wounds and the police sought to notify the next of kin. At four a.m. the police banged on the door of Chaim Meir Lieberman — who had been misinformed that Rosenbaum was being rushed into surgery — and told him that his friend was dead, conferring the obligation of notification upon him.
Chaim Meir did not have the number of any of Yankel’s relatives, but he did know that the head Lubavitcher in Melbourne is Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Groner, for he had learned in yeshivah with his son, Sholom Ber. In the early hours of the morning he was unable to locate Rabbi Groner’s number, and resorted, in the end, to calling Sholom Ber in South Africa to acquire his father’s number.
Eventually Chaim Meir got through to Rabbi Groner in Melbourne, advancing the information to the right continent.
Rabbi Groner was unable to reach Yankel’s well-known brother, law professor Norman Rosenbaum, who was teaching in the university. He thus called Norman’s good friend, Moshe Zvi Reich, and deputized him to convey word of Yankel’s murder.
Reich coaxed Norman to sit down as he informed him that there was bad news. He told him that there had been a riot in New York and that Yankel was a casualty.”
“Who told you?” Norman wanted to know. “Rabbi Groner.”
“And who told him?”
“A Chaim Meir Lieberman.”
Lawyers, how much more so, law professors, are trained to interrogate. Norman began to methodically pepper Reich with questions, for he wasn’t buying what he was told. Had he been told that Yankel was mugged or killed in an automobile accident the story would have sounded credible. But a black-belt in karate being murdered in a riot did not make sense.
Norman acquired Chaim Meir’s phone number and clarified that tragically, all was true. Lieberman added that he had the deceased’s clothes and wallet which contained all of Yankel’s personal items: credit cards, cash and University ID card.
Mayor David Dinkins, Police Commissioner Lee Brown and Judge Milt Mallen had come to visit the Cato family in the hospital the night of the murder. Someone mentioned to this high-profile delegation that under the same roof was a casualty of the riots. The mayor was unaware6 that there had been any injuries, and went to visit Yankel.
Dinkins told Norman Rosenbaum, who met with the mayor on October 27, 1991, “Your brother was in pain, he could barely breathe and his face was blue.”
“What did you do?” Rosenbaum demanded, “You saw a total neglect of medical attention. Did you alert the doctors?”
“They told me,” the mayor responded, “that he was bleeding in the belly. Actually, I’m not sure it was a doctor I spoke to, although he was dressed in green.”
It is worth a pause to consider the significance of that comment. How could one consciously observe a man in the throes of death, left without medical attention, be satisfied with such a amateur diagnosis from a “man in green.” Any medical professional would have referred to the “abdomen.” It almost sounds like the “report” was offered by a member of the janitorial staff.
Perhaps as a cover up for the hospital’s embarrassing and tragic mistakes, medical records were transparently altered and do not correspond with the Medical Examiner’s report. According to an unconfirmed report on NBC, the hospital director blamed the ER staff for withholding treatment.
Mitch Gelman from New York Newsday got hold of the medical records and blew the whistle, but nobody was listening. Gelman insisted that Rosenbaum was not murdered with a knife in Crown Heights, but through the negligence of Kings County Medical Center.
Yankel arrived at the hospital at 11:38 p.m. and was clocked into the computer at 11:43. Any triage system would have afforded him immediate attention, yet records indicate that he was not even seen before 1:05.
His vitals were never taken and although an X-Ray was summoned, for some mysterious reason it was recalled. The hospital’s general negligence remains an unsolved and painful mystery.
“Let Them Vent”
Usually when there are racial flare ups, the police call in the heavy lifters, appoint special teams, post rewards and pull all the stops until all the criminals are apprehended. In this instance, justice was never even part of the equation.
For three days following the accident, African and Caribbean Americans of the neighborhood, joined by growing numbers of non-residents, rioted in Crown Heights. A Jew who ventured outside was risking his life — not that being boarded up in their homes — easily identifiable by mezuzos affixed to the front door, felt safer.
On the third day of disturbances, Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson led a march of protesters chanting, “No Justice, No Peace!,” “Death to the Jews!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!” The mob displayed anti-Semitic signs and burned an Israeli flag.
The Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir called Mayor Dinkins to inquire about the travesties. Dinkins replied curtly that it was a domestic issue and none of his business. Shamir replied, “If Jews are being murdered and an Israeli flag is burned, this is very much my business.”
Ultimately it was going to take an insider to abort the policy of, “Let Them Vent.” For three days, as police stood helplessly on the sidelines, they were attacked by bricks, bottles and bullets. Police vehicles were pelted and overturned, including the Police Commissioner’s car.
After the third day of rioting, Phil Caruso, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, reportedly had had enough. He declared that a policeman takes an oath to put his life on the line to enforce the law and confront danger in the line of duty. But the NYPD was neither sworn nor obliged to be sitting ducks to rioters’ violence. And therefore, if City Hall does not change its policy he will take his men off the streets.
Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z’l, of Agudath Israel, reached out to Governor Mario Cuomo of New York when all of his attempts with the Dinkins administration failed. The Governor proposed sending in the National Guard, which Dinkins vehemently refused as it would irritate his political base in the Black community who would resent a forceful response to the rioting. However, after three days of rioting Cuomo was no longer offering, but insisting, that the Guard come in to restore order.
The threat from the PBA was adequate. First Deputy Commissioner Kelly, who later became Police Commissioner, shaped “a new strategy” involving “do[ing] whatever is necessary” to end the riots. The mayor relented Thursday morning, and a riot that had raged since Monday night was quelled in 20 minutes. A police force of over 1,800 officers, including mounted and motorcycle units, moved in and 129 arrests later, attacks on people and property were curtailed. Everyone saw how avoidable the carnage was.
But not only did the police abdicate their responsibility, so did the press. New York Times reporter Ari Goldman, in an article entitled, “Telling It Like it Wasn’t” revealed that the newspapers of New York were so committed to telling both sides of the story in the name of objectivity and balance, that they distorted the facts and reality. He wrote, “Journalists initially framed the story as a ‘racial’ conflict and failed to see the anti-Semitism inherent in the riots. “[As a Times reporter] my job was to file memos to the main ‘rewrite’ reporters back in the office in Manhattan about what I saw and heard … Yet, when I picked up the paper, the article I read was not the story I had reported. I saw headlines that described the riots in terms solely of race. ‘Two Deaths Ignite Racial Clash in Tense Brooklyn Neighborhood,’ the Times headline said. And, worse, I read an opening paragraph, what journalists call a ‘lead,’ that was simply untrue: ‘Hasidim and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn through the day and into the night yesterday.’
“In all my reporting during the riots, I never saw — or heard of — any violence by Jews against blacks. But the Times was dedicated to this version of events: Blacks and Jews clashing amid racial tensions. To show Jewish culpability in the riots, the paper even ran a picture — laughable even at the time — of a Hasidic man brandishing an open umbrella before a police officer in riot gear. The caption read: ‘A police officer scuffling with a Hasidic man yesterday on President Street …’
“On Aug. 21, as I stood in a group of Hasidic men in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a group of demonstrators were coming down Eastern Parkway. ‘Heil Hitler,’ they chanted. ‘Death to the Jews.’ Police in riot gear stood nearby but did nothing.
“Suddenly rocks and bottles started to fly toward us and a Hasidic man just a few feet away from me was hit in the throat and fell to the ground. Some ran to help the injured man but most of us ran for cover. I ran for a payphone and, my hands shaking with rage, dialed my editor. I spoke in a way that I never had before or since when talking to a boss.
“‘You don’t know what’s happening here!’ I yelled. ‘I am on the streets getting attacked. Someone next to me just got hit. I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? ‘Hasidim and blacks
clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.’
“Perhaps most troubling was an article written in the midst of the rioting under this headline:
“‘Amid Distrust in Brooklyn: Boy and Scholar Fall Victim.’ The article compared the life of Gavin Cato, the 7-year-old boy killed in the car accident that spurred the riots, and the life of Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, who was stabbed to death later that night.
‘“They did not know each other,’ the article said. ‘They had no reason to know.. . They died unaware.. . .’ In the eyes of the Times, the deaths were morally equivalent and had equal weight. The Times editorial page followed suit. ‘The violence following an auto accident in Crown Heights reminds all New Yorkers that the city’s race relations remains dangerously strained,’ the editorial said. It concluded by praising Mayor Dinkins, giving him credit ‘for a hard night’s work’ and doing ‘the job that New Yorkers elected him to do.’”
A.M. Rosenthal was the first at the Times to call the riots what they were. “Pogrom in Brooklyn,” was the headline of his column on Sept. 3, 1991, just two weeks after the riots ended.
“The press,” Rosenthal wrote, “treats it all as some kind of cultural clash between a povertyridden people fed up with life and a powerful, prosperous and unfortunately peculiar bunch of stuck-up neighbors — very sad of course, but certainly understandable. No — it is an antiSemitic pogrom and the words should not be left unsaid.”
Goldman concludes his article by citing an exhaustive state investigation published in 1993, two years after the Crown Heights riots, sharply criticizing Mayor Dinkins for not understanding the severity of the crisis. It also faulted his police commissioner, Lee Brown, for mismanaging the police during the riots.
Another two men who recognized the truth about the riots were lawyer and public relations expert Howard Rubenstein, who had accompanied Mayor Dinkins during his mayoral campaign, and Judge Milton Mollen, former presiding Justice of the Appellate Division Second Department and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety. Both men understood the pogrom that was going on and Mr. Rubinstein even warned an unreceptive Mayor Dinkins just how bad the situation was.
Once the pogrom was finally subdued, life in Crown Heights started to settle down. But the Jewish community could not sleep well at night. What could they do to pursue justice and how could they prevent such lawlessness from threatening their families’ safety again?
To be continued