Friday was the 20th anniversary of the divisive Crown Heights riots, three days of violence and chaos which were spurred by the death of a 7-year-old black boy—killed by a Hasidic driver—and then, three hours later, the death of a 29-year-old Orthodox Jewish scholar, who was stabbed by a black man. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who recently decided to bow out of a panel about the riots, has an opinion piece reflecting on the tumultuous incident in the Daily News, which also published a 1991 photograph of Sharpton in one of his colorful track suits to go with the essay. And Sharpton admits he made some missteps, "I'd like to share a few of my reflections about the choices I made, including the mistakes, with an eye toward advancing racial understanding and harmony."
Shaprton explains how he was preparing to give a eulogy for little Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants, who was killed by a driver in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson's motorcade. Sharpton says he had no idea that Australian scholar Yankel Rosenbaum was killed after being surrounded by black men, therefore he didn't mention Rosenbaum at all:
In the eulogy I said we must stop blacks who commit criminal acts such as snatching bags on Eastern Parkway, and we must also deal with the likes of the Oppenheimer family -- which at the time was trading diamonds with apartheid South Africa.
Extremists seized upon that to say that I was calling all Jews diamond merchants, and I spent years defending the statement rather than recognizing that in hours of tension, one must be clearer than at any other time.
It is not enough to be right. We had our marches, and they were all peaceful. But with the wisdom of hindsight, let's be clear. Our language and tone sometimes exacerbated tensions and played to the extremists rather than raising the issue of the value of this young man whom we were so concerned about.
The other thing that we should have expressed more clearly was the precious value of Yankel Rosenbaum, who was killed by a mob that night. The fact that I was not anywhere near Crown Heights and knew nothing about the events did not mean I shouldn't have addressed that in my eulogy -- because the real lesson of Crown Heights is that we can't keep choosing between whose life is of more value and who is a greater victim. All these years later, there are still those who would rather choose victims than help all of us as a society choose constructive problem-solving over rancor and violence.
I later decided to forgive the man who stabbed me. I even visited him in jail. I did it because of the teachings of Dr. King and the example of Carmel Cato.
Twenty years later, I have grown. I would still have stood up for Gavin Cato, but I would have also included in my utterances that there was no justification or excuse for violence or for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum.
Sharpton's essay appears to be both a rebuttal as well as rapprochment to Rosenbaum's brother, Norman Rosenbaum, who told the Post last week that Sharpton's "vile rhetoric incited the rioting."
Norman Rosenbaum met with Cato's father, Carmel Cato, on Friday to mark the 20th anniversary of their loved ones' deaths. Cato told NY1, "It's just like yesterday to me," while Rosenbaum complained, "None of the basic riot policing measures were put in place. Crowds weren't contained, crowds weren't dispersed and crowds weren't arrested." But Rosenbaum added, “We want people to see the faces of the riots and what went on to be the Cato family and the Rosenbaum family."