After a few days of uproar over his possible participation at a panel about the 1991 Crown Heights riot, the Rev. Al Sharpton has decided not to attend. He sent a letter to organizer Rabbi Marc Schneier, explaining his decision, but also took a few shots at critics. In praising Schneier as "One who can provide a fair forum even if your congregants may question or disagree with the speaker, whether it's Hillary Clinton coming to your Synagogue after kissing Arafat's wife's cheek or Glenn Beck last week," Sharpton said, "Please do not let shallow petty people reduce you from your coveted role in this nation. However, there are those who want to distort and rewrite history for their own purposes."
The riot erupted 20 years ago today after 7-year-old Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants, was killed by a Hasidic driver and then, three hours after Gavin's death, an Orthodox Jewish scholar from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, was killed while a crowd chanted, "Get the Jew!" and continued for two more days. Rosenbaum's brother Norman accused Sharpton's "vile rhetoric" of "incit[ing] the rioting," but Sharpton tells Schneier in his letter:
Governor Mario Cuomo commissioned a state study on Crown Heights that painstakingly examined all sides. Even that report made it clear that I had no role in any violence. In fact, the night that Yankel Rosenbaum was viciously killed I was at home in New Jersey and did not know that any violence had occurred. I came into Crown Heights and eulogized Gavin Cato at the request of his family and led peaceful protests. If people disagreed with my language or reasons for peaceful protests, that is why you have dialogue, which we have had many forums about over the last twenty years. Putting aside the demagoguery, Norman Rosenbaum, who I have never met or talked to lost his brother. Despite the ugly things he has said about Mayor David Dinkins or me down through the years, he speaks from his pain, a pain I feel has been misinformed and manipulated. You and I should separate the demagoguery of some from the pain of a brother if we are to be the leaders we seek to be.
You can read the full letter here; Sharpton added, "I have made mistakes in my career, but the allegations around Crown Heights, which is proven to be patently untrue, was not one of them and I seek to continue to grow as I hope you will. My language and tone at times has been questioned and at times has been over the line. I wish to discuss this openly so that others may grow by my example. Clearly, the Al Sharpton of 2011 is not the Al Sharpton of 1991."
Norman Rosenbaum issued a statement about Sharpton's decision to decline through his family's spokesman, "That's great news. But Sharpton ran from the perfect opportunity to apologize to the Jewish community." Schneier is going to reschedule the panel.