This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots, three days of sporadic violence, protest, and destruction that placed Crown Heights in the international spotlight and laid bare deep, bitter divisions between the neighborhood's black and Lubavitch Jewish communities.

Gothamist spoke to people who were there—activists, journalists, police, and politicians—about their recollections of the events of August 19-21, 1991, which were sparked when a black child was killed and his cousin seriously injured by a driver in the motorcade of Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. We also spoke about what happened before the riots, and where the neighborhood is today.

Each day this week, we'll be running edited excerpts of our conversations. (Read parts one, two and three of the series.)

This mini oral history is not an attempt to offer an authoritative or comprehensive account of what happened during those three days. That would require a book, or several books. (The Girgenti Report, commissioned by then-Governor Mario Cuomo to analyze what happened, clocks in at 616 pages—if you're interested in the chronology of events, the Daily News did a solid write-up.) Rather, these are a series of snapshots.

The people with whom we spoke offered different, at times conflicting, narratives of what happened. When their recollections about the chronology or nature of specific events significantly diverged from published accounts we've judged to be reliable, we've noted these discrepancies and linked to relevant accounts.

Gothamist: Looking back, how do you judge the response of the Dinkins Administration?

Errol Louis
Errol Louis is the host of Inside City Hall on NY1. He has written for the New York Sun, the Daily News, and Our Time Press. In 1991, he was living in Crown Heights, working for a nonprofit and freelancing as a journalist.

I've talked at considerable length with almost all of the relevant parties. My understanding of it—in the end, there was some internal NYPD politics that got in the way of swift resolution of this, meaning Ray Kelly, who was then deputy commissioner, was on the outs with Commissioner Lee Brown, and for that reason alone he was sidelined. It wasn't until they had the 10-13 call for Car One, meaning the Commissioner's car was under attack. It was clear that the situation had spun out of control.

My understanding from subsequent reporting is that Kelly then leans over to Brown and says, "Do you want me to handle this?" At which point, Kelly reverted to being a combat marine from Vietnam, set up the right blockades and started doing sweeps and shutting the whole thing down within a day.

That was late in the process. Dinkins, true to form, he and his team did their best to settle the situation in a way that was consistent with not just their duties, but with their values. Their values were such that they weren't going to come in there and just slap a curfew on the neighborhood or just start rounding up people by the dozens.

They had campaigned on a different approach to inter-group relations, and they tried as best they could to settle it in a way that made sense to them, and that would keep the promises that they had made to the public.

The entire administration, and David Dinkins in particular, got a horribly, horribly raw deal both from the media, and frankly, from the Cuomo administration after that.

If you look at the handling of that report, including the timing of its release, there is no way to interpret it, in my opinion, other than as an act of extreme political hostility from the administration of Mario Cuomo. That's the story, and that's the gospel within the veterans of the Dinkins Administration. He waited until the opportune moment, and then he stabbed the mayor in the back.

The unfortunate part of it is that a really good guy, named David Dinkins, got slammed and slimed in a horribly unfair way. And it struck at the core of his political brand. Because if you remember, when he got elected, when he beat both Koch and Giuliani in that same year—in 1989—it was because both of them were seen as divisive. Dinkins was supposed to be the answer.

The public, I think especially white liberal voters, were prepared to forgive Dinkins on a lot of things. A slumping economy. Crime that he made a valiant effort to actually contain and reverse, which he actually did. But they weren't going to forgive him on what was part of his core brand, which was that we were supposed to be able to get along better.

Crown Heights was manipulated politically to become a symbol that the core promise of the Dinkins Administration was not being met.

Philip Gourevitch
Philip Gourevitch is an author and journalist. At the time of the riots, he was New York bureau chief of the Forward. He is a staff writer for the New Yorker.

I remember very distinctly the impression that the press and the police and the city officials were very anxious to make everything seem like the explosion was coming equally from all sides. You'd read things or people would say things that more or less seemed to suggest that the blacks and the Jews were rioting, which wasn't in fact the case.

From the very beginning, the Lubavitchers, the Hasids, were complaining that the police were not doing enough to stop the rioters, that they were just standing around between them. They were making a human shield and trying to contain it, but they weren't really going after them to re-establish control.

The city was denying this completely. It was pretty obvious when you were there. I was there during one melee where rioters were throwing rocks and bottles across the street—over the heads of the police—at the Hasids. The police lined up there in the middle were simply ducking. The same thing happened at one point to Dinkins when he came out to the neighborhood. He was stoned and attacked with bottles. That's when he finally increased the police on the streets. [Ed note: On the second day of the riots, while Mayor Dinkins visited with community members at PS 167 on Eastern Parkway, protesters outside threw bricks and other projectiles at the building. The next day, he was met with a similar response.]

I had gone one day to the precinct house. I had noticed as I was wandering around the neighborhood, that among the young guys who were sort of milling around the streets there were people with little video cameras. It was something one hadn't seen before. I was talking to a police captain who'd just returned to the precinct—he'd been pulled in from vacation time—to try to help out.

He was like, "My guys are really upset here. They're saying they're not being allowed to act with force. They're not being allowed to assert themselves here and get control." This was on day two or three. As we continued to talk, I mentioned the video cameras that I'd been seeing. He said, "Yes, I think we are paying the price for the Rodney King incident," which was very much on people's minds at that point. In other words what he was saying was: they're afraid that anything they do that might get caught on camera would look worse than letting this thing sort of run its course.

Later, that became one of the great conflicts or debates about Crown Heights. Had the city reacted enough and why did it wait three or four days to really put down what was in fact a relatively small rabble-roused crowd?

I think they reacted poorly. I don't think it's in doubt.

Mayor David Dinkins
David Dinkins served as mayor of New York City from 1990-1993. He is a professor in the practice of public policy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

We wanted to keep the peace foremost. Under no circumstances were people permitted to do the things that we were accused of letting them do. That just was not true. We met with Jews and with blacks in the community. For me to be accused of holding back the police and permitting blacks to attack Jews is just plain inaccurate. It never happened. If somebody knew nothing about me and didn't know who I was or my history with Jews and Israel, then maybe one might have reached that conclusion. But given who I was and what I have done long before—that seemed to me eminently unfair. Period.

News report on the fourth day of the riots.


Rabbi Shea Hecht
Rabbi Shea Hecht is the chairman of the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education. At the time of the riots, he was living in Crown Heights and working for the committee.

My understanding is the report basically says Dinkins told the police to, to use his words, "tie their hands." He held the police from doing their jobs. As it happens, in his defense, he was doing that because he was getting the wrong information. His people on the streets said, "Nah, it's a few young kids running around, not the whole neighborhood. You're talking about a neighborhood of 200,000 people and you have 300 people running down the streets, what's the big deal? And sometimes it was less than that—it was 50 or 60 kids running through the streets—OK, it's young kids, let them vent." [Ed note: The claim that the administration was not receiving thorough updates on the riots or the tactics being used by the police in Crown Heights is also made in the Girgenti Report.]

My understanding is it was well substantiated within the report that, if nothing else, the mayor did a big mistake that night. Based on the information he was getting—it's just just some wild youths, it'll peter out, and that's it. On Thursday evening, when they came and arrested 85 people—guess what? The riots were over.

I don't attribute bad feelings to the mayor. Some of my colleagues have a very different opinion, and feel that I'm a sellout. I've been criticized both in the press and out of the press. I still hold my position: I think it was incompetent, but he wasn't the bad guy.

Ray Kelly
Ray Kelly served as commissioner of the New York Police Department from 1992-1994 and again from 2002-2013. At the time of the riots, he was first deputy commissioner of the NYPD. He had previously served as commander of the 71st Precinct in Crown Heights.

Lee Brown wanted to make certain that it wasn't perceived, as it had been in the past, that the first deputy commissioner was in charge of the chief of department. I was involved in administrative matters, the chief of department would be involved in operational matters. [Ed note: The chain of command in the NYPD at the time is described in contemporaneous reporting and in the Girgenti Report.]

So when the event took place, I didn't respond. I didn't have a role on Monday night, and on the next day, I was in my office. It wasn't until Wednesday that I did respond, because I heard the police commissioner's car being under attack in the afternoon.

So I went out there, and I went to a school, and in the school was Mayor Dinkins and Lee Brown. They were upset, the police had not taken any action that they thought they should've taken against what Lee Brown described as kids. And they were—a lot of 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds in this instance, coming down Eastern Parkway.

There came a point in time that I went to Lee Brown and said, "Do you want me to get involved in this?" And he said yes.

On Thursday morning I had a meeting in my office with all the chiefs involved, and I said "What's going on here," and they gave me answers I was not satisfied with.

This department was too hesitant to take action. We can understand the delicacies of engaging a crowd or a mob, but clearly, they held back too long. I asked them why didn't they provide security to the Mayor when he went to Gavin Cato's house, put officers on the roof.

Someone said, "Well, too dangerous," which I thought was an absolutely ridiculous answer. And they hadn't closed streets, why? "Because people had to get to work." Those types of answers.

For me, I had some charts and things and went through an operational plan, and charted what I wanted done. We brought in mounted troops and extra police officers, and it ended that day, and we made arrests.

But it wasn't the department's finest hour. There was reluctance to take action when action should've been taken.

The hesitancy came from police commanders on the ground. I think Commissioner Brown assumed that normal police activities would address the issue of these mobs in the street. Don't forget, he had come from another department.

In my view, the commanders on the ground were hesitant because they were trying to read the political tea leaves. You had an African-American mayor, African-American police commissioner, African-American chief of department. So I think they weren't certain as to which way the administration wanted them to go. That resulted in hesitancy.

Mayor Lee Brown
Lee Brown is a former mayor of Houston and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He served as the police commissioner of New York City from 1990-1992.

Our response was based on what was occurring at the time. It wasn't a continuous disturbance, it was something that would happen at night-time, except when you had the marchers during the daytime. We changed our tactic as a result of that. What was happening was, they were running from place to place and we were chasing them. We were able to come up with a new tactic where we had a two-fold approach, where you have police officers stationary and also police officers mobile, so we could put a stop to it. That's how we ended up stopping the disturbance.

I was in the field taking care of the problem. Mayor Dinkins was not there, so he relied on me to make the decisions about how we dealt with the problem.

We put plenty of police on the streets and we met with the community on a regular basis, updating them. There were a lot of rumors that were going around at the time, but we were able to keep the public aware of what was going on with regular news conferences.

In retrospect, if you compare what occurred there with other disturbances throughout the United States, the damage was nowhere near what you had in a place like Los Angeles. We contained it and didn't allow it to spread to other parts of the city and arrested those who were committing the crimes.

It was contained. It did not spread to other parts of the city. We were sued, the city and myself and Mayor Dinkins and the courts ruled that we acted appropriately under the circumstances. [Ed note: In 1997, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Dinkins and Brown, ruling that their conduct had met the "objectively reasonable" standard required for qualified immunity.]