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 part one 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: Why did the riots happen?

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.

The instinct was that generally when things like this happen—however extreme or violent or wrong you might think that the riot was—that there had been a very substantial provocation. There must have been an injustice to provoke this response. I think there was a failure to recognize that this story just didn't fit that scenario. It was a relatively anomalous case, where activists looking for a kind of rallying point and an occasion to stir up a sense of injustice exploited the mood of the moment in a place where the story in fact was different. It was a car accident.

The newspapers tended to say over and over again, "two victims, two people from very different backgrounds, same fate"—about the seven year old boy who was hit by a car and the Australian biblical scholar, the ultra Orthodox Jew who was killed by the mob. They were saying one fate like they died in the same incident—in some sort of confluence of social forces—but these were two totally different fates.

It took half a year, a year, for Dinkins himself to start sort of slipping in, between his carefully self-protective phrases, the fact that this was a lynching. A mob stirred up at the scene of an accident had gone forth, "Kill a Jew, kill a Jew, let's get the Jews," and sure enough, they got a Jew. [Ed note: Dinkins first described the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum as a "lynching" in September of 1991, about three weeks after Rosenbaum was killed.]

Update: Gourevitch emailed Gothamist to note that in his own reporting during the early 1990s, he said Dinkins waited three weeks to use the term "lynching." He wrote to us: "Three weeks felt like a long time to wait. A quarter century later I remember these events as spread out over a longer period. Maybe because what happened in such a concentrated time-frame reverberated and was so contested and disputed for so much longer."]

I think that was the result of a very pernicious strain of anti-Semitism that had entered at that moment into a strain of Afrocentric rhetoric and black activism. It was a particular moment, a particular group. It's not what all African American activists were about at the time by any means —not even remotely—but it was big enough that it was on the radar, it was being written about, it was very visible, and nobody at first seemed to want to say so about Crown Heights.

There were community tensions there obviously, and you'd hear plenty of racism in the things people said on the streets, in all directions. Or, if not racism, speaking about other groups with pretty negative stereotypes. But what exploded there was not fundamentally a conflict between these two communities that—as many people portrayed them at the time—were long simmering and bound to erupt.


Ife Charles
Ife Charles is the Center for Court Innovation's coordinator of anti-violence programs, including the Save Our Streets programs in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy. At the time of the riots, she was working at a hospital and living in East New York.

In the black and the Caribbean community, we had just lost a young kid. Folks were really hurting, and did not understand why he had to die.

Out of their frustration came young men, young women, who were really, really angry, and used that opportunity to talk about their anger around the Hasidic community. I think the thing about the community in Crown Heights is that folks internalize their frustration, and those frustrations had to do with this feeling that you had preferential treatment, by the police, by the politicians: "They owned property, they did what they wanted to do, and there was no accountability." Those were some of the feelings that brown and black people in this community had.

The death of the young man allowed those feelings to no longer be internal, and now they became external, and they became vocalized. People were very vocal about, "If this were a Jewish person, this would not have happened. The Jews let this guy die and then they took the individual that killed him out of the country."

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(Scott Heins / Gothamist)

There was a bunch of anger, a bunch of frustration. That was the atmosphere in the community. The us-against-them was even more heightened when this took place.

Crown Heights is one of these communities, if you're familiar with it back in those days, is that there were Jews, there were Caribbeans, there were blacks—American—and basically everybody kept to themselves. There wasn't this great Kumbayah moment where everybody was having conversations and we all got along.

Part of that came from the strong Jewish culture, and religious laws, and so integration was not something that was going to happen in the community at that time. With the death of a young kid, and then the death of the scholar from Australia, Yankel—here you have two communities, now mourning the death of their children, and no one is held accountable for the death of the young black male. The death of the Jewish scholar was held accountable, again perpetuating a belief that everybody else's lives matter, except that of brown and black people. I think the Black Lives Matter hashtag was something that could have been used back in those times, when the person that had killed Gavin Cato was not charged with anything.

There's where the frustration came out of it. I think that anger allowed people to start just being horrible in the community, destroying community, and just showing their frustration by the burning of cars and throwing of stones in people's windows, and targeting.

A child's life was taken. I don't dispute that it was an accident. It was a very tragic accident, but I also believe that the way it was handled allowed it to escalate into a group of folks believing that justice was not going to be served.

I've lost a son and so I feel the pain of Yankel's mom and father and brother, and I feel the pain from Gavin Cato's family. What happened to Yankel—people became angry, and they targeted the wrong—they targeted and just did stupid shit. Stupid shit that took someone's life, the same way the Jewish community ambulance did some stupid shit by not saving that little boy or even attending to him, or giving him some sort of a first aid to help him in the process until the ambulance came. Both sides were equally wrong.

[Ed note: Both a Hatzolah and a city Emergency Medical Services ambulance arrived at the site of the accident almost immediately. NYPD officers on the ground ordered the Hatzolah ambulance to remove the driver, Yosef Lifsh, and his two passengers from the scene. City EMS personnel attended to Gavin and Angela Cato. Nevertheless, rumors spread that the Hatzolah ambulance had taken the Jewish car occupants and left the two black children to die.]

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.

There was potential for a long time of having problems flare up between the Hasidic community and mostly Caribbean black community in Crown Heights. There was a significant amount of crime in the precinct, in Crown Heights, and the Hasidim had formed various groups to protect themselves—in response to what they perceived as increasing crime rates. The interaction between both groups in the community was fairly frequent, and there were flare-ups. This wasn't something that just totally came out of the blue. There was just a lot of tension in the air, certainly in the days that I was there, and also 1991. I was there not even three days prior.

There's often a fine line between good community relations and preferential treatment. That argument had been put forward, certainly during the '80s. In the early '80s, there was a patrol car stationed in front of 770 Eastern Parkway. But the rabbi was a world leader of his sect, and there was a sense at that time—certainly, when I was a precinct commander—that there were generalized threats against him. The policy was in place when I got there, and continued—there is an auxiliary temporary headquarters parked near 770 Eastern Parkway now.


News report on the second 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.

What was being portrayed in the press is that Jews were getting help from government, Jews were getting the programs, Jews were getting their fair share of the money, and the blacks were not. I knew, as a Jewish leader, that that was simply a lie. We were not getting our fair share. In fact, when they did the few investigations, that's one of the things that they said, is that, "Hey, you know what? The blacks thought that Jews were getting the money, the Jews thought the blacks were getting the money, but neither were getting the money." The politicians were not dealing with us fairly on any level.

There was tension in the community. The Jews were not getting the help from government that they needed, the blacks were not getting help from government that they needed or deserved, or were entitled to. The police department was understaffed in the 71st precinct. Of course there's tension. Why shouldn't there be tension?

There lacked leadership from City Hall to Crown Heights. There lacked leadership and funds from Washington, Albany, and City Hall. That was additional to the problem.

The Girgenti report—the one important part is that false information went out on the street.

The car that was driving behind the Rabbi's car was hit by another car and went out of control. So, it was not that this car got out of control, or this guy drove onto the sidewalk and killed the little child—no. [Ed note: The exact details of the crash are disputed. According to the Girgenti Report, eyewitnesses said Lifsh entered the intersection on a red light, while he and the car's occupants claimed the light was yellow. An accident reconstruction specialist hired by the Brooklyn DA estimated Lifsh's speed at the time of the collision as 45-55 miles per hour—the city speed limit at the time was 30 mph—though an expert hired by Lifsh argued that he had been driving between 30-35 mph.]

Number two is, there was false information about the Hatzolah service. The cops were on the scene, they ran the whole situation, they were the ones who made the decision, and therefore, if there was any anger, it should have been directed to the police department, and the police precinct, rather than the Jewish community. [Ed note: Evidence broadly supports this account of the emergency response.].

Why did the riots break out, then? Well. They were coming back from a concert, word got out that something happened. There was, at that concert, alcohol, and people were on a high. They went a little bit crazy. [Ed note: Contemporaneous and retrospective accounts note that a group of black youth leaving a B.B. King concert joined the gathering crowd near the site of the accident.]

Beyond that, there's a different question that you have to ask yourself: the killer had on his knife, "Kill the Jew." [Ed note: police testified that the Lemrick Nelson's knife was engraved with the word "killer."]

He did not engrave that on his knife that evening. He did that days before, or maybe weeks before. What was he looking for? What was his friend looking for? Was it an excuse to riot? Was it an excuse to attack Jews? Let the people be the jury.


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.

I think that it's important to make a distinction between what happened in Crown Heights and what happened in other cities that had riots. It was not something that was precipitated by the police, as is often the case. This was a long-standing, brewing problem of two communities. Competition for housing, competitions for city services.

It was something I was working on from a community policing standpoint: What could the police do to help address the issues that exist in the community? That's what community policing means: problem-solving. I did have support from some of the African-American ministers helping me and Rabbi Tanenbaum from the Jewish perspective.

I think that's very important for people to understand, that the police did not precipitate the event, it was precipitated by the accident. We had a problem where the black community wanted an arrest to be made. The district attorney advised on that issue and said you had to have at least violations in order to make the arrest.

The district attorney made that decision. [Ed note: The Brooklyn DA, Charles Hynes, said in the immediate aftermath of the riots that the police lacked sufficient evidence to detain the driver, Yosef Lifsh. He brought the case to a grand jury, which that September voted not to indict Lifsh.]


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 don't think folks appreciate the level of day-to-day generally peaceful co-existence, marked by underlying tension especially between the kids, the young men.

There was just always something going on, whether it was dirty looks or names shouted across the street, there was always a little of that among many of the young men.

My perspective is that the neighborhood then and the neighborhood—even now to a certain extent—I could chalk a lot of it up to what I would just call "ghetto mentality." Black ghetto or Jewish ghetto. It's the same idea. There's a certain amount of paranoia. There's a certain amount of feeling that any break that doesn't go your way is somehow evidence of a larger conspiracy to harm or destroy your entire community.

It's a very narrow-minded way of thinking.

Black folks felt it very strongly, and the Jewish people felt it equally strongly. You really got everybody teed up and on edge, and those feelings are very hard to dissipate.

I'm going to be involved in a couple of events related to the 25th anniversary of the riots. One of my Jewish friends called me up and said, "Would you please come and moderate and be involved in some of this, because we're going to commemorate the pogrom." Even 25 years later, I've learned it's not even worth the energy to try to explain that David Dinkins and the NYPD were not engaged in an organized conspiracy to facilitate or allow for the beating and harm to the Jewish community. Some of my neighbors remember it very differently. I know better than to try convince them that their memories are faulty or overly paranoid. It doesn't work that way.