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August 19, 2016 5:35 pm

On 25th Anniversary of Crown Heights Riots, Community Leaders Seek to Set the Record Straight

avatar by Barney Breen-Portnoy

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A torched car in Crown Heights during the 1991 riots.

A torched car in Crown Heights during the 1991 riots.

It is vital that the truth about the 1991 Crown Heights riots be told, a community leader told The Algemeiner on Friday, so that the history books will properly reflect what actually happened over the course of those four violent and tumultuous August days a quarter of a century ago.

“1991 wasn’t the first time that Jews were scapegoated. It’s happened in Europe and in other parts of the world over the centuries and it’s important that the real story come out,” Eli Cohen, the executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council said.

Cohen spoke with The Algemeiner the same day he and Chanina Sperlin, the executive vice president for governmental affairs of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, published an op-ed in the New York Daily News seeking to set the historical record straight about the riots, during which a Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed and beaten to death by black assailants.

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“Our article was written in response to a series of articles that appeared in last weekend’s New York Daily News,” Cohen told The Algemeiner. “There were five or six articles and all but one of them literally were completely revisionist. They told a completely different story than what happened.”

In their New York Daily News op-ed, Cohen and Sperlin wrote that during the riots, the media “attempted to create a ‘balanced story’ where none existed.” And in the 25 years since the riots, “rather than correcting those misperceptions, the coverage looking back from the vantage point of history has further developed several agenda-driven themes,” they wrote.

Cohen and Sperlin continued:

We are asked to believe: that somehow, 1991 was a race war between two opposing factions; that Al Sharpton was not culpable in inciting violence and racism; that former Police Commissioner Lee Brown did not fail in his management of the crisis; and that Mayor David Dinkins was an innocent scapegoat for the failure of his administration.

All of these narratives are false.

First, the truth: In the summer of 1991, the Jewish residents of Crown Heights were the targets, not the perpetrators, of four days and three nights of unrelenting violence. One community member was murdered (as was another white man who, weeks later, was mistaken for being Jewish); several people were injured; property was looted and destroyed; and hundreds of men, women and children were living in terror and afraid to leave their homes for days on end.

At the height of the violence, bands of roaming hooligans sought out people who looked Jewish to attack. Several angry marches threatened the central Lubavitch synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, where Hasidic residents were forced to form a human shield to compel the police to intervene. The officers stood by understanding that their orders were to let the protesters vent. Outside agitators brought in by Sonny Carson and Sharpton further inflamed the tensions.

The full record of the four days is laid out in the Girgenti Report commissioned by Gov. Mario Cuomo at that time, and there is no record of any attacks by Hasidim on anyone, nor of any bodily or property damage incurred by anyone as a result of violence by any Jewish resident.

Despite the fact that Jews were the “targets, not the perpetrators,” of violence during the riots, Cohen — who personally witnessed the unrest — told The Algemeiner that the media painted a picture of preexisting racial tension or “a simmering pot that boiled over.” In this false reality created by the media, Cohen said, black violence against Jews “was somehow justified.”

“The media frames a story and they present a story the way they want to frame it,” Cohen said. “And the facts are not necessarily that important to them. It happens a lot with Middle East reporting and it happened with Crown Heights.”

Five years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the riots, Ari Goldman, who reported on the riots for the New York Times, wrote in a New York Jewish Week op-ed that during the riots he had seen “journalism go terribly wrong.”

“The city’s newspapers, so dedicated to telling both sides of the story in the name of objectivity and balance, often missed what was really going on,” Goldman wrote. “Journalists initially framed the story as a ‘racial’ conflict and failed to see the anti-Semitism inherent in the riots.”

This Sunday morning, Aug. 21, a commemoration event will be held in Crown Heights to mark the 25th anniversary of the riots. In the afternoon, a community festival will take place. At a press conference on Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed to the planned festival as proof that Crown Heights “has achieved a miracle in terms of binding a community back together” over the past 25 years.

Cohen told The Algemeiner that since the riots “we’ve gradually built a much more cohesive community… a wonderful coalition. We’ve worked with multiple groups to build relationships. Building relationships is very important for when something happens. Just to have someone you can call who you can count on at a time when something could go the wrong way, its really important, even life saving. The festival on Sunday is about that work of building a community, building relationships and everybody working together.”

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  • nat cheiman

    Black people, generally, do not like Jews. They also don’t like whites. BLM is a racist agency depicting racial hatred

  • YW

    In truth, the “festival on Sunday” is a hugely controversial matter among Crown Heights Jews.

    Most of us regular frum Jews are horrified that an anniversary of such tragedies as the accidental death of Gavin Cato, and the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum–and other deaths and injuries, destruction of property, and terrorism–is being marked by “rides, refreshments, entertainment, games,” etc. — and, oh yes, a memorial gathering during the course of the “festivities,” but just there in the mix.

    (PS: There was already a memorial gathering on Friday, at the corner where Yankel Rosenbaum was slain, on the actual anniversary date.)

    It is appalling to so many of us frum Crown Heightsers that such merry-making is how this anniversary is being commemorated.

    The only way to make sense of it is that many, many politicians and organizations planned this frivolity, and it will indeed be a photo-op during an election year.

    Yes, blacks and Jews still live here together, and basically get along though there are significant problems with crime. Yes, local black politicians serve the Jewish constituency as a part of the entire community. (Though I must say that Crown Heights’ member of the US House of Representatives proclaims herself to be “pro-Israel” and then her votes resemble those of her anti-Israel bloc colleagues on Iran and several other vital matters!) Progress, but still a long way to go. Very good. Break out the non-kosher and kosher hot dogs, clowns, and carnival rides! Never mind that so many of us find this hugely offensive as we remember the death and horror of 25 years ago!

    But I predict that there will not be many Jews at the “celebration.” Why? Because this is certainly no anniversary to “celebrate”! Thank G-d so many of us are out of town at camp visiting days, and extended Shabbos Nachamu trips to the country.

    The “fun and games” are a real head-scratcher. Yes, I “get” the event planners’ “logic.” But if they have to explain it to local frum Jews, who are also intelligent enough to “get” their really tacky “logic,” this means that the event is clearly of questionable taste and timing. And there are too many ulterior motives being served here for the politicians.

  • Joseph Shandling

    Speaking of correcting the record, this article itself is creating a new distortion of the truth, to put it very kindly. Yankel Rosenbaum was not beaten to death. He was stabbed to death by a gang of thugs. One of them was tried for murder and found innocent in an outrageous scandal where the jury celebrated the verdict together with the accused. Afterwards the accused was tried and convicted on Federal charges. Yankel Rosenbaum died when, after being stabbed and brought to a hospital, he languished there for hours on end. In the 25 years since, I have never seen an explanation as to why Yankel was denied treatment for all those hours, resulting in his death, or as to why that part of the story seemed to drop out of the pursuant litigation between the Crown Heights Jewish community and the city.

    Algemeiner, how could you have let the statement about being beaten to death go to publication. You need to issue a correction.

  • 1) Yamkel dies of a stab wound if memory serves.
    2) Girgenti report is available on Amazon

  • Isahiah62

    Some things never change- biased media and Al Sharp-tongue, who is now considered prestigious enough to be Obama’s race consigliere.

    And Sharp-tongue is still out here inciting murder, this time, of police officers and has a bigger national platform (MSLSD)& audience. Nasty guy whose claim to fame was based upon a lie, a crime that didn’t happen, same as BLM, based on lies and pro-criminal.

    Sickening to see how many lies are acceptable to people if they are about JEWS.
    Some things never change

  • Marlene Butler

    The travesty that happened on American soil in Crown Heights was nothing less than a PROGROM instigated by Al Shapton and other agitators in t5 black community. The black community was supported by a black mayor and a black police commisioner and only when the mayor was attacked by his own people throwing a bottle at his head did he finally give the police permission to get the situation under control. My m

  • Herbert Grossman

    The “riots” were a pogrom, no more or less than any other pogrom, motivated by antisemitism, with the intent of attacking Jews and stealing their property. No journalist “missed” what was going on. They deliberately concealed it, as a product of their own antisemitism, Jewish journalists ashamed of their ethnic background, included, in the long tradition pioneered by the NY Times and its apostate (formerly Jewish) family owners.

  • Sam

    Setting the record straighter. Yankel Rosenbaum was most certainly NOT “beaten to death”. His assailants stabbed him and he was evacuated by ambulance to Kings County hospital where he died several hours later because the doctors failed to identify and treat a wound in his back that had punctured his lung.

  • Why would The New York Times which buried the Holocaust because of its foundational antisemitism treat the Crown Heights pogrom any differently?

  • Theodore Herlich

    A black child was killed in a car accident, where the driver, in the Rebbe’s entourage, was hit by another car and then careened into the boy. Rioting began, and Lemerick Nelson stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum to death. Rocks and bottles were thrown at the Jewish residents of Crown Heights for days, seriously injuring people, while the police “stood down.” Black rioters committed a pogrom against the Jews of Crown Heights. Had the black child been killed by a black livery cab driver, a frequent event in those days, it would be, ho hum, business as usual. It was the stark expression of the evil of anti-Semitism among blacks!

  • brenrod

    american blacks have been a source of disappointing betrayal to Jews time and time again. 35% are polled as anti semitic as opposed to 8% white americans. Blacks are still to day publicly initing anti semitism like the politician in harlem..lopez-pierre. Jews must be wary of these back stabbers who stabbed the backs of Jews who helped them win the civil rights.

  • Jay Lavine

    There are a number of take-home lessons.

    First, those who spew hatred are guilty of incitement, because sooner or later one or more individuals immersed in the toxic environment will act violently. Jews have the Fast of Gedaliah (immediately following Rosh Hashanah) to remind them of this.

    Second, scapegoating is a very harmful manifestation of inner anger (often associated with a lack of spiritual fulfillment) that then becomes projected onto others. Whether the object is Jews, non-Jewish Arabs, liberals, or anyone else, we must see it for what it is and work to eliminate it. The first step is to avoid labeling or categorizing, which creates divisiveness and sinat chinam, the lesson of Tisha B’av. We must look at people as individuals, and, when they are different from us in some way, try to understand their perspective, which we may even be able to identify with to some extent.

    Taking note of the very deleterious consequences of sinat chinam in others may help us identify destructive tendencies within ourselves, the first step toward alleviation of those tendencies.

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