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