New Jersey Jewish News
Crown Heights riot fact, fiction, and plenty of blame
We thought we knew what happened in Crown Heights and who did it. Turns out we were wrong.
We had the major players right but we were foggy on action and motivation, even though we had watched scenes from the riot on the nightly news; heard commentary from religious leaders, politicians, and community leaders; and lived through the aftermath listening to everyones take on what happened.
Certain facts are not in dispute: In August 1991, seven-year-old Gavin Cato, an African-American, was run over by a van driven by a hasidic Jew in a section of Brooklyn known as Crown Heights, a neighborhood where blacks and hasidim lived side by side but did not interact. Several hours later, Yankel Rosenbaum, an Orthodox Jew from Australia, was assaulted by a band of young African Americans and stabbed several times by at least one of them, Lemrick Nelson. These names are part of our collective memory. The rest of the story, however, takes different shapes depending upon the teller.
Edward S. Shapiro is too skilled a historian to believe that there is one truth, but he is committed to exploring the varying narratives, examining the language of each, and skewering the biases in Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brooklyn Riot (University Press of New England), the first and only book on the first and only anti-Jewish riot in American history.
For the author, the research and writing of this book fed into one of his major interests. Although he has lived in West Orange since 1969, where he and his wife, Daryl, belong to Congregation Ohr Torah and Congregation Ahawas Achim Bnai Jacob and David, cities fascinate him. I have always been interested in ethnic history, immigrant history, Shapiro said. I love to walk around neighborhoods, look into restaurants, see how people are dressed. In this book, he has dug a little deeper, looking beyond exterior surfaces to show how a neighborhood works or fails to work.
The riot was a surprise to everyone, he told NJ Jewish News in an interview in his West Orange home. It couldnt have been anticipated. It was inconceivable.
Professor emeritus of history at Seton Hall University in South Orange, Shapiro has written several books and articles on Jews and American culture in the 20th century, but this is his first on a specific event and it is a lesson on how historians ply their craft as well as a fascinating study of subjectivity.
One thing I noticed in retrospect it should not have surprised me is how people framed the riot in terms of certain intellectual constructs based upon their own experience and history, Shapiro said. Then New York Mayor David Dinkins, who prided himself on his sensitivity to Jewish concerns, used the words lynching and bias crime to describe the murder of Rosenbaum, terms from his own historical past. Jews, particularly the Lubavitchers of Crown Heights, Shapiros book points out, used words like pogrom to describe what they suffered, ignoring the fact that a pogrom, by definition, is a government-sponsored action and that the impetus for this riot began on the street. Blacks, with a similar determination to make language do their bidding, argued that terms like bias crime and lynching should be reserved for crimes against blacks, not used to describe the Crown Heights tragedy.
The existence of different narratives interpreted differently made his job more difficult, Shapiro said, along with the absence of primary unpublished material, although he scoured the archives of organizations like the Urban League and Anti-Defamation League. The lack of primary data makes the role of historian that much harder.
To understand the riot and its aftermath, he spoke to people who lived in Crown Heights at the time. Very dangerous, he termed that kind of research. People remember what they want to remember. A person cowering in his house wont have any insight into the political and social factors at work.
Those factors are central to Shapiros book. He picks his way through the conflicting social and political agendas of the cast of characters like a TV detective looking for evidence in the rubble of accusations. First to be blamed were the police who were slow to respond, according to the Lubavitch community. In hindsight, Shapiro said, [the police] should have gone down immediately in massive amounts, arrested everyone in sight, cut it off at the outset, but they were working on another principle, one they had given much thought to after the riots of the 60s. They believed that cordoning off the major area would prevent violence from spreading. Unfortunately, Shapiro said, the problem when you cordon off an area is that the people within are vulnerable and help cant reach them easily.
The Lubavitch community accused wealthy Jews who didnt come to their rescue. They felt abandoned, looked down upon because they were different from those in mainstream Jewish organizations, Shapiro said, but I dont think that was true at all. Those organizations did what they were supposed to do the Jewish Community Relations Council was on the scene a few hours after the Cato incident, urging the mayor to restore order and suggesting he call out the National Guard if the police could not do their job.
Jews like to believe they are more powerful than they are an ironic imitation of what anti-Semites say about Jews and their connection to power as if all they have to do is whisper into the ears of politicians. The fact remains that Jews are not very powerful in this country. We have distorted ideas of how power works and whos important, he said.
In another example of the irony that underlies so much of the Crown Heights story, the Lubavitchers were themselves partially responsible for the organizations not responding as rapidly as they would have liked, Shapiro writes. They had argued since the first day of rioting that this was the work of outside agitators and that their relationship with their neighbors was cordial. If this were true, there would be no need for defense organizations to become involved, since this could only be a temporary flare-up caused by people who didnt belong in Crown Heights.
The outside agitators explanation illustrated how popular memory can conflict with historical complexity, Shapiro writes. If an appreciation of the complexity of the Crown Heights riot renders additional riots less likely, then this book will have served its purpose.
Comment | | |
|©2006 New Jersey Jewish News
All rights reserved