A project of Brooklyn Historical Society

PHOTOS: Talking about the Crown Heights Riot

Posted on

January 17, 2012


On a sunny Sunday in October, Kareen Odate, Acting Director of the Center for Women's Development at Medgar Evers College, and Deborah Schwartz, President of the Brooklyn Historical Society, welcomed the audience who had gathered at Medgar Evers College for a discussion about how we remember the Crown Heights Riot of August 1991.

The audience was knowledgeable about the general occurrences in August 19-21, 1991: how a car (driven by a 22-year-old Lubavitch man) lost control and killed seven-year-old Gavin Cato, a son of Guyanese immigrants, who was riding his bike on the sidewalk; how the first ambulance took the car's driver and passengers and left the injured boy; how the police failed to explain that the first ambulance was not equipped for severe trauma and that's why they waited for the second ambulance; and how this, combined with long documented disparities in city services in the neighborhood, resulted in civil disorder and the stabbing (by a young black man) of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish man from Australia studying in the U.S.

Public historian Cynthia Copeland talked about how history involves intimacy; we can’t talk about Crown Heights without talking about ourselves, locating ourselves, describing our positionality in the events.  For museums and public history projects we must ask: Whose history? Who is doing the interpretation?  What is the involvement of the community with the museum? Is there trust?

Pamela Green, Executive Director of the Weeksville Heritage Center, and Rabbi Eli Cohen, Executive Director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council both criticized the media, then and now, for lumping the entire neighborhood into Black and Jewish, erasing distinctions in the black community: African American, Caribbean American, long time residents and recent immigrants; and the Jewish community, as well, which is not all Lubavitch, Hasidic, or Orthodox.  The media stereotyped community response with shocking headlines like the Daily News' "Streets of Rage." This misrepresented the way people had been living and do live in Crown Heights where it’s not Black on one side, Jewish on the other, everyone is neighbors.

Anthropologist and curator Jill Vexler described the beginnings of the Crown Heights History Project, a collaboration among the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Weeksville Heritage Center, and the Brooklyn Historical Society funded by The New York Times.  Jill described how she and Craig Wilder pushed back against the funder’s choice of title “Bridging Eastern Parkway” because, as mentioned, it is not an accurate picture of Crown Heights.

The panel discussed the meaning of the language we choose to describe the August 1991 events: riots or incidents or civil disorder or civil unrestDexter Wimberly put the “riots” in context by explaining that the crime rate was high in New York City citywide and anxiety was increased by high-profile cases like Bernhard Goetz (1984), Tawana Brawley (1987-88), Central Park Jogger (1989-90); crack was a huge problem, it was nearing the second anniversary of the racially motivated murder of Yusef Hawkins, a young black man who was killed in Bensonhurst in a racially motivated murder; racial tensions were high at that time around the country -- the beating of Rodney King would take place just a few months later in March 1991; the L.A. Riots took place in April 1992 after the officers who beat King were acquitted.

The panelists discussed how they resist letting the “Crown Heights Riot” define their neighborhood even though that is all that many people know about the neighborhood.  Alex Kelly said that she began the Listen To This oral history project when she moved to Crown Heights after being on the road with Story Corps, interviewing people around the country.  She wanted to connect with the community and feel rooted.  She described that the Crown Heights Riot did come up in many of the interviews they collected and Monica Parfait, who was one of the high school students on the interviewing team, said that this was the first time she and her friends had ever heard about the riot – which occurred before she was born.  Parfait suggested that the word “riot” was helpful in catching their attention and that then they were interested in learning more.

When the discussion was opened to audience members, one woman said she could still feel the anger that she experienced upon hearing about Gavin Cato’s death, an anger fed by the continuing disparity in how crimes against black people or white people are treated by the media and law enforcement.  The audience and the panelists discussed the lack of integration in schools. Lee Church, a representative from Assembly-member Hakeem Jeffries office, speaking as himself (not as a representative), said that we can’t talk about disparities in education and achievement without also talking about marijuana arrests which result from the NYPD’s racial profiling in Stop-and-Frisk practices (see NYCLU report).

Everyone agreed that the conversation had just gotten going when it was time to wrap up.

All photos by Willie Davis.