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A History of Tension: Race Relations in Crown Heights

“I think there is a problem. The question is exactly what the problem is.”—Rabbi Menachem Posner, quoted from The New York Times, May 22, 2008
In the spring of 2008, it seemed that racial tensions were escalating once again in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood in which a relatively large Hasidic Jewish community resides alongside a mixed population of mostly Caribbean immigrants and African-Americans. This community first garnered global attention in 1991 when Yosef Lifsh, a driver for a prominent local Rabbi’s motorcade, lost control of his car and hit two seven-year-old children, Gavin Cato and his cousin, Angela. Hatzolah Ambulance Core, a Jewish volunteer medical service, arrived at the scene first and, on instruction from the police, transported Lifsh away from the scene. A city ambulance, which arrived moments later, took Gavin Cato to the hospital; a second city ambulance then came for Angela. Angela survived but Gavin died of his injuries.

Rumors spread quickly in the neighborhood. Many blacks saw Lifsh receiving medical care first and were outraged. Some said that Lifsh was intoxicated and that he didn’t have a driver’s license (neither was the case). Perhaps most significantly, police were accused of giving preferential treatment to the Jews. A mob of black teenagers formed and sought revenge. Approximately three hours after the accident, they found Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish doctoral student from Australia, walking outside alone. They beat him, fracturing his skull, and then stabbed him several times. One of the assailants was found by police shortly thereafter, hiding in a bush and holding a knife. Rosenbaum was able to identify him before succumbing to his wounds and dying in the hospital. So began the riots against the Jews which were to last four more days. 

The subsequent media attention placed racial tension in Crown Heights at the forefront of American consciousness. Its legacy lingers as a reminder of America’s racial divide. Since 1991, there has been relative quiet in the area. The Jewish population— rather than fleeing—has nearly doubled, both in land area and number. The relative quiet suggested that racial tensions in Crown Heights had eased.

Then in April 2008, Crown Heights again started making headlines. A sixteen-year-old Jewish boy was mugged and beaten by two black boys. A week later, a twenty-year-old black man was beaten on the streets by Jewish attackers. Articles covering these incidents always referenced the riots of seventeen years earlier. Crown Heights, with its history of racial tension, appeared once again to harbor racially motivated crime. All eyes turned to this Brooklyn neighborhood as another riot seemed possible.
But the articles stopped after early June. The lack of follow-up leads to many questions. Did the media lose interest in a riot too slow to form? Did the events of 1991 properly equip the community to ease tensions before they erupted? Is a riot still possible?  

Just after the ‘91 riots, several leaders from the black and Jewish communities in Crown Heights came together to develop a plan of community engagement.  Among those were Howard Golden, Rabbi Shea Hecht, and Edison O. Jackson, who together wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times in 1994 lauding the achievements of the Crown Heights Coalition, as it came to be called. The coalition, they wrote, “recommended improvements in police-community relations, cultural understanding, youth services, and economic opportunities” in Crown Heights. In 1998, the Coalition helped create the Crown Heights Mediation Center as a forum for airing grievances in the community.
In the political arena, the riots also had a significant impact. New York City Mayor David Dinkins lost his bid for reelection in 1994, and many claimed his slow response time to the riots played a significant role. The new mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, called the incident a “pogrom” and ran a campaign that promised to be tough on crime. On a local level, James Davis emerged as a community leader dedicated to bringing people together. He started the foundation “Love Yourself, Stop the Violence,” in 1990 to address urban violence. After the riots, he used his foundation to ease racial tension in the area. In 2001, Davis was elected to Brooklyn’s 35th Council District where he served until, in a bizarre twist, a political rival shot and killed him in New York City Hall in 2003.
While walking through the Crown Heights community, it is difficult to miss the house of James Davis’s mother and brother Geoffrey. A large banner in front reads: “ONE COMMUNITY STOP THE VIOLENCE." It hangs over a framed photograph of James and beside flags from several different nations. This sign and display invites people walking by to question its purpose and the legacy of James Davis in Crown Heights. 

We spoke with Geoffrey Davis, James’s affable brother who has taken over “Love Yourself, Stop the Violence,” renamed the James Davis Foundation after his death. Geoffrey speaks with great admiration of his brother, who, he says, was a leader “with the ability to bring people together.” Geoffrey stresses that this kind of skill is rare and incredibly important in a community as wounded as Crown Heights. As a politician, James would talk to the people of his district to find out what made them feel insecure and he would then target these problems. The tensions felt currently in the community started swelling up again after his passing. “My brother created an atmosphere that was lost and we need to re-find it,” he said. “That community has to be resurrected.”

An important focus of the James Davis Foundation is promoting communication between blacks and Jews. The foundation has always worked towards this goal, but in the immediate aftermath of James’s death, efforts were muted. “Politics in Crown Heights changed over the years,” said Geoffrey. “The neighborhoods started to separate again.” Without an ambitious leader to keep the community unified, says Davis, stratification reemerged. The most recent acts of violence were the result of this. 

Yet Geoffrey Davis spoke optimistically about the effect his organization has and will have on the community. They are planning a peace march which will bring blacks and Jews together in a display of solidarity. They are organizing a softball game for young black and Jewish children for the fall. “We are one community,” he says, which seems to be the mantra of his organization. Yet it is still clear that there is much to be done to promote understanding in the long-term. Single events are important models for coexistence, but real change needs to be made on the institutional level. Even with his optimism, Davis, like the media, predicts that the community is “a spark away from an explosion.” While the adults may want to work towards peace, says Davis, the young people are less willing. The recent crime in the neighborhood has been committed by these young people, many of whom are too young to remember the riots. 

What is keeping this explosion from happening? Davis claims it is the increase of police in the neighborhood. When violence began rising in the spring, the police dispatched extra security in Crown Heights. Yet Davis says the police presence also contributes to the tension. Back in 1991, “the African-American community thought the NYPD wasn’t protecting them,” he said. Today it seems the sentiment has changed little. While the Jews appreciate and request the extra protection, many African-Americans “complain that there are more cops,” says Davis. The tension between the communities, Davis suggests, results from a “misplaced anger” that actually should be directed at the police, for their absence rather than their presence. Both sides, he says, feel under-protected.

The Jews responded by taking their security into their own hands. Two neighborhood watch patrols have been formed by the Jewish community to pick up the slack where the police are not adequately present. The first of these groups, Shmira (literally, “to watch” in Hebrew) was started in 1968. Today they patrol the neighborhood of Crown Heights. In an email from Yossi Stern, the group’s leader, he described their role as “to passively patrol the streets of Crown Heights, in patrol cars, marked and unmarked, 24/7 and act as the eyes and ears for the police.” Shomrim (Hebrew for “watchers”) is a similar organization, but was formed as an alternative to Shmira, who some claim is too secretive and uncooperative. Shomrim, for example, keeps a roster of its members which is available to the public; Shmira does not. Both organizations are made up of volunteers from the Jewish community, are unarmed, and use old police patrol cars, repainted with their own respective group names and mottos. Both work with the police when there is a crime. They tend to not work with one another. “Occasionally, with a sensitive call, Shomrim will ask us to handle the situation, due to the fact we are qualified and experienced with sensitive situations,” says Stern. 

The tension between Shmira and Shomrim seems to be internal and is of little concern to the rest of the community. Generally, the two organizations are equally viewed as additional protection. Geoffrey Davis also appreciates their presence, but he understands that many others in the black community do not. “The Shmira patrol is made up of young adults who are not recognized as authorities by young black adults,” he says. Part of the problem is that Shmira and Shomrim patrolmen are often young, as are most of the neighborhood criminals. Thus they are perceived as peers and not authority figures. Davis also suggests that hostility towards these groups is ill-placed. They are there to do what the police are unable or unwilling to. The Jews felt they needed more protection, so they organized themselves. The black community also feels unprotected, but they did not organize a patrol for themselves. Shmira and Shomrim both claim to equally protect blacks and Jews, although Yossi Stern expresses that “there is a big problem with gang activity by the blacks in the Jewish community in the form of hate crimes, expressive and violent.” This suggests that Stern and his patrols would monitor blacks on the Jewish side of the neighborhood in particular.

Without open rosters of its members, Shmira can have problems patrolling their own. On May 11, 2008, New York Magazine published an article in which Shmira is described by some as “vigilantes.” An attack on a black man in April had been linked to a volunteer in the Shmira corps by the New York Police Department. Shmira, the article claimed, did not help the police with their investigation. This led many to question whether Shmira was an asset to the community or if they were themselves contributing to the violence. Shomrim members in particular jumped on this issue in order to discredit their rival. 

Inside politics aside, the presence of Shmira and Shomrim highlights the more widespread problem: insufficient policing. Yankee, a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy, says he feels safer with more patrols, be they police, Shmira, or Shomrim. Though Yankee is still in high school, he shares many of Geoffrey Davis’s views. The two are neighbors and Yankee hangs out with Geoffrey frequently. When Geoffrey received a phone call from Yankee while we were conducting  our interview, he invited him over so we could get his perspective. Standing in front of Davis’s house while Yankee balanced on his bicycle, he told us that poor policing was causing friction in the neighborhood. “They used to lose police reports,” he said. “That’s illegal!” The outrage at the poor policing in the neighborhood led to the ousting of the precinct’s Commanding Officer Frank Vega in June. His replacement, Captain Peter Simonetti, is known to be tough and has already greatly increased the number of patrols in the neighborhood in response to the rising tension.

Just two blocks from Geoffrey Davis’s home, Rabbi Menachem Posner has an office in a converted department store which now houses a Yeshiva, a synagogue, and offices for Chabad.org, a website dedicated to unite and educate Jews around the world while “foster[ing] within them a deeper connection to Judaism’s rituals and faith.” Posner is on Chabad.org’s “Ask the Rabbi” team and has lived in Crown Heights since 2001, although his family has had connections there since the 1940s. 

Rabbi Posner doesn’t see the issues in Crown Heights as racially based. “People want to paint a picture of interracial tension and fights, and it just doesn’t exist,” he says. The issue, he says, is crime. Crime rises in the summer months, resulting from boredom and lack of structure. The ’91 riots took place in August. This year’s crime increase began in April and carried into May, and many viewed it as a precursor for the rest of the summer. But now entering into August, Rabbi Posner, unlike Geoffrey Davis, thinks another riot is far from likely. 

So, why, then, is Andy Newman of The New York Times describing Crown Heights as “simmer[ing] with tension again,” in a conspicuous evocation of ’91? Posner, and his colleague Motti, think the media wants to promote this comparison. Motti, who was in Crown Heights during the ’91 riots, says the feeling in the neighborhood at the time was entirely different. The reporters depicting the perceived tension now “don’t understand what the definition of racial tension is,” he says. He says that ’91 was “absolutely racial.” Today the situation in Crown Heights is worlds different from how it was back then. In 1991, there were few job training programs and even fewer cultural exchange opportunities. The police and mayor were unprepared for a riot and unresponsive as it progressed. Additionally, Crown Heights was used as a battleground to confront more widespread racial issues in the United States. Rioters were bussed in from elsewhere. Most notably, Reverend Al Sharpton used the crisis to mobilize blacks against their Jewish neighbors. “I think they should’ve arrested him for incitement,” Motti lamented. 

Part of the trouble of pinning down “exactly what the problem is” (to use Posner’s words), is that “tension” is a subjective term. One person may say there is no tension because he doesn’t feel it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t felt by anyone else. “When you have crime, there’s tension,” Motti pointed out. Blacks do commit crime against Jews and vice versa; this does not prove the existence of racial tension. Sometimes crime is just crime. But when reporters come looking for a story about racial issues, it’s not too difficult to find one in Crown Heights. This is epitomized by the end of Rabbi Posner’s quote in The New York Times article, which he said was truncated by the publication. “The problem is crime,” said Motti, finishing the quote. Yet the article suggested it was race. Rabbi Posner believes that, rather than misplaced anger, there is misplaced attention. The flip side is that this attention in turn can create tension. “Tensions did pick up after the media came to town,” Motti admits. But the media, like Sharpton in ’91, is an outside inciter. 

Barbers and patrons in a Kingston Avenue barber shop agreed that the media hypes the problems of the neighborhood and portrays them along racial lines. If a black attacks a Jew it’s a “hate crime,” said one young man in the shop, donning finger quotes in the air and raising his eyebrows ironically. In actuality, said the barber who was cutting his hair, the only tension is personal. There is unnecessary attention given to the race of people involved in isolated conflicts that have nothing to do with race. All the men in the barber shop (eight African-American, one Caribbean) agreed that there was no racial tension in Crown Heights. The riots in 1991, said one barber, were just “an overreaction on both parts.”

One barber did confess that there is a lack of true understanding about one another and that fixing this would certainly hinder conflicts from escalating, as they had in ’91. Once you know someone, he said, you’re less likely to want to harm him. He said that while many Jews and blacks interact on the street, it is usually little more than a wave or a hello. To really know someone is different. Since the Jewish community has its own religious schools, synagogues, Kosher restaurants, etc., they tend to stay within their own community. Additionally, Jewish kids go to school from very early in the morning until around 9 PM. They don’t have time for the kinds of interactions outside of their community that would foster real friendship.  Deeper relations between the two communities would minimize the potential for violence along racial lines. Even if many in the Crown Heights community deny the existence of racial tension, sometimes unrelated frustration and depravity can manifest itself under that banner. If you really know someone, one barber explained, you are less likely to attack him or his place of business if the situation becomes violent. The fact is, right now in Crown Heights, the blacks and the Jews don’t really know each other. While that may not be tension per se, it is certainly conducive towards it.

On Eastern Parkway, the main road in Crown Heights,sit the offices of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education. There we met with Rabbi Shea Hecht, a prominent leader in bringing the community together after the riots who worked closely with James Davis, and later Geoffrey, over the years. Hecht served as co-chair of the Crown Heights Coalition for four years after the riots. He stressed to us the importance of communication and miscommunication both in the riots of ’91 and in the perception of tensions today. He said that rumors spread quickly in ’91 and that without access to unadulterated truth, many people believed them. “Today, seventeen years later,” he said, “I think we are blessed with a number of things.” The main among them, he said, is access to information. Rabbi Hecht extolled the virtues of the internet as only one who has led the majority of his life without it can do. Today there are three major local websites for Crown Heights that provide information to the community and by the community. Information gets recorded and posted before the rumor mill has time to reprocess it. This access to information, however, has its downside.

“The perception is that crime is up,” says Rabbi Hecht. Crime is more visible because instances of crime are more likely to be reported. In actuality, crime has gone down by nearly 75%. But since it is better recorded, people are more fearful. This leads to tension. Hecht suggests an easy way to ease this tension would be to report on success stories, such as when a perpetrator is caught or a case is solved. “Every time you make an arrest, let the community know,” advises Hecht.
But the perception of tension is just on the surface, Hecht suggests. “People in this neighborhood do not fight each other any more or any less than anywhere else,” he says. The real issue is crime. So long as there is crime in a neighborhood with multiple communities, crime will be misconstrued as racially motivated. Black criminals are not the biggest threat to the Jews in Crown Heights, says Hecht. “Our enemy is the Jew on Long Island,” he says. “You call us bigots and racists? You’re the ones who fled your neighborhood when the blacks moved in. We’re still here!” Hecht said journalists come to Crown Heights looking to prove that tension exists and they are often disappointed. That doesn’t stop many of them from writing whatever they want anyway.

Hecht also places much blame on the police and the government. He says that now the state and local government are more concerned about issues in Crown Heights, but that the federal government still shows indifference. Police in particular have the duty to protect the citizens under their jurisdiction. If the citizens are not being protected, the authority is to blame. 

Perhaps the ’91 riots have left Crown Heights indefinitely stigmatized as one festering with racial tension. Or perhaps Americans are unwilling to consider that any community consisting of two very different groups of people can exist without conflict between those groups, simply because they are different from one another. To address the deeper issues at play would require rethinking how we analyze community dynamics. Police, politicians, and the media all play active roles in shaping these dynamics. They can also shape how a community views itself. The real problem is that racial tension and anti-Semitism have deep historical roots in the country’s history, and these two topics are easily digested, and even anticipated, by the general public; the media tends to bow to these categories. The “misplaced anger,” which Geoffrey Davis says causes the racial tension, goes hand in hand with misplaced attention by the media. Crown Heights, like many places in America, suffers from poor education, high levels of crime, gentrification, and corrupt and insufficient policing. While these issues won’t bring the reporters in, they should. 

We emailed Andy Newman in August to ask him what has happened in Crown Heights since his article describing impending chaos. His response: “Things in Crown Heights seem to have settled down. No follow-up article is planned.”
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