Recalling Al Sharpton’s role in 1991 Crown Heights riots


Al Sharpton’s incitement of anger and violence in the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman case recalls what he did in Crown Heights.

Twenty-two years ago, a tragic car accident in that Brooklyn neighborhood escalated into a pogrom against the Jewish people. The media gives it a politically correct description — violence between the area’s blacks and Jews. But the violence was not two-sided, it was an attack on the Jews by the neighborhood’s Caribbean community, fueled in part by Al Sharpton, now an MSNBC host and adviser to President Obama.

Black anti-Semitism in 1991

Jews were a key part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous march to Selma, Alabama, he walked hand in hand with many Jews including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Along with the Jews was a contingent of Torahs to emphasize that the quest for Civil Rights was a holy mission for the Jewish people.

In spite of the strong Jewish participation in the civil rights movement, the transformation from the peaceful marches to black power movement introduced considerable friction into African American-Jewish relations, especially within the “Black Muslim” movement.

During the 1970s and 1980s, African-Americans stopped looking at Jews as their allies but rather as their oppressors. Jews were seen as having the political power that African-Americans desired; such black leaders as Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson went public with anti-Semitic comments.

Adding to the hatred were leaders of the South African anti-Apartheid movement who toured the United States as conquering heroes, spreading Jew-hatred. In 1984, Desmond Tutu publicly complained about American Jews having “an arrogance — the arrogance of power because Jews are a powerful lobby in this land and all kinds of people woo their support.

Understandably, Jewish-Black relations were already rocky as New York entered the summer of 1991.

On July 20, 1991, Leonard Jeffries of City College, who had a history of anti-Semitic slurs, presented a two-hour long speech claiming “rich Jews” financed the slave trade, and that Jews control the film industry (together with Italian mafia) and use that control to paint a brutal stereotype of blacks. Jeffries also attacked Diane Ravitch, Assistant Secretary of Education, calling her a “sophisticated Texas Jew,” “a debonair racist” and “Miss Daisy.”

Jeffries’ speech received enormous negative press during the first weeks of August, especially from the leaders of the Jewish community who wanted Jeffries fired for the bigotry.

With each new criticism of the professor, leaders in the African-American community rushed to Jeffries’ defense. The city’s two black newspapers as well as black radio station WLIB; joined activists such Al Sharpton, Colin Moore, C. Vernon Mason, Sonny Carson, and Lenora Fulani to showcase their approval of Jeffries’s “scholarship” and to denounce the people who criticized Jeffries anti-Semitism as race baiters.

Serial race-baiter Al Sharpton is credited with saying, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house,” as a response the Crown Heights riot. That is a fallacy; he made that threatening comment to the Jewish community about the growing Jeffries controversy on Aug. 18, the day before the riots began. Clearly something bad was coming.

Jeffries was fired because of his bigoted speech and pressure from the Jewish community (he was later reinstated and won a court case surrounding his firing) leading to further resentment of the Jews from a black community already being barraged with anti-Jewish incitement from the African-American media.

Crown Heights ignites

On Monday Aug. 19, a station wagon driven by Yosef Lifsh, hit another car and bounced onto the sidewalk at 8:21 p.m. The station wagon was part of a three-car motorcade carrying the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. The Rebbe was in a different car.

The station wagon struck two black children, 7-year-old cousins Gavin and Angela Cato who were on the sidewalk. Lifsh immediately got out of his car and tried to help the children gathering crowd started to attack him.

Within minutes, an ambulance from the Hasidic-run ambulance service, and two from the city’s Emergency Medical Service arrived. Meanwhile, the gathering crowd became unruly. The police who showed up radioed for backup, reporting the station wagon’s driver and passengers were being assaulted. Police officer Nona Capace ordered the Hasidic ambulance to remove the battered Yosef Lifsh and his passenger from the scene.

The injured children went by separate city ambulances to Kings County Hospital. Gavin Cato was pronounced dead; his cousin survived.

A rumor began to spread that the Hasidic ambulance crew had ignored the dying black child in favor of treating the Jewish men. This falsehood was later used by Al Sharpton to incite the crowd. Other rumors sprang up — Lifsh was intoxicated (breath alcohol test administered by the police proved his sobriety). More falsehoods circulated — Lifsh did not have a valid driver’s license; he went through a red light; the police prevented people, including Gavin Cato’s father, from assisting in the rescue.

Charles Price, an area resident who had come to the scene of the accident, incited the masses with claims that, “The Jews get everything they want. They’re killing our children.” Price later pled guilty for inciting the crowd to murder Yankel Rosenbaum.

Ignited by the falsehoods, resentment exploded into violence. Groups of young black men threw rocks, bottles and debris at police, residents and homes.

According to the New York Times, more than 250 neighborhood residents went on a rampage that first night, mostly black teenagers, many of whom were shouting “Jews! Jews! Jews!”

Three hours after the tragic crash, 29-year-old Australian Jewish scholar Yankel Rosenbaum was attacked by a gang of black teens. He was stabbed four times. Cops quickly arrested Lemrick Nelson, who was identified by Rosenbaum as his attacker. Rosenbaum’s wounds were not fatal he was expected to recover; Mayor Dinkins visited Rosenbaum at the hospital. Yankel died at 2:30am Tuesday because the hospital staff missed one of his knife wounds.

The next evening, according to the sworn testimony of Efraim Lipkind, a former Hasidic resident of Crown Heights, Sharpton started agitating the crowd.

“Then we had a famous man, Al Sharpton, who came down, and he said Tuesday night, kill the Jews, two times. I heard him, and he started to lead a charge across the street to Utica.”

With each passing hour the violence worsened, Jewish leaders began to desperately complain about the lack of protection to the authorities. The rioters were being allowed to rampage unchecked, too little force was being brought to bear, and too few arrests were being made, they said. Area Jews felt the police were under orders by the city’s first black mayor to hold back, that the police were not allowed to fight against the black rioters, who continued to grow bolder in their anti-Semitic attack as they sensed the appeasement.

The fact is Mayor David Dinkins responded to the riot immediately by deploying 2,000 police officers and making a personal visit to the troubled neighborhood under a hail of rocks and epithets hurled at him by fellow blacks.

Dinkins has spoken of his own mishandling of the riots. Admitting he “screwed up Crown Heights.”

“I regret not saying to the police brass sooner ‘whatever you guys are doing is not working’ — it was then they altered their behavior and they were able to containe the ravaging young blacks who were attacking Jews. … I will forever be accused of holding back the police and permitted blacks to attack Jews, however that did not happen, it is just inaccurate.”

In all, the street violence against the Crown Heights Jews lasted three days / four nights starting with the evening of the accident. On Thursday evening, cops finally restored order, although sporadic violence against Jews continued for weeks after the riot was contained.

Yankel Rosenbaum wasn’t the only person murdered by the rioters. On Sept. 5, Anthony Graziosi, an Italian-American was dragged out of his car, brutally beaten and stabbed to death because his full beard and dark clothing caused him to be mistaken for a Hasidic Jew.

During the funeral of Gavin Cato on Aug. 26, Al Sharpton gave an anti-Semitic eulogy, which fueled the fires of hatred.

“The world will tell us he was killed by accident. Yes, it was a social accident. ... It’s an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights. ... Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid. ...

“All we want to say is what Jesus said: If you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise, no meetings, no kaffe klatsch, no skinnin’ and grinnin’. Pay for your deeds.”

Regarding the Mayor’s call for peace Sharpton pontificated: “They don’t want peace, they want quiet.”

Sharpton and the lawyer representing the Cato family counseled them not to cooperate with authorities in the investigation and demanded a special prosecutor be named.

When Sharpton was asked about the violence, he justified it:

“We must not reprimand our children for outrage, when it is the outrage that was put in them by an oppressive system.”

The first Sabbath after the funeral, Sharpton tried unsuccessfully to kick up tensions again by marching 400 protesters in front of the Lubavitch of Crown Heights shouting “No Justice, No Peace.”

Sharpton called for the arrest of Lifsh, the driver of the station wagon. Even though more than 20 similarly accidental vehicular deaths had occurred in Brooklyn since 1989 without a single arrest — several involving local Hasidim run down by blacks. The agitator’s pressure led Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes into convening a grand jury.

When the investigation of the accident did not produce a criminal indictment against Yosef Lifsh, Sharpton encouraged the Cato family to seek big-bucks damages in a civil suit against Lifsh (who had since fled to Israel for his own safety). Sharpton announced that he would personally serve papers on Yosef Lifsh in Israel. He bought tickets and hopped an El-Al flight on the weekend of Yom Kippur.

At Ben Gurion Airport, a woman spotted Sharpton hailing a cab and yelled to him, “Go to hell! “I am in hell already,” shot back. “I am in Israel.”

The aftermath

Sharpton abandoned the Caribbean people of Crown Heights as soon as the anti-Semitic violence died down. His entire participation in the violence may have been a calculated effort to usurp Jesse Jackson as the leading spokesman for African-Americans. Jackson may have had his “Hymie-town” but Sharpton’s incitement against those Jews who he perceived as having the political power that African Americans deserved, went much further than simply words like those uttered by Jackson.

Sadly, had Sharpton not exploited the death of Gavin Cato for his own “resume,” what was, by all accounts, a disorganized group of ruffians on the first night of the riot, might well have dissipated the morning after the accident.

The media portrayed the Crown Heights riot as two-sided, promoting the myth that both blacks and Jews were equal in their violence. The violence was a one-sided rampage waged by some of the neighborhood’s 180,000 strong black majority against a Jewish minority of 20,000.

The Crown Heights riot occurred just five months after the infamous Rodney King beating, a disgusting act of police brutality against the African American King which was video-taped and repeated on TV ad nauseum.

After the King case, who could believe that blacks in America could ever take over the role of racists? But that is what happened in Crown Heights. Even today the deaths of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum are viewed as some sort of a “tit for tat.” This is a misrepresentation of the facts. Cato’s death was the result of a horrible accident; on the other hand, Rosenbaum was deliberately stabbed four times by an angry mob. Anthony Graziosi’s death has been forgotten perhaps because his death would break some cynical equality of fatality.

Many in the Jewish community felt Mayor Dinkins was complacent in the violence, holding back the police from protecting the Jewish community, but there has never been evidence offered proving that charge.

A more likely explanation for the lack of protection offered to the Hasidic community is a perfect storm of incompetence. An incompetent Police Commissioner Lee Brown was being managed by an incompetent mayor.

Nevertheless the pogrom dealt a death blow to Dinkins’ mayoral career. Ironically, it was the fact that Jews had voted for him in overwhelming numbers that him a narrow victory over Rudy Giuliani in 1989. Those same Jews switched sides, giving Giuliani the win against Dinkins in 1993.

As for Al Sharpton, he went on to lead a second pogrom, in 1995, against Freddy’s Fashion Mart, a Jewish-owned business in Harlem where seven people were slain.

Now, as an adviser to the Trayvon Martin family, Sharpton is again exploiting the death of a child to incite violence and build his reputation as a “civil rights leader.”

A version of this report appeared in The Jewish Star in 2011, on the 20th anniversary of the riots in Crown Heights.