Closing the Book on Crown Heights?

Our Verdict is:
It's Right to Rebel!

Revolutionary Worker #972, September 6, 1998

On March 31, 1998, a young Black man, Lemrick Nelson, was sentenced to over 19 years in prison for a stabbing seven years ago during New York's Crown Heights rebellion. Two days later, New York Mayor Giuliani formally apologized to the community of Crown Heights, declaring that the New York police had not been forceful enough at suppressing that rebellion. Then on July 9, a Black man, Charles Price, was sentenced to 21 years for allegedly inciting a crowd to target Jewish people during the rebellion.

These three official acts are supposed to represent a final verdict on the Crown Heights rebellion of 1991--when Black and Caribbean youth seized the streets for four days and fought the police. This official verdict says that the rebellion was a criminal and hate-filled event. And people are being told that they should support police in carrying out more forceful suppression of rebellions in the future.

This attempted verdict turns reality upside-down. It buries the real grievances that people have against police injustice and white supremacy in the Crown Heights community. It slanders a powerful and justified uprising among the people, and demonizes the Black and Caribbean youth of Crown Heights.

This campaign by the political establishment of New York is not about settling issues from the past--it is about the ruling class preparing themselves for intense conflicts in the future.


Brooklyn's Crown Heights community is an overwhelmingly Black community of about 200,000 people--where African Americans live alongside immigrants from many different Caribbean islands. In addition, there are about 15,000 people in Crown Heights who belong to a conservative religious sect, the Lubavitchers (also described as Hasidic or ultra-orthodox Jews in the press).

This kind of mixing between people of different nationalities and backgrounds is typical of many New York communities--it gives the city much of its fascinating worldliness and creative fusion. In Crown Heights, however, the authorities (and reactionary forces within the Lubavitchers) have been manipulating the situation to create serious injustices and deep divisions among the people.

The Lubavitchers are a closed, inward-looking community--and at least some members of that sect have been quite hostile to the Black and Caribbean people around them. For 20 years, some Lubavitchers have staged so-called "anticrime patrols" that targeted Black people and especially Black youth. The New York police worked closely with the Lubavitcher patrols. The patrols carried out notorious attacks and beatings of Black people--and were protected by the authorities. Meanwhile, the NYPD carried out their own systematic harassments.

One Black woman from Crown Heights told the New York Times, "My husband is afraid to go down the street at night to get baby formula." She said the Lubavitcher patrols were "always questioning him about what he is doing on his own block."

The authorities also helped impose the Lubavitchers' religious rules on the whole community--public streets were closed on Jewish Sabbaths and holy days, buses were rerouted, and Black residents were often required to show ID just to walk to their own homes.

Black and Caribbean people believed that the authorities were granting preferential treatment to the Lubavitchers. The whole arrangement smelled of official white supremacy. People were righteously angry over this. And one day, that anger exploded.

The Killing of Gavin Cato and
the Rebellion that Followed

On August 19, 1991, in the evening, the top Rebbe of the Lubavitchers was being raced through the streets of Crown Heights in a three-car motorcade. One of the cars ran a red light and badly injured Gavin Cato and his cousin Angela Cato, two seven-year-olds playing on the sidewalk.

People gathered. It was clear to the onlookers that the police were not paying serious attention to the two injured Black children. The cops focused their attention on containing the angry crowd. They insulted and threatened onlookers. Gavin's father, Carmel Cato, was handcuffed when he refused a police order to leave.

Most outrageous of all, when an ambulance arrived the police had it take Yosef Lifsh, the barely injured driver of the car, to a hospital, leaving the seriously injured Black children behind. Gavin Cato died from his injuries. Yosef Lifsh was never charged for the killing.

The apartheid-like situation in Crown Heights had contributed to the death of a young Black child. Fighting broke out and rocked the streets for more than four days, mainly spearheaded by youth from the Caribbean nationalities. Black politicians, including Mayor Dinkins, New York's first Black mayor, tried to calm the people--but were sent scrambling by the angry crowds.

Thousands of police were deployed, and hundreds of youth were arrested. But, in the main, the authorities were on the defensive. Police repeatedly had to flee the outraged youth. Cop cars were overturned and police were pelted with whatever was at hand. A writer for the New York Post wrote: "I stood just 10 feet from one riot-gear clad cop who was pelted with a bottle that shattered the plastic shield covering his face. Through the jagged plastic cracks I saw a look of total panic."

In the course of this rebellion, some people directed their anger at Hasidic Jewish people. Yankel Rosenbaum, a rabbinical student from Australia, was attacked by a group of youth and later died of stab wounds. But this unfortunate attack on Jewish people did not characterize the street actions of the Crown Heights rebellion--as even the New York State government later summed up. This was not an anti-Jewish pogrom. It was a justified rebellion protesting outrageous racist mistreatment, and it was overwhelmingly focused on driving the police out of the community.

Ruling Class Moves

The air of panic that surrounded the police and city officials during this rebellion deeply disturbed the larger ruling class.

The New York State government issued the Girgenti Report in 1993, calling on the New York City Police Department to make better preparations for suppressing the people. The report said that the "department should establish a sequence of progressively more forceful tactical options to accommodate the fluid nature of civil disturbance situations." In short, the ruling class concluded that its police should be better prepared to escalate to whatever level of violence is needed to contain and suppress future outbreaks of mass resistance.

This criticism of New York City police for lack of aggressiveness was one important reason that the ruling class chose the federal prosecutor (and wannabe dictator) Rudolph Giuliani for the office of mayor in the election of 1993.

At the same time, the system used its courts to punish people for the rebellion and to falsely portray the rebellion as a series of anti-Jewish "hate crimes." The power structure worked to make the stabbing of Yankel Rosenbaum into the symbol of the rebellion. In 1992, Lemrick Nelson was on trial for murder. However, the jury acquitted him.

Then, the federal government charged Nelson and Charles Price with civil rights violations. Nelson was tried, a second time. In this second trial, Nelson was tried as an adult so that he could be given a much longer sentence. He was convicted, and on March 31 this year he received the maximum sentence--19<$E1/2> years in prison.

Meanwhile, Charles Price was tried for inciting the crowd--under a federal law making it felony to incite violence against people based on their ethnicity. The government prosecutors did not claim that Price was involved in stabbing Rosenbaum. They only claimed that he had called on the crowd to target Jewish people, and therefore he was connected to the stabbing of Yankel Rosenbaum later. Price was convicted, and on July 9 he was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

This punishment of Charles Price is a particularly dangerous and ominous verdict. The judge even said that he believed Price did not really intend for the crowd to kill Rosenbaum. And yet, Price was given a longer sentence than the man convicted of the stabbing!

First, they have widened their powers to punish people who give speeches during rebellions. The verdict is a direct attack on free speech, and could potentially be used against organized forces who give political expression to the discontent of people.

Second, Price received added punishment for not being apologetic. The judge put an extra year and a half on his sentence, in part because of his "lack of remorse." At his sentencing, Charles Price said, "You tell me I got a fair trial and I don't see it. I can't do anything because I am a small person. I'm sorry for Rosenbaum's death, but what about Cato?"

What About Cato?

At the sentencing of Lemrick Nelson his mother, Valerie Evans, went up to Fay Rosenbaum, Yankel Rosenbaum's mother, and said: "I understand your community's pain and loss. I don't believe my son is the killer." It was a brave attempt to bridge the divisions. Unfortunately the sentiment was not returned.

Yankel Rosenbaum's family--particularly his mother and his brother--have helped the authorities promote a summation of the Crown Heights rebellion that is deliberately hostile to the Black and Caribbean people. Fay Rosenbaum was broadcast on New York 1 News saying, "If it had been a Jewish child or a white child, would white people or Jewish people then start attacking?" In her distorted view, the Crown Heights rebellion showed there was something wrong with Black people.

The Rosenbaum family and other Lubavitchers also filed a lawsuit against the city charging that the police were not forceful enough in suppressing the rebellion--and that the city was therefore liable for damages. This was a summation that the ruling class was quite willing to endorse. The city government agreed to pay $1.1 million to the Rosenbaum family and 80 other Lubavitchers in Crown Heights and issue an apology.

It was in the context of this settlement that Giuliani issued the apology, two days after Lemrick Nelson was sentenced. Giuliani said that because of "the human tragedy involved, the loss of life, the tremendous amount of damage done and the clearly inadequate response of the city of New York, I apologize to the citizens of Crown Heights, to the Rosenbaum family and to all the people who were affected by this." "Inadequate response" is a code phrase--meaning that Giuliani and others in the ruling class believe the police should have violently suppressed the rebellion.

In the apology, Giuliani made no mention of Gavin Cato, the treatment of his family by the police, or the decision to make this dying child wait for a second ambulance. As one Black resident of Crown Heights told the press, "The settlement is totally unfair. It's tragic about Yankel Rosenbaum but what about Gavin Cato's family? Why isn't there an apology to the Black community? Aren't we human?"

Carmel Cato, Gavin's father, told Newsday, "No one has ever come forth to me and made an apology. Not the Rosenbaum family, not Yosef Lifsh's family. Nobody. That's my flesh and blood. To see all these things coming up makes me feel more and more awful. They're just rubbing salt deeper into the wound."

Something has been deliberately buried by the whole campaign of prosecutions and media hype: What about the outrages that drove the Black and Caribbean people of Crown Heights to rebellion? What about the white supremacy that was imposed on Crown Heights by police and Lubavitcher patrols? What about the way the whole Black and Caribbean community was treated like criminals on their own streets?

The grievances of the people have been ignored. The motives of the rebellion have been misrepresented. The youth who fought the police in the streets are falsely portrayed as irrational anti-Semites and thugs.

We Need a People's Verdict

Millions of the people crammed into New York City are caught up in an intense and grinding battle for daily survival. People gather in this city from dozens of countries. And they are often bitterly exploited or discarded by the capitalist ruling class--according to the cruel dictates of profit. It is an explosive city, where contradictions and poverty are intensifying. Welfare is being cut. City colleges are being cut back. New sweatshop districts are expanding. And discontent is growing on these hard streets.

The ruling class has pursued a cold-blooded strategy of "divide and conquer" to keep the lid on. Their policy of white supremacy in Crown Heights has been part of that.

The authorities of New York, especially Giuliani, portray themselves as the defenders of white people--and of a middle class "quality of life." Meanwhile, in their statements, in their courtroom prosecutions and in their media, Black and Caribbean people are portrayed as dangerous and potentially murderous communities that the police need to suppress and contain. This campaign of distortions is being used to further deepen divisions among the people.

In short, the ruling class has worked to create a reactionary polarization through these events. The prosecutions of Nelson and Price and Giuliani's apology are part of the attempts to politically isolate the poorest sections of the population.

The authorities must not be allowed to deepen divisions among the people--including between Jewish people and the masses of Black people. And their plans to increase police violence against the people must be met with determined opposition.

There is heavy struggle ahead. Oppressed people need to organize themselves, in a united way, to take on their oppressors. They will need allies--including among the middle classes. And they will need a clear vision of who are their enemies and who are their friends.

As RCP spokesperson Carl Dix recently pointed out, one of the things people don't need is: "Talk and actions that pit people against each other, that target sections of people--Jews, Koreans, immigrants, Arabs--and let the system off the hook."

A true and forward-looking verdict is needed on the Crown Heights rebellion. A verdict that is clear about right and wrong. A verdict that strengthens the people's fighting spirit and their ability to unite for the struggles ahead.

A different verdict must be fought for and spread: IT IS RIGHT TO REBEL!

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