Immigrants to our country often face suspicion and prejudice from the established community. It’s not uncommon for immigrant groups and other minorities to treat each other with a similar intolerance. Jewish merchants in California objected to the influx of Chinese competitors in the 1870s. Decades later, African Americans in Detroit gradually abandoned certain neighborhoods as Polish immigrants moved in. The Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., has experienced both the influx of immigrants and the exodus of many longtime residents. In the 1990s, it was a place that two strikingly different communities called home.
In another New York City neighborhood, 7-year-old Gavin Cato’s death on the sidewalk by a runaway car might have seemed a random urban tragedy. But to many black residents of Crown Heights, the accident and its consequences made all too much sense.
The Cato family came to the United States in 1990 from the poor Caribbean country of Guyana. In Crown Heights, in the heart of Brooklyn, they found a crowded “island” of Caribbean immigrants. Voices on the street sounded familiar. Local grocery stores offered the tropical flavors of home. Gavin Cato loved to race his bicycle around the block, calling to his neighbors by the funny nicknames he gave them.
Not everyone in the neighborhood reminded Gavin and his family of the place they left behind. Since World War II, Crown Heights has also been home to an Orthodox Jewish community known as the Lubavitchers, who fled Nazi persecution in Eastern Europe. The group makes up roughly 10 percent of the local population. While members of other white ethnic communities began leaving Crown Heights for the suburbs in the 1950s, the Lubavitchers stayed. Here their leaders had set up the movement’s world headquarters. Loyalty to the neighborhood became a matter of faith.
Religious observance governs every aspect of Lubavitcher life, including diet and clothing. Long beards, long black coats and black hats give Lubavitcher men a distinctive appearance. The group operates its own schools. A rule against using machinery on the Sabbath (Saturday) means that everyone must live within walking distance of the synagogue. The Lubavitchers and their black neighbors live side by side but worlds apart.
On a hot August night in 1991, at the corner of President Street and Utica Avenue, these two worlds collided.
Gavin Cato and his cousin Angela, also 7, were playing outside their apartment building on the north side of President Street. It was after dark, but the sidewalk still gave off waves of warmth. At approximately 8:20, a 1984 Mercury Grand Marquis station wagon sped up to beat the changing traffic light at Utica. In the intersection it hit another car, then swerved out of control. Gavin and Angela heard the noise but couldn’t move fast enough. The station wagon slammed them against the iron gate of a basement window.
Witnesses rushed to the site. People came out of nearby buildings. When Yosef Lifsch, the 22-year-old driver, got out of the Mercury, he tried to help unpin the children. But the crowd attacked him. Someone took his wallet. The wounds he received on his head and body would require 18 stitches.
Yosef Lifsch was a Lubavitcher. Official Lubavitcher business had brought him out that evening: to accompany Rabbi Menachem Schneerson on the Lubavitcher leader’s weekly visit to his wife’s grave. On the drive home from the cemetery, Lifsch’s car was last in the procession, behind the Rabbi’s. As usual, an unmarked 71st Precinct police car led the way. The first two cars crossed the intersection, but Lifsch didn’t make the green light. He sped on through to stay with the convoy and ran up onto the curb. Now two children lay bleeding on the pavement, and Lifsch was being beaten. Amid all the confusion, a black man knelt over Gavin Cato and began the strong, steady rhythm of CPR.
One of Lifsch’s passengers, also a Lubavitcher, attempted to call 911 from the car phone. Before he could finish dialing, someone stole the receiver. Strangers began punching him, pulling at his clothes. One black man grabbed him and called out, “He’s mine! I’m going to have him arrested!”
The black man dragged the Lubavitcher clear of the turmoil. Then he let him go. “You owe me one,” the black man said. He never gave his name.
The first official vehicle to reach the scene was an ambulance from the Hatzoloh Ambulance Service, a volunteer organization operated by the Orthodox Jewish community. (Hatzoloh means “rescue” in Hebrew.) A police car and a regular Emergency Medical Service ambulance arrived moments later. The two police officers opened a path through the throng, which had begun chanting “Jews! Jews! Jews!”
When one of the officers found Yosef Lifsch and two other Lubavitchers under attack, she intervened. In the interest of restoring order, the officer instructed the Hatzoloh driver to remove the three Jewish men from the area. Then the EMS paramedics reached Gavin Cato. To many black onlookers, something was clearly wrong with this sequence of events. Right away the rumor started — that the Jewish ambulance crew had refused to treat the injured black children.
For a long time, Blacks in Crown Heights had observed what they considered preferential treatment by city officials toward the Lubavitchers. Every Saturday, for instance, the police closed several major arteries to automobile traffic in order to accommodate the flow of Jewish pedestrians to and from Sabbath services. Black doctors with offices on these streets complained that the roadblocks forced even their sick and elderly patients to walk considerable distances. The Rabbi’s police escort was seen as another example of favoritism. From this perspective, such special provisions made the latest allegation easy enough to believe.
Separate ambulances took Gavin and Angela Cato to Kings County Hospital. Gavin was pronounced dead within minutes, and doctors classified Angela’s condition as critical.
New details and rumors traveled quickly. As one story had it, the police beat Gavin Cato’s father as he tried to lift the station wagon off his son. People asked why the Jewish driver hadn’t been arrested. Word spread that Rabbi Schneerson himself was the driver, and even that he had fled the scene.
Back on President Street, the Police Department Accident Squad hooked up floodlights to mark the site. The bright glow attracted even more attention. Up and down the block, Blacks and Lubavitchers got into shouting matches, trading slurs. According to eyewitnesses, 15 to 20 police officers watched while black youths started throwing bottles and stones at cars and buildings and the few Lubavitchers who remained on the street. Some of the assailants reportedly chanted, “The Jews killed the kids!”
As tension mounted, the officers, too, became targets of attack. One black man was arrested for firing a .357-caliber Magnum at the police and another for pelting the crowd with a slingshot. At least a dozen officers were injured by objects hurled from nearby roofs…
Alarm bells sounded around the neighborhood as scattered rioters turned to looting stores. Nearly 100 bystanders watched some young men force open the security gate at Sneaker King. The looters smashed windows and grabbed armfuls of shoes and T-shirts inside. A similar break-in at the Utica Gold Exchange resulted in a fire. Several Korean- and Iranian-owned businesses, in addition to those owned by Jews, suffered serious damage.
Adequate police support was slow to arrive. When the disturbance began, more than 100 officers of the 71st Precinct — including the new commanding officer, Capt. Vincent Kennedy — were on security assignment at a nearby B.B. King concert. Notified by radio, Capt. Kennedy drove to the scene and promptly summoned 30 officers and three sergeants from the concert detail.
Over the next two hours, some 350 officers converged on Crown Heights. Kennedy set up a temporary command post on Eastern Parkway and ordered the barricading of the Lubavitcher Headquarters, two blocks to the east. His other zone of concentration was the commercial area around the accident site. The remainder of the forces fanned out across 30 square blocks.
At 11 o’clock, people still filled the street. When the B.B. King concert ended, hundreds more black youths made their way to the intersection of President and Utica. They saw a police truck towing Yosef Lifsch’s station wagon off the sidewalk, revealing a splotch of blood. A tall man jumped up onto a car and shouted: “Do you feel what I feel? Do you feel the pain? What are you going to do about it? Let’s take Kingston Avenue!”
His listeners began to move. Along President Street, the mostly teenage crowd smashed the windows of cars and businesses and homes thought to be Jewish-owned. (Some of the cars the rioters overturned or burned actually belonged to black families.) For a long time, Blacks in Crown Heights had accused the Lubavitchers of trying to buy up the neighborhood. The mood that night brought this smoldering resentment to a flame.
“Arrest the Jews!” young black men and women called out. “Heil, Hitler!” Some of them carried school backpacks loaded with bottles and bricks.
Small groups broke off from the main mob and roamed the neighborhood. “You want to see how strong the black man is?” yelled one youth as he helped flip a police car. “It made me feel like I scored a point,” another participant later explained. On Carroll Street, 15 youths attacked a 32-year-old Jewish man with a hail of rocks and bottles. “Jews, get out of here!” they chanted as they kicked him. Nearby, another Jewish man was assaulted and robbed.
At the corner of President Street and Brooklyn Avenue, three blocks from the accident and three hours after it occurred, some teenagers stopped a car. They could tell the driver was Jewish by his hat and beard. They started cursing him and yelling, “Kill the Jews!” Yankel Rosenbaum jumped out of the car. The youths closed in, and one of them thrust a knife blade four times into the man’s left side. He slumped over on the hood. When a police car showed up, the young men scattered and left him bleeding.
Within a few minutes of the stabbing, the police arrested a 16-year-old black youth named Lemrick Nelson and charged him with the crime. At the time of the arrest, Nelson was carrying a bloody knife in his pocket. According to neighbors, he had recently spray-painted a swastika in the lobby of his apartment building after a dispute with the Jewish landlord.
Yankel Rosenbaum died at Kings County Hospital three hours after he was attacked. The 29-year-old Orthodox Jewish scholar had been visiting from Australia. He was not a Lubavitcher but lived in the home of some friends in the community. He spent most of his waking hours in the libraries and archives of Manhattan, conducting research on the persecution of Jews in the Holocaust. Rosenbaum’s parents had survived the Holocaust in Poland.
A state court jury acquitted Lemrick Nelson of criminal charges in 1992. Protests by the Hasidic community, and political pressure from a variety of sources, led to a U.S. Justice Department review of the case. In August 1994, Nelson was indicted on federal charges that he violated Yankel Rosenbaum’s civil rights.