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Crown Heights
Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brooklyn Riot
Edward Shapiro

Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life

2006 • 282 pp. 18 illus. 6 x 9"
Politics / New York

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The first full-length scholarly study of the only antisemitic riot in American history

On the afternoon of August 19, 1991, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Lubavitch Hasidic movement headquartered in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, visited the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens to pray at the grave of his predecessor. A police car from the 71st Precinct accompanied him. On their return, they were joined by a station wagon containing four young members of the Lubavitch community, who had arrived earlier at the cemetery to prepare for Schneerson's arrival.

Traveling west, the procession reached Utica Avenue. Gavin Cato, the seven-year-old son of Guyanese immigrants, was on the sidewalk near his apartment on President Street, repairing his bicycle chain. His seven-year-old cousin Angela was playing nearby. The police car and Schneerson's automobile crossed Utica on a green light and proceeded along President Street at a normal speed. But the third car had fallen behind. Not wishing to lose sight of Schneerson's car, it either crossed Utica on a yellow light or ran a red light--and collided with a car moving north on Utica. The station wagon veered onto the sidewalk on President Street, knocking over a 600-pound stone pillar from a building and striking both Gavin and Angela Cato, pinning them beneath the car. Angela survived; Gavin did not.

Gavin Cato's death set off three days of riots. Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Orthodox Jew doing research in New York City for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Melbourne, was stabbed to death a few blocks away by a group of young black men. Cato's and Rosenbaum's deaths became heated symbols in a political and cultural struggle that pitted not just Hasidic Jews against black residents of Crown Heights, but also black radicals against the black-dominated Brooklyn political establishment; the black mayor and his black police commissioner against the largely white police force; the United States Department of Justice against New York politicians; and the leadership of Manhattan-based Jewish organizations against Jews from the outer boroughs. The riot strained race relations in the city, led some to question the viability of urban liberalism and the black-Jewish political entente, raised concerns about the extent of black antisemitism, and led the federal judiciary to broaden the scope of federal civil rights legislation to include Jews.

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Reviews / Endorsements

"Deals effectively with the full sweep of Black-Jewish relationship in the 20th does not have to be an academic to benefit from reading [this book]"—Jewish Journal (Dade County)

“Shapiro's book not only attempts to chronicle ‘the riot’ itself but its impact on American popular culture and Black-Jewish Relations. Shapiro writes with objective academic detachment to the extent that this may be possible, but is not afraid to make judgments. Shapiro concludes that although zealots on both sides sought to inflame relations between blacks and Jews, the relationship between the two groups did not fundamentally change after the riot."Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter

"Perhaps no single event shook the notion of a black-Jewish alliance like the 1991 unrest in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which began after a Hasidic Jewish motorcade accidentally killed a black child. As Shapiro shows in this comprehensive, dispassionate account, the accident and what followed touched off a political firestorm in New York City: both black and Jewish activists exploited the death and the ensuing black unrest-during which a Jewish student was killed-for their own purposes. Shapiro deconstructs the simplistic readings of the event given at the time: some thought the Hasidic community received favored treatment, others that then Mayor David Dinkins was unwilling to use force against the black community. Historian Shapiro (A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II ) writes with detachment but is willing to make judgments: a guilty verdict in the first of four trials in the death of the Jewish student "would have dissipated much of the anger of Jews over the mayor's handling of the riot." A myriad of factors-sociological, personal, religious and economic-had to be in place for the unrest to occur, says Shapiro, and he goes a long way toward providing the context necessary to understand them." Publishers Weekly

“Combining crisp reportage with astute historical interpretation, this elegantly written, richly documented, and deeply insightful book furnishes a superb portrait and chilling analysis of the August 1991 Crown Heights riots . . . the book judiciously parses with great sensitivity and clarity the dynamics and pathologies of racial/ethnic politics in America. The result is contemporary urban history at its best."Professor Benny Kraut, Director, Center for Jewish Studies, Queens College, City University of New York

“Because the Crown Heights riot was pivotal, painful moment in the tangled history of New York City's blacks and Jews, a dispassionate elucidation of this terrible incident is badly needed--which Edwards S. Shapiro has admirably provided. Blending narrative with analysis, drawing upon impressive research, he has probed the social, political and legal ramifications of the lethal violence, has laid bare the tensions that characterized relations within each minority group, and has traced the consequences of the riot for urban politics. Shapiro's riveting yet balanced account is unlikely to be superseded.”Stephen J. Whitfield, Max Richter Professor of American Civilization, Brandeis University


National Jewish Book Award in the Jewish Studies

EDWARD S. SHAPIRO is Professor of History Emeritus at Seton Hall University. He is the author of A Time for Healing: American Jewry since World War II (1992) and Letters of Sidney Hook: Democracy, Communism, and the Cold War (1995).

Mon, 4 Feb 2019 13:46:46 -0500