The Crown Heights Riot of 1991


Racial riot remains a noteworthy social question in the United States that affects lives of many people. Race tensions can lead to civil lawsuits and violent incidents. Therefore, the tensions between the Jewish and African American communities should be mentioned. The Crown Heights Riot of 1991 was one of the most remarkable instances of it that occurred in the neighborhood of New York on August 19, 1991 and lasted for the period of three days. The exact reasons of the riot are unknown. Many people consider it to be only an anti-Semitic outbreak, called The Crown Heights Pogrom, but, in addition to anti-Semitism, anti-police sentiment also existed. The tensions were on behalf of African Americans as well as the Hasidic party. This paper explores the nature of the Crown Heights Riot as an illustration of racial tension and the riot in consequence.

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The Crown Heights Riot of 1991 was caused by a car accident including a motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the spiritual leader of the Lubavitcher Hasidic community, which killed an African American boy and injured an African American girl, his cousin. It happened in a section of Brooklyn, where Hasidim and African Americans lived side by side.

It was rumored that the Hatzolah emergency team had provided services for the Jewish men instead of the dying black child. Offences were transformed into violence because of this rumor. Young black men began to throw debris, bottles, and rocks at residents, police, and buildings. Three hours later, an Orthodox Jew from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, was murdered by a group of young African Americans or at least one of them, Lemrick Nelson. The street unrest lasted for three days, and the order was finally restored only on Thursday (Mcfarland & Nelson).

As a result, about 20,000 Lubavitchers were traumatized; some civilians and police officers were injured; police cars were damaged; six stores were looted; 129 people were arrested. Lemrick Nelson was found guilty of abuse of rights,convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Though the number of injured and killed was smaller than in other American riots, they took place much earlier and not in the media center of America.

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The mutiny was anteceded by two other occasions of 1991: the publication of the first part of The Nation of Islam’s Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, where emphasis was put on the participation of Jews in slavery and the slave trade, and a speech of Leonard Jeffries in Albany, in which he blamed Jews for dissemination of negative stereotypes about blacks through the mass media and the slave trade. These two factors caused quite a stir in New York (Shapiro 98).

Many questions emerged, such as the culpability of the police commissioner, Lee Brown, and the city’s mayor, Davis Dinkins, in the failure of the city to crush the rebellion immediately, the medical care for Rosenbaum at Kings County Hospital, and the support of Jews by the Jewish establishment, but the most significant one was about the actual nature of the riot.

Different interpretations of the subject on its origins and nature appeared almost immediately after the event. They reflected various ideological assumptions, social, religious, and political circumstances, and the contradictory interpretations of the past by the sociologists, historians, political activists, religious and community leaders, and journalists, who wrote about The Crown Heights Riot of 1991.

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Such interpretations in their distinction between history and memory play a vital role in efforts to comprehend the American Jewish past, but as the literary historian Alan Mintz concluded, “New narratives may add to, play with, and subvert these story lines, but an appreciation of their uniqueness must begin with an understanding of the preexisting models” (Shapiro 120).

Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the Brooklyn Riot is the first book about anti-Semitism riot in American history, which shows leavings of anti-Semitism that can still be found in the United States today. It points out that Jews like to use a word “pogrom” to describe this riot, disregarding the true meaning of the word as a government-sponsored action. On the other hand, African Americans want such terms as “lynching” and “bias crime” to be used for the Crown Heights tragedy.

During the three bloody days, Crown Heights had become the scene of thefts, mob attacks, fear, and confusion. Since that time, the Jewish and African American residents have spent a lot of time listening to each other. In this regard, members of local organizations note the fact of improvement in relationships, such as greetings and more eye contact on the street than earlier together with peaceful working environment. However, hurt feelings still exist. The Crown Heights Riot of 1991 became a cultural capstone in American society, though it lasted only a few days (Shapiro 256).

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Nevertheless, much has changed in this township since the riot of 1991. Nowadays, Crown Heights prospers along with the rest of New York and is viewed as a desirable part of Brooklyn.  The Lubavitch community increases and flourishes, too, establishing new institutions for their increasing members.

To conclude, the relationships between two most outspoken and sizeable ethnic groups of New York are ongoing, but they are actually uneasy ones. The Jewish and African American communities continue to live in parallel worlds with little social contact and view each other warily, but they are eager to move on after the tragedy of 1991. In a sense, the problem has become a less significant subject. The city authorities are also determined to prevent the recurrence of the mutiny. To prevent riots and deaths, both communities must learn to live in peace with each other and act tolerantly towards another religious, social, and political group.

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