By:  | 

Ferguson and Crown Heights: A Comparison

Mention the phrase “Crown Heights in 1991” to New York Jews of a certain age or historical awareness, and you are likely to elicit some visceral reactions. The Crown Heights riots of the summer of 1991 bear some striking similarities--and differences--to the situation that unfolded in Ferguson, MO in the summer of 2014. Analyzing some of these similarities and differences will lead us to a more mature understanding of how to responded to events that elicit high tensions.

The summer 1991 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn was characterized by simmering racial tensions which suddenly came to a raging boil on August 19, as Yosef Lifsh, the driver of a car in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade, struck and killed a seven-year-old Guyanese immigrant named Gavin Cato. Police, fearing for Lifsh’s safety, pulled him from the scene. Viewing the incident as the last straw in a series of anti-black conduct by the government and non-black residents, minority residents began three days of riots and protests, many of which turned nastily violent. It did not matter that a grand jury would eventually decide not to indict Lifsh; a Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum, was killed in retribution, and arson and looting were rampant. The virtual non-responses of Mayor Donald Dinkins and Police Commissioner Lee Brown only exacerbated the problems.

Reading the recent horrifying stories coming from Ferguson, Missouri, it was hard not to note the similarities, as well as the differences, between the cases. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened, but we know this much: Police officer Darren Wilson pulled over a 19-year-old named Michael Brown, there was an altercation, and Brown was shot numerous times and killed. Peaceful protests began by day, but as night fell, so did the level of civility and legality of many of the assemblers, as stores were torched and robbed. This time, wearing combat gear and brandishing heavy ammunition, police were sent in to attempt to dispel the protesters and failed spectacularly. The protests this time were also reactions not just to Brown’s death, but also to issues of the fractured relationship between police and the black community, both in Ferguson and in America at large. The big picture issues of race in America did not fade from the same even as the exculpatory evidence for Wilson began to add up.

Before we go any further in our comparison, in order to not be too sweeping in our generalizations of the Ferguson and Crown Heights incidents, it is necessary to draw some clear lines between the two episodes, even beyond the radically different responses by the governments. Claims of institutionalized racism in 1991 New York City were far harder to substantiate than allegations of racial imbalance in policing tactics in America today in that nearly all Americans feel the latter need to be addressed. Michael Brown, unlike Gavin Cato, was killed by bullets from a policeman’s gun, and the protests in Crown Heights never really threatened to be peaceful, while daytime rallies in Ferguson were by and large harmless. Perhaps it is more this author’s context as a Jewish resident of New York City that connected contemporary issues with Crown Heights than any real similarities between the cases. Nonetheless, I believe comparing the two incidents may still be instructive.

A further common thread between the clashes two decades apart is the illustrative actions of one polarizing figure: The Reverend Al Sharpton. In Crown Heights, at Gavin Cato’s funeral, the community leader made comments with strong anti-Semitic overtones, furthering the narrative that Cato’s death was homicidal and that the emergency responses were bigoted and racist for treating Lifsh first. Sharpton would go on to lead some vociferous protests. Years later, the always-controversial reverend made appearances in Missouri which only helped fan the flames of the burning streets of Ferguson. Both cases involved not only tragic deaths, but subsequent assassinations of character which were proven to be dubious at best. In Crown Heights, despite Lifsh’s acquittal and accounts which all but eliminated racism as a factor in the emergency response, Lifsh was forced to move overseas to Israel as threats poured in. Meanwhile, in Ferguson, though Brown’s record was clean, security footage indicates that he had committed robbery, and autopsy details suggest a struggle for Officer Wilson’s gun. Nonetheless, in both cases, the finer details of the situations were swallowed up in the roar of the protests, due in no small part to the rhetoric employed by Sharpton and others to blur nuance and inspire movements.

[caption id="attachment_3641" align="aligncenter" width="300"](AP) NYPD police car during the 1991 Crown Heights riots. (AP)[/caption]

This raises a series of difficult questions. Given a problem such as the relationship of minorities in America to the police, a conversation long overdue, what sort of rigor should be employed in driving events to the forefront of the public’s collective consciousness to attempt to inspire change? At first glance, perhaps we might assume that the importance of details of the case at hand pales in comparison with the necessity of provoking broader discussion. Yet looking into our own collective memory, in search of a comparable case where we face the downside of such a decision, we at Yeshiva may be wise to examine the events of two decades ago. In 1991, members of the Jewish community felt the angry bite of what it means to have the specifics of a tragedy manipulated to hysterical proportions. We can ask friends and family what it was like to experience pain and anguish for crimes we did not commit and for circumstances beyond our control. We can look to Yosef Lifsh, never to regain enough security to walk unmolested through New York streets. Inaccurate interpretations of individual events can lead to inappropriate responses, both to the smaller issues at hand and the larger problems the events are purported to exemplify.

Furthermore, when details are ignored, crucial aspects of larger problems, like socioeconomic bias and policing tactics, can fade from the public discussion. In Brooklyn, no one was pointing to more subtle and ominous social problems that may have manifested themselves in racial tensions. In light of Crown Heights, perhaps the Ferguson protests should have a different character, bearing accurate and relevant messages, without violence (of course) and with the potential to effect necessary, lasting change in Missouri and beyond. Future protests, we might add, should not transform complicated confrontations into meetings of martyrs and scapegoats, due to the massive harm this poses to the scapegoated individuals and communities, but rather should focus on the broader issue of minority-police relations.

Taking a historical perspective on Ferguson is not, however, an exercise in pessimism. Following the tragic riots in August 1991, members of the black and Jewish communities began to take steps to attempt to heal the rift between them. The Crown Heights Coalition was quickly founded, with influential African-American and Chabad leaders engaging in constructive dialogue to improve and resolve local differences. Perhaps more important, the riots did not become a lasting scar on the neighborhood in the same way other cities’ riots have. These positive developments should lend a measure of hope to our perspective on Ferguson.

Hopefully these events will inspire meaningful discussion and change, and Ferguson will become synonymous not with the ugliest side of America, but with our country at its most constructive.