On Sept. 17, 1991, almost a month after the tragic car accident that set off the Crown Heights Riots, Rev. Al Sharpton went to Israel to serve the driver of the car, Yosef Lifsh, with a wrongful death lawsuit. When Sharpton arrived in Israel, he was recognized by an individual who, incensed by Sharpton’s deliberate Jew-baiting the previous month, told Sharpton to “go to Hell.” Sharpton, responded, “I’m already in Hell.”
Sharpton demanded that Israel hand over Lifsh, and said it would help ‘atone for her sins,’ Frustrated by his inability to find Lifsh, and what he claimed was lack of assistance from the Israelis, he returned to America after only a mere three hours in the Holy Land. Little did Sharpton know that the man he was looking for, Yosef Lifsh, was in fact thousands of miles away in Toronto, Canada.
The riots began on, Monday, Aug. 19, 1991, accompanied by 3 rabbinical students, Yosef Lifsh, a rabbinical student himself, was driving a car on president street in Brooklyn, returning from the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, which Rabbi Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, had visited that afternoon. Rabbi Schneerson’s vehicle was, as usual, led by a police car. As a sign of respect for the Rebbe, Lifsh was following the Rebbe’s vehicle. By the time Lifsh arrived at the intersection of President Street and Utica Avenue, a few seconds after the Rebbe’s car crossed the intersection, the light had turned yellow. In an attempt to catch up the with Rebbe’s car, Lifsh crossed the intersection. His car was hit by Peter Petrosino’s Chevrolet Malibu.
The Lifsh car spun out of control, heading towards a crowd of people outside the buildings on Utica Avenue. Lifsh was unable to regain control of the car. Ultimately, two children, Gavin Cato and his cousin Angela Cato, who were playing in front of the building, were struck and pinned under the car.
Lifsh immediately got out of the car and attempted to lift the car and pull the children from underneath.
Within minutes, a crowd formed and turned violent, beating Lifsh and the passengers of the car.
Hatzolah, the local Jewish-run EMS, arrived followed by the police and a city ambulances. The police told Hatzolah to remove Lifsh and his passengers to avoid further altercations with the crowd.
Seven minutes later, Gavin Cato arrived at the hospital. Tragically, Gavin was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
This could and should have been the end of the tragedy. Instead, however, Crown Heights became the host of a modern day blood-libel. .
The pogrom lasted for three days, fueled by rumors and outright lies: Lifsh had been drunk (A test immediately following accident determined he was sober), or he had purposely run over the children, and that Hatzolah had refused to treat the children (A New York State report, a year later, established this was not true).
Later that evening, at approximately 11:15 pm, a group of teens shouting “Kill the Jew” surrounded Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29 year old student from Australia. Sixteen year old, Limerick Nelson, a member of the crowd, stabbed him. Yankel died at the hospital about three hours later.
Throughout Monday night, several more people were beaten and small groups roamed the streets throwing stones at properties associated with the Jewish community. The conflict might have ended the next morning, with a tragic accident and a cold-blooded murder.
But Tuesday afternoon, Rev. Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson joined the fray. They bussed in people from outside neighborhoods and incited riot with radical speeches.
Sharpton and Carson, along with Rev Daughtry, met with the police, calling for the immediate arrest of Yosef Lifsh. The police refused saying there would be a grand jury investigation.
Right after the meeting, these leaders held a demonstration outside the 71st precinct. Sonny Carson called on the crowd to take matters into their own hands saying “Somebody is going to pay for this. We ain’t talking no more”, and the crowd responded, “Action, Action.”
While the riots are viewed as a Crown Heights incident, many believe that they were in fact, for the most part, fueled and perpetrated by a largely outside crowd. In fact, as a lifelong resident of Crown Heights, I don’t know of anybody who recognized their neighbors amongst the rioters.
Although, the city administration denies officially giving the order to “Let them vent,” something Jewish leaders maintain until today, unofficially, that’s what was happening.
The city’s response might have been correct if this was merely a peaceful demonstration. There was a group in society that felt for some reason that the elected officials, the social structure of the city, was discriminating against them, and because of that they were suffering. They would demonstrate because they have a case, a legal argument against the leaders of society.
But that wasn’t what was happening in Crown Heights. Rioters were attacking Jews on the streets. Rioters were attacking Jewish institutions. Rioters were attacking and the government was saying “Let them vent.”
Vent, against individual Jews, fellow American citizens? This was the problem! This is what angered the Jewish community and fair minded people all over the country.
By Friday evening, calm had essentially returned to the streets. But Rev Sharpton was still fueling the fire.
He told a crowd during the Cato memorial on Aug. 25, “We will not allow any compromise or sellouts or anything less than the prosecution of the murderers of this young man,” and “The world will tell us he was killed by an accident. Yes, it was a social accident. It’s an accident for one group of people to be treated better than another group of people. It’s an accident to impose the will of a minority on a majority. It’s an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights. It’s an accident to think we will just keep crying and not stand up and call for justice.”
While, some say Sharpton has matured and mellowed, it’s twenty years later and he still hasn’t apologized
Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, a lifelong resident of Crown Heights, was ordained by the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu in 2006 and received a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership in 2009. He currently serves as Director of Media Relations for Lubavitch News Service.