The coverage of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, which began 25 years ago today, might be one of the most distorted stories that the U.S. media has ever told. Written by Chanina Sperlin and Eli Cohen • Full Story
The coverage of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, which began 25 years ago today, might be one of the most distorted stories that the U.S. media has ever told.
If we ever hope to move forward, we have to correct the dangerously revisionist record.
Even as it was happening, the newspapers and TV news of the time attempted to create a “balanced story” where none existed. But rather than correcting those misperceptions, the coverage looking back from the vantage point of history has further developed several agenda-driven themes.
We are asked to believe: that somehow, 1991 was a race war between two opposing factions; that Al Sharpton was not culpable in inciting violence and racism; that former Police Commissioner Lee Brown did not fail in his management of the crisis; and that Mayor David Dinkins was an innocent scapegoat for the failure of his administration.
All of these narratives are false.
First, the truth: In the summer of 1991, the Jewish residents of Crown Heights were the targets, not the perpetrators, of four days and three nights of unrelenting violence. One community member was murdered (as was another white man who, weeks later, was mistaken for being Jewish); several people were injured; property was looted and destroyed; and hundreds of men, women and children were living in terror and afraid to leave their homes for days on end.
At the height of the violence, bands of roaming hooligans sought out people who looked Jewish to attack. Several angry marches threatened the central Lubavitch synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, where Hasidic residents were forced to form a human shield to compel the police to intervene. The officers stood by understanding that their orders were to let the protesters vent. Outside agitators brought in by Sonny Carson and Sharpton further inflamed the tensions.
The full record of the four days is laid out in the Girgenti Report commissioned by Gov. Mario Cuomo at that time, and there is no record of any attacks by Hasidim on anyone, nor of any bodily or property damage incurred by anyone as a result of violence by any Jewish resident.
The press of that time wanted to tell a different story. Ari Goldman, who covered the riots for The New York Times, later wrote that the article that appeared in the paper was simply not the story he had reported, and that the story led with “Hasidim and blacks clashed” when that was just not what he saw on the streets. His editors had framed the story the way they wanted to tell it, regardless of the facts.
Now, a quarter century later, some of the key players desperately want to retell the story to protect their own legacies. Sharpton, who never saw a crisis he could not exploit, has sought to divert the issue to whether he began his incitement and call to violence before or after the stabbing and murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. But regardless of the answer to that question, the fact remains that he incited violence against Jews, and people were hurt. For that he has never apologized or admitted his culpability.
Brown, and by extension Dinkins, can point to no accomplishment other than that the unrest did not spread to other parts of the city. What is clear is that the police commissioner did nothing to stop innocent people from being hurt, until, on the fourth day of the rioting, then-First Deputy Commissioner Ray Kelly took charge and actually had his officers stop people from breaking the law.
Thank G-d, through the efforts of our Project Care, which brings together all the residents of Crown Heights, we have been able to work with a new generation of progressive black leaders to build valuable and meaningful relationships. But in order to move forward, we must have a clear understanding of the past.
Sperlin and Cohen are, respectively, the executive vice president for governmental affairs and the executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council.
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