Jewish Law Logo Jewish Law - Commentary/Opinion

Three Days of Riots Forgotten: Political Will in Short Supply
Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

Three Days of Riots Forgotten: Political Will in Short Supply

by Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

Time dulls both memory and pain -- but sometimes something terrible happens that engraves such a lasting impression, and causes so much hurt, that its wounds remain raw even with the passage of years.

One such event was the pogrom-like rioting on the streets of Crown Heights in the summer of 1991. The painful images remain seared indelibly in our community's collective consciousness: the professional rabble rousers and marauding mobs, the rocks and bottles, the broken windows and overturned cars, the inexplicably impotent police and timid politicians, the mugged Chasidim and the murdered Yankel Rosenbaum, Hy"d. We will not soon forget those days and nights of violence and terror.

The Slow Wheels of Justice Turn On

Compounding the pain further still is the remarkable fact that the legal system has yet to administer any form of justice for the horrific crimes committed in Crown Heights. America is a society of laws, where criminal activity is punished and legal redress is available for illegal harm. So we are told, so we would like to believe -- and so we have been frustrated by the utter breakdown of the system in the five-and-a half year aftermath of the Crown Heights riots.

It is thus with intense interest that we watch as a federal jury in Brooklyn hears the case of United States vs. Lemrick Nelson, Jr. and Charles Price -- respectively, the accused killer of Yankel Rosenbaum, and the man charged with inciting the mob that pursued Rosenbaum. As Coalition goes to press, the trial has finally begun and the prosecution is presenting powerful evidence against the two defendants.

By the time this essay is published, perhaps, the jury will have already arrived at its verdict. Given the tortured history of this case -- in which Nelson was acquitted in a New York state criminal court proceeding for the murder of Rosenbaum, after which it took years for the Justice Department finally to bring its federal civil rights action, and yet another year until the federal judge finally agreed to try Nelson as an adult -- we have been waiting for the moment of justice long enough. It will be welcome news indeed if someone, at long last, is held accountable for the killing of a precious, innocent Jew.

In the final analysis, however, it is important to recognize that our community's moral claim against the American legal system for its failures in the Crown Heights affair will not be extinguished by what we hope will be long jail sentences for Nelson and Price. For "Crown Heights" was not just about the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum.

The Broader Picture

Rosenbuam was killed Sunday evening August 19, 1991, a few hours after the tragic automobile accident that took the life of the young black child Gavin Cato. But the blood lust of the mob was not satiated with one innocent Jewish life. Over the next 72 hours, through Wednesday evening, marauding bands rampaged through the streets, committing acts of violence against Jewish people and Jewish property, and against the police officers who were attempting to "contain the disturbances". Numerous crimes were committed, many of them recorded for posterity by media photo crews and private videocameras.

The law provides ample basis for prosecuting these crimes. Under federal statute, for example, it is a crime to "commit any act to obstruct, impede, or interfere with any... law enforcement officer lawfully engaged in the lawful performance of his official duties... during the commission of a civil disorder." A "civil disorder", in turn, is defined as "any public disturbance involving acts of violence by assemblages of three or more persons, which causes an immediate danger of or results in damage or injury to the property or person of any other individual."

Clearly, what took place in Crown Heights was a "civil disorder". Clearly, there is tangible evidence of numerous acts committed during the civil disorder that interfered with police efforts to control the disorder. Yet despite several efforts by Agudath Israel and others to get the Justice Department to pursue this obvious avenue of legal inquiry, there has been no movement in this direction. The federal government's failure to prosecute under the civil disorder law can only be ascribed to a shortage of political will, not a shortage of legal authority or hard evidence.

The Lack of Accountability

Nor has the shortage of political will evidenced in the Crown Heights case been confined to the prosecutorial arm of government. A measure of justice could have been achieved had public officials been held accountable for their inexcusable failures through the three days of rioting. Yet this too never happened.

Consider the woefully inadequate level of protection provided by the police, a fact documented in great detail in the July 1993 report of the Crown Heights riots issued by New York State Director of Criminal Justice Richard H. Gergenti. At what level of the law enforcement hierarchy was the disastrous policy of "containment" decided upon -- a policy of passivity that effectively allowed the mobs to control the streets rather than the police? At the local precinct level? At the Police Commissioner's office in One Police Plaza? At City Hall?

Members of the Crown Heights Jewish community are asking this very question in a civil lawsuit they have filed against various city officials they accuse of negligence or worse in carrying out their law enforcement responsibilities. That is all well and good, but why should it be necessary for private citizens to carry the burden of demanding accountability?

One cannot help but wonder: Had the circumstances been reversed -- had Chasidic Jews been allowed to rampage through the streets for 72 hours, terrorizing a local African American community while the police adhered to a clearly inadequate policy of "containment" -- isn't it likely that there would be some degree of professional accountability? Wouldn't somebody lose his job? Wouldn't somebody pay some price?

None of this happened in the aftermath of Crown Heights. There was no accountability whatsoever -- no attempt by City Hall to pursue its own investigation of the matter; no effort to call to account the person or persons who devised the policy of allowing the rampage to continue; no effort to pursue the larger issues that lie at the heart of what made the Crown Heights riots such a frightening and ominous experience.

The name of Yankel Rosenbaum will always be remembered as one of the holy martyrs of our people who died al kiddush Hashem. We should be grateful that the federal government is pursuing his killer through the court system. But we can only wonder why three days of terror have been totally forgotten in the process.

Jewish Law Home Page

Copyright © 1997-2008 by Ira Kasdan. All rights reserved.