A Flashpoint for the Crown Heights Riots Proves to be a Dull Flame

By: Megan Taros

It was the second day of the Crown Heights riots in August 1991 when Isaac Bitton approached a group of 30 police officers on the corner of Carroll Street and Schenectady Avenue. Roving mobs of young men had haunted the streets the night before knocking out first-floor windows and attacking residents on their way home with sticks, rocks and their fists. It would be another day before the chaos quelled.

Bitton asked the officers if it was safe to cross the street. They said yes.

I went to the New York City Municipal Archives in search of documents produced in the aftermath of the riots. I wanted to know what the issues that caused the riots looked like in hindsight. What did the riots reveal about the reality of the tension between the black and Jewish communities in Crown Heights? The case of Isaac Bitton detailed in New York State’s post-riot Girgenti Report highlighted the failings of city services for both groups, as described in the entire second part of the report.

Another post-riot report, put together by the the Crown Heights Coalition, listed one-sided policing as a source of tension between black and Jewish residents. A police escort that followed the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, spiritual leader of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect centered in the neighborhood, was seen by some in the black community as special treatment by police, this report noted. The Crown Heights Coalition was a multiethnic group organized after the riots to bridge relationships between the two communities.

Bitton and his 12-year-old son crossed the street at the assurance of the officer. A swarm of young black men advanced on him and threw stones. One felled Bitton with a brick. The report indicates that the attack continued without intervention from the police on the corner. An unnamed black man drove the mob away.

“Stop, stop! He’s already down,” the man said.

A black male witness made a 911 call at approximately 7 p.m. His description of the events frames the chaos as something darker.

Caller: Yeah, um…there are some guys…stoning Jews on the corner of Lexington?…stoning the Jews!
911 Operator: What are they doing? They’re stoning the Jews?
Caller: Yes! They’re throwing a lot of stones at the Jews

A black woman called at 8:52 p.m. for similar reasons. The operator told her to speak with police already on the scene. The following account has been edited for brevity.

Caller: They’re pulling the people out of the cars. All the Jews that come down the block they take them out of the car and beating ‘em up.
911 Operator: Miss, anyone injured?
Caller: I don’t know. I just ran in my house and I said it don’t make no damn sense. All these people they don’t even know what the [expletive] they out here for.
911 Operator: Listen, ma’am. We have police out there. It’s a lot of police out there. Why don’t you go and speak to one of the police? Operator: I just came from outside!
911 Operator: Ma’am as you say it’s a lot of crowd out there. Anyone out there injured?
Caller: I don’t know
911 Operator: Ok, bye

A newspaper clipping from the New York Times later that year reveals the NYPD stopped escorting Rabbi Schneerson’s motorcade in early November, three months after the riot. As for the actual police behavior at the time of the violence, the Girgenti Report concluded that the force was inadequately prepared to protect the residents of Crown Heights and details a number of incidents where police failed to respond to chaos unfolding right in front of their eyes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *