Making Piece in Crown Heights

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Tail feathers and tallits side-by-side in Crown Heights.

Last Tuesday, November 24, would have been Gavin Cato’s 32nd birthday. The previous day, I taught Anna Deavare Smith‘s one-person play Fires in the Mirror to my two sections of the Introduction to Theatre course at Hunter College. Two days later I ate Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s apartment on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights.

The coincidence of this string of events struck me deeply. For those of you reading this who are too young (like my students) to immediately understand its significance or need a memory jog, simply put, Gavin Cato was a seven-year-old Black boy run over and killed by a car driven by an Orthodox Jew. The accident occurred at the intersection of Uttica Avenue and President Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on the evening of Aug. 19, 1991. What could have been just another sad, isolated incident of urban life instead triggered a chain reaction leading to an explosion of racial and religious violence whose shockwaves are still being felt in New York City to this day.

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The ethnic makeup of Crown Heights was and is unique among New York neighborhoods: a mix of members of the Chabad Lubavitch sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and people of African and Afro-Caribbean descent. Both groups contain large numbers of either first- or second-generation immigrants. Both groups came to the U.S. fleeing historical trauma: for the Jews, it was the threat of annihilation by the Nazis; for people from the Caribbean Basin, it was centuries of enslavement and economic disenfranchisement at the hands of European colonial powers. Both began arriving in the neighborhood during the 1940s and ’50s. Despite these commonalities, however, the two communities could not be more culturally different and have kept largely to themselves, a dynamic that helped fuel what happened after the accident.

This lack of interaction led to a colossal lack of mutual understanding and became one of the primary factors that contributed to elevating a personal tragedy for those immediately involved into a tragic crisis affecting both of these communities. The driver of the car, Yosef Lifsh, was in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher Grand Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson — at the wheel of a station wagon containing the religious leader’s security detail. Falling behind the entourage, he ran a red light (while under police escort), and an oncoming car plowed into his, sending the station wagon over the curb. Gavin, a child of Guyanese immigrant parentage, was playing on the sidewalk with his cousin, Angela, who was teaching him how to ride a bike. Whether he was killed immediately or died shortly thereafter is a matter of dispute, as is whether or not Lifsh actively tried to avoid hitting him in the first place or tried to free him from the wreckage afterwards.

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The grave of the little boy who would have been 32 years old last week.
The grave of the little boy who would have been 32-years-old last week.

Almost instantly, Lifsh was surrounded by a crowd of angry young African-American men, who began to beat him. A private ambulance service for the Lubavitch community arrived but wouldn’t take Gavin to the hospital. Rumors began flying throughout the neighborhood: The driver was drunk. The driver had been speeding. The driver didn’t have a valid license. Others claimed the police had prevented Gavin’s father from rescuing him.

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Several hours later, a 29-year-old Jewish graduate student from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, was accosted a few blocks away by a gang of 20 youths and stabbed to death. Three days of rioting between Blacks and Jews ensued. For the Afro-Caribbean population in the neighborhood, it was an uprising in protest of what they saw as the preferential treatment that the Lubavitchers received from the police. For the Hasidic community, this was a pogrom condoned by African-American Mayor David Dinkins and then-Police Commissioner Lee Brown.

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It’s this un-funhouse distortion of the same event that is the subject of Deveare Smith’s one-woman play. As my students noted after I showed them clips of her performance: “All the people she’s portraying are saying the same things: ‘We’re oppressed!’ ‘The police sided with the other group!'” Nearly 25 years after she created Fires in the Mirror, the piece feels more relevant than ever. With the Black Lives Matter movement focusing attention on the untimely deaths of American-Americans, primarily young males, and with the Republican presidential hopefuls going full-press National Socialist, racism and fascism — the very oppressions the residents of Crown Heights fled to this country to escape — seem much too alive and well in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

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Gavin Cato, while not murdered at the hands of law enforcement, was perceived by many to be the victim of an imbalance in whom the police were committed to protecting. It seems that not much has changed in Crown Heights since the events of the summer of ’91. One of my students, the daughter of Haitian immigrants who grew up in the neighborhood but had never heard of the riots, shared that when she was younger she once made the “mistake” of seeking assistance at the police command center permanently stationed in front of the Chabad Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. She had gotten lost and approached one of the cops there to ask for help. Her mother, who just at the moment happened upon the scene, dragged her daughter away, scolding her never to talk to a policeman ever again. She was also instructed to walk on the other side of the street from the Lubavitcher synagogue and to have nothing to do with “those people” — meaning Jews.

Anna Deveare Smith performs two characters from Fires in the Mirror.
Anna Deveare Smith performs two characters from Fires in the Mirror.

Deveare Smith pokes at this construct of a Black/Jewish binary by portraying both groups in her solo performance, but of course what the media representations of the events at that time failed to acknowledge were the innumerable individuals who straddle, negate or don’t align with these oppositional categories. There are Jews of African decent, even among the Orthodox, and there are Middle Eastern Sephardic Jews dark enough to be considered POC. The categories don’t neatly stay in their boxes. As another student of mine, also the daughter of Haitian immigrants, shared in her section discussion, “My father just converted to Judaism, and it’s really confusing.”

However prescient, Fires in the Mirror couldn’t foresee the political upheaval the riots would unleash, perhaps because they were not the kind hoped for by those who participated in them. Rudolph Guiliani directly played into white, and specifically Jewish, fears around the events in Crown Heights to defeat Dinkins in the 1993 mayoral contest, ushering in 20 years of Republican control of Gracie Mansion. This city has never been the same since.

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Gentrification, which was already well on the march in the early ’90s in lower Manhattan, under Guiliani and his successor Michael Bloomberg became the defining narrative of urban life throughout most of the five boroughs. That Crown Heights itself would become the domain of white hipsters was unimaginable when Deveare Smith made her piece. That someone like me, who would have had no business in that neighborhood at the time, would be hanging out there on Turkey Day was unthinkable.

When neighborhoods like Crown Heights become trendy, it’s the most disenfranchised who feel the squeeze. The uneasy peace has held for nearly 25 years. How much longer?