Peter Pringle's America: It's a war zone but we stay put

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The Independent Online
THE 600-page report to the Governor of New York on the 1991 Crown Heights riots stretches far beyond the pink limestone terraces of Brooklyn. This race riot, which pitted one minority group - blacks - against another - Hasidic Jews - is a grim reminder of how little is being done to defuse racial tensions for those who want to live in a city as diverse and wounded as New York.

The two groups had resented each other for years, with blacks especially upset about the way the Hasidim had managed the ballot box to manipulate local city services to their advantage. The trigger for rioting was the death of a seven-year-old black boy, run over by a car driven by a Hasidic Jew. In the heat of a city summer, tempers erupted and angry bands of blacks took their revenge on the community of Crown Heights for three days.

The riots left one dead and several hundred injured. But more than that, it destroyed any confidence people had that when things went bad, the police would quickly come to the rescue.

Half-way into the report are chilling transcripts of police emergency calls made by Hasidim whose houses were under attack. One of them begins:

Caller: They're rioting, they're running wild; they're breaking . . . they're breaking my front windows . . . . There's no police in sight; there's a mob of about 200 people.

Operator: Sir, we have numerous officers in that area.

Caller: There's nobody on this block. Nobody. On President Street between Utica and Schenectady. Nobody. The police are staying away, they're afraid. We need the riot squad, damn it.

Operator: How many are there in the mob?

Caller: Am I supposed to stick my head out of the window to check? (Caller addresses his wife: 'Get in the back, get in the back with the kids.') How many? From my window I can see about 25. That's from my little window because that's all I'm looking out.

A police car was dispatched within two minutes, but the operator recorded the wrong address , even though it was repeated twice. The police then radioed back that their mission was 'unnecessary'. Other calls to the emergency number were marked erroneously as duplicates instead of separate emergencies.

For all to see in the Governor's report is a failure of civil protection by the authorities - the police and the mayor's office. The city's first black mayor, David Dinkins, is blamed for not realising the seriousness of the rioting and for not deploying more police immediately. In fact, so scathing is the criticism of the mayor's management that he could lose his bid for re-election this year.

The report does not say what happened to the besieged Jewish family that made the frantic emergency call, but it does show, through other transcripts, how many others experienced similar disconnected and inadequate responses from the police. Many Hasidim came to believe that the police were being deliberately held back by the mayor, not that they were simply incompetent. What they felt from inside their beleaguered homes was a complete breakdown in protection by the law. For a small religious minority that had come to America seeking civil rights and protection they could not find elsewhere in the world, the realisation was devastating.

Instead of calming their lingering concerns, the report exacerbated them. On President Street on the first day of the riots, a visiting Hasidic scholar from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed to death by black youths who yelled: 'Kill the Jew . . . kill the Jew.' A 16-year-old, Lemrick Nelson, was caught by police running from the scene, and as he lay dying, Rosenbaum identified him as his attacker. In Nelson's pocket was a bloodied folding knife with the word 'killer' inscribed on it. The blood matched Rosenbaum's, but not Nelson's.

Nelson was tried for Rosenbaum's murder, but the jury found the evidence inadequate. They were perplexed by the amateurish handling of the prosecution evidence, especially of the bloodstains on the knife. Instead of being carefully wrapped up to preserve fingerprints and blood type, it was handled by four police officers, before being sent to the labs. Bloodstains on Nelson's trousers were not properly noted and analysed. Prosecutors never requested analysis of possible bloodstains in Nelson's pockets.

The Governor's report is so critical of Nelson's prosecution that the attorney-general, Janet Reno, is now assessing whether the case should be reopened as a civil rights case. If it is, some fear blacks could go on the rampage again. They are already upset about the report because it did not go into the death of the seven-year-old black boy, nor mention that the driver of the car that killed him went to Israel and has not been prosecuted.

If the case is not reopened, the Hasidim will be more convinced than before that the city's internal security operations and the country's legal system, each of which are strained to the full on a daily basis, can no longer cope. Their resolve to live cheek-by-jowl with blacks, while other whites - Irish, Italian and non-Hasidic Jews - flee Crown Heights and other tense neighbourhoods for the suburbs, will be severely tested, perhaps to breaking point. Last week, as the report was published, the Hasidim vowed to stay put. 'Everybody stays, nobody leaves, that is our way,' proclaimed a Jewish mother.

If the idea of neighbourhoods is destroyed, leaving people afraid that the police will not come when they are called, more than an election will be lost. People who can leave will go, and those remaining will turn their areas into fortresses, making New York into another city of warring ethnic enclaves.

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