As England crumbles from riots, I am taken back to the three riots in the early ’90s that affected me in one way or another, one of whose twentieth anniversary occurs this weekend. These memories are particularly important as the Shomrim local civilian patrol is criticized in the media (see here: I, II, III, IV).
The first riot I witnessed was in Teaneck in 1990 after a white police officer shot an unarmed black boy (I). On the last day of Passover, as Jews walked home from synagogue, many passed the police station/library parking lot where a candlelight vigil for the boy turned into a riot. After havdalah, we turned on the news to see rioters overturning police cars in the parking lot and looters stealing from the video store on Teaneck Road, just a few blocks away. The next day, we saw the wreckage — property damaged and businesses destroyed, some permanently. I don’t believe the video store ever reopened under its owner at the time. Supposedly, Al Sharpton had bussed in troublemakers who rioted, although I’m not sure whether that was just a local rumor spread to deflect blame. Regardless, the riot caused real damage without yielding any positive outcome.
I was in college in Washington Heights during the 1992 Rodney King riots. It spilled over from LA to New York but by the time it reached all the way uptown from Harlem, it had largely subsided. I have never seen the Yeshiva University security guards as scared as they were that Friday evening, unsure whether they would be forced to defend the school against rioters. Even the local Dominican population seemed scared, fleeing inside rather than occupying the streets as they normally did on a Friday night. As I walked from synagogue to a friend for dinner, someone (Dominican) yelled at me, “Get the Whitey.” As I started to run, he apologized for joking but warned me to get off the streets, which I did as quickly as humanly possible.
And then there was Crown Heights (I). Rudy Giuliani is not, to me, the mayor who brought NY together after 9/11. He will always be the US Attorney and mayoral candidate who strongly supported the Jewish community after the Crown Heights riot. As a college-aged camp counselor in the Catskills during the summer of 1991, I had no idea what was going on in the world. There were no cellphones and the world wide web did not yet exist. I spent my free time at nights studying Talmud, not listening to the radio. I recall hearing from one of the rabbis that the Soviet Union was collapsing and that piece of news occupied the little part of my brain I was willing to set aside for politics that summer.
When I returned home, not long after the Crown Heights riots, I learned about the horror. Jews cowering in their homes as hundreds of blacks roamed the streets, screaming “Death to the Jews,” beating any white person or Jew they could find and even going into homes and beating people. All the while, the police were ordered to stand back and do nothing (see these two stories in the current issue of The Jewish Week: I, II).
I remember as a child learning about the Holocaust and being scared it would happen in the US. I removed from my little room in suburbia every identifiably Jewish object, scattering them around the house so no one would know, thinking that this might allow me to plausibly deny Jewishness if the Nazis ever came to my room. Silly, but true. Years later, I saw this fear come true as blacks went house to house in Crown Heights, attempting to break in and attack Jews. Only one person was killed in the riots — Yankel Rosenbaum — but thousands were terrorized. This was the narrative I heard through the Jewish grapevine, occasionally verified by a journalist but usually absent from the news. Under guidance from the feckless Mayor Dinkins, the police stood back and let the rioters control the Jewish neighborhood. No, we are not talking about Czarist Russsia or Nazi Germany. This was Brooklyn in 1991!
A year later, as 911 transcripts became available from the riots, the helplessness of the Crown Heights Jews became even more evident. Consider this, from an article this week: “They have just come in through the door and they’re attacking my wife! … They’re storming in through the windows — they’re breaking the windows!” This went on for a few days in New York City, just twenty years ago.
The Crown Heights riots were a formative event in my life. A few weeks later, a big rally was held by the Jewish community in Crown Heights. Already back in school, I asked my respected teacher, R. Mayer Twersky, whether I could miss Talmud class (shi’ur) to attend the rally. It took immense courage for me to make that request. R. Twersky is an uncompromising Talmudist who never sets aside Torah learning. The rumor was that he never even went to engagement parties because it detracted from his studies, which led to his students never inviting him. Yet I felt so strongly the need to go that I asked. To my surprise, he said that I should attend if I thought it was important. And I did.
Rudy Giuliani spoke at the rally and displayed unqualified support for the victims of the riots. He consistently denounced the riots and anyone who allowed them to happen. He was one of the rays of hope in that dark time, a lone voice of sanity in that crazy world of New York politics. Since that time, I vote for Rudy at every possible opportunity. If he ran for chief rabbi, I’d probably still vote for him. In my book, few people rate higher than Rudy Giuliani, for his support of a scared community whose suffering was being denied by the highest political forces of the time.
Among the lessons I learned from the Crown Heights riots is the importance of the Constitutional right to bear arms. If a rioting mob comes down my block, I reserve the right to head to my roof with an assault rifle and protect my family (see this post about Bernard Goetz: link). The police force has greatly improved in the past twenty years but we have no guarantee it will protect us. They failed us when we needed them most. We have to be able to protect ourselves in case we have another leader like Dinkins who turns a blind eye to rioters targeting us.
Shomrim, to some degree, fills the role in our community that the police may not be able or willing to take. It may not be a perfect organization but it is not made up of hoodlums. Its members aren’t armed but they are organized and in a crisis they have the tools and experience to coordinate some sort of civilian defense. We should welcome constructive criticism of the organization which will help it improve. It seems to me that the Jewish Week‘s criticism is of that nature and therefore a contribution to the organization and the community. Undermining the organization is not an option. We cannot return to the way we were in 1991, completely dependent on the New York government which entirely failed us.