Reporting Marla Diamond
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, but residents of the neighborhood are coming together to celebrate how far they’ve come.
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The riots tore through the neighborhood in 1991, stoked by tensions between the Jewish and black communities living side-by-side.
PHOTO GALLERY: 1991 Crown Heights Riots
The rioting began Aug. 19 of that year after a 7-year-old black boy, Gavin Cato, was struck and killed by a driver belonging to the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch community. A car from an Hassidic motorcade ran onto the sidewalk to the horror of onlookers.
“It’s just like yesterday to me,” Gavin’s father Carmel Cato told CBS 2′s Lou Young.
Three hours later, a gang of angry blacks shouting “Get the Jew!” descended on and fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, who was visiting from Australia.
“We miss Yankel every single day,” Norman Rosenbaum, Yankel’s brother, told Young.
Anger and fear ruled the night, as the twin tragedies became an excuse for mayhem. For more than two days, stores were looted, police cars were burned and bottles hurled.
“The tragedy was that the lives that had been lost paled into insignificance,” Rosenbaum said.
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Friday morning, Rosenbaum and Cato sat down for breakfast. The two men, separated by race and religion but bound together by tragedy, are determined to see that nothing like the riots happen ever again.
“We don’t want anybody hijacking a tragic set of circumstances for their own purposes,” Rosenbaum said. “We want to be able to demonstrate that what occurred 20 years ago wasn’t acceptable then, is not acceptable now and will never be acceptable in the future.”
“The riots did not arise out of a dispute from within the community,” he added. ”This was where a tragic set of circumstances were hijacked by a bunch of thugs, a bunch of anti-Semitic, racist thugs.”
The violence shocked the city, including community activist Richard Green who watched his neighborhood turn into a battleground.
“The Hassidic youths were coming from the west side, say from Kingston Avenue, coming to Albany Avenue and the Black people coming Utica, Troy, Schenedctedy towards them,” Green recounted. “It was coming from both places. It was coming from both places.”
For Jewish residents, it was an echo of centuries of persecution. For Blacks it was manifestation their own historic burden.
Carmel Cato says he was treated like a criminal on the very night his son died.
“I was treated very roughly at the precinct. I was chased out of the precinct,” said Cato.
It was a common complaint. The police were never able to find a balance. Rough one moment, passive the next.
“I remember the word ‘vent,’ ‘let the crowd vent,’ and that was the tragedy. Because violence was not stopped imnmediately, it went on and on and on,” said Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind.
Mayor David Dinkins pleaded with young people to leave the streets. He visited the Cato family at their home on the second day of the riots and it ended badly.
On his way out, Dinkins was nearly hit by a thrown bottle and his motorcade whisked him away. The streets of Crown Heights were out of control.
Many believe that summer cost Dinkins his job. A state report criticized the police response and two communities talk more now than ever. Not always agreeing, but sitting to exchange views just like Rosenbaum and Cato.
Since the riots, in which NYPD records show 151 people were arrested, 145 Blacks and six Hassidic Jews, the wounds of the past have begun to heal. On Thursday night, an awards ceremony honored Black and Jewish community activists.
The ceremony was part of a series of events held to foster unity in Crown Heights.
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