A festival to remember a riot? New York event stirs debate

NEW YORK (AP) " It was the most searing racial clash in a generation in the nation's biggest city, spiraling out of the deaths of a black child and a Jewish doctoral student. Yet the 25th anniversary of the Crown Heights riot is being marked with games, rides and "fun for all ages."

It's meant to showcase unity in an area shaken by four days of violence in 1991. But the plan has opened a painful rift between the slain Jewish student's family and organizers, and it has raised questions about when celebration and commemoration can mix.

Promoted by a roster of elected officials, community groups and Jewish organizations, Sunday's "One Crown Heights" event starts with a commemoration ceremony. But the ensuing "neighborhood festival" galls relatives of Yankel Rosenbaum, who was stabbed to death as the riot began after a car in a prominent rabbi's motorcade fatally hit 7-year-old Gavin Cato.

"It's insensitive," said Rosenbaum's brother, Norman, who notes that the event's flier alludes to "the events of Aug. 20, 1991," not to rioting or deaths. "It's a trivialization of a very, very serious period of time, of a series of incidents culminating in my brother's murder."

His disapproval dismays one of the organizers, Devorah Halberstam, who stresses her empathy for the Rosenbaums.

Her 16-year-old son, Ari, was killed on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994 in a shooting aimed at a vanload of Jewish students.

"My total intention in this was to do right by Yankel and Gavin Cato" and show their families the community remembered and cared about them, said Halberstam, who helped establish the neighborhood's Jewish Children's Museum. To her, bringing children of different backgrounds together to have fun is a positive, forward-looking way to observe the anniversary and years of efforts to create more cohesion in Brooklyn's Crown Heights.

Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Lubavitch Jews, African-Americans and black Caribbean immigrants had long been neighbors there when a car in the entourage of the Lubavitchers' spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, jumped a curb and hit Gavin. Three hours later, black people shouting, "Get the Jew!" fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, an Australian Jewish scholar who was in New York doing research.

Days of rioting by black Crown Heights residents followed in what a 1993 state report called "the most extensive racial unrest in New York City in over 20 years." Nearly 200 people were injured.

Now, Crown Heights is a gentrifying area where rising housing costs and an influx of newcomers stir some gripes of their own. But since the riot, residents have worked to foster communication and familiarity between blacks and Jews, from forming organizations together to speaking up when violence strikes either community.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a black former police officer, feels the atmosphere in Crown Heights has changed since the riot, and so should the commemoration.

"We should not spend our lives doing solemn ceremonies over and over again and not recognizing things that we should celebrate," he said.

The Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights anti-Semitism and bigotry, agrees there's room for "both commemorative and celebratory components." So does Gavin's father.

"I have no problem with that," said Carmel Cato.

But Rosenbaum's family isn't alone in condemning the event's tone.

"You can't have a fun festival commemorating a tragic event," and there are other days to celebrate unity, says Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, who runs a drug-prevention program and serves on a community board in Crown Heights. Isaac Abraham, who lives elsewhere in Brooklyn and has advocated for the Rosenbaum family for years, calls the festival "an insult and an embarrassment."

There have been disagreements before over whether solemn anniversaries can include festive notes. During a 2010 commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a group of young people angered the mayor of Selma, Alabama, by dancing on the bridge where a bloody confrontation between police and peaceful protesters helped spur the legislation.

Back in Crown Heights, Carmel Cato and Norman Rosenbaum have developed their own way of commemorating the riot. They got together in New York this week, as they have periodically since the 10th anniversary.

"Two families that suffered losses of loved ones in a terrible situation have come together" and hope others can do the same, Rosenbaum said.

"We might be different, but we're one people."


Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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