14 July 2010

Crown Heights Riots, Protesting, and Harmony

Yesterday, Shemspeed released a press release that starts off with the title "20 Years After the Crown Heights Race Riots, Black and Jewish Community Leaders Endorse DeScribe's "Harmony" Music Video as a Constructive Tool for Unity and Racial Harmony in Brooklyn" with a link to the aforementioned music video. One of the paragraphs contained within include the following background:
It's been almost 20 years since the Crown Heights riots showed the ugly face of racial tension that exists between the Black and the Jewish communities in this Brooklyn neighbourhood. Many efforts since then have been made to create multi-cultural programming and social structures to work towards peace and mutual understanding between the two communities, but still today the lack of real communication remains, and most of all, the tension still remains. In a recent wave of violence and rising crime in Crown Heights it has become obvious that we must push for "raising an awareness of the need for racial harmony in Crown Heights and in the world."

Reading the press release in my inbox along with just having finished reading Rabbi Avi Weiss' Spiritual Activism, compels me to quote from that book regarding the Crown Heights issue. But before I get to that quote, let me quote a more relevant one first from an earlier book of his:
In August of 1991..., when Yankele Rosenbaum was murdered during the Crown Heights riots, we went directly after the big guy. We accused New York City mayor, David Dinkins, of holding the cops back in order to allow the raging mob to vent. Our language was precise: The mayor, like all of us, saw what was happening. If he remained silent, he - not a lower level official or police captain - is culpable.

There's no question that our accusations got through to Dinkins. In one of the most successful rallies we ever mounted, a mock coffin was brought to Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official residence, as our way of placing accountability at the mayor's door. The mayor was incensed, and, that evening, on the local news, accused me of racially dividing the city. But an important point was made: The man at the top was responsible. Over the ensuing period of time, a large group of activists, mostly from non-establishment grassroots organizations, led by Yankele Rosenbaum's brother, Norman, militated against the mayor until he was voted out of office.1

Now, on to the quote from the book I just finished (and recently quoted on my blog):
The propensity to not listen, to discourage and stifle dissent, is by no means the exclusive characteristic of the right. At times, some of the most liberal and reputedly most tolerant voices in the Jewish community are equally guilty of refusing to listen.

In the fall of 1992, for example, I vigorously protested former New York City mayor David Dinkins's handling of the Yankel Rosenbaum case. Dinkins was the scheduled speaker at the Conservative rabbinic school, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York. From my seat in the front row, I rose to shake Dinkins's hand as he entered the auditorium. This was my way of communicating to him, in my mind, at least, that our conflict was not a personal one.

Throughout his talk, however, and particularly when criticizing some in the clergy for inflaming racial tensions, Dinkins, as the New York Post described it the next day, "stared directly at Rabbi Avi Weiss, one of his harshest critics in the case." When Dinkins completed his talk, the chancellor of JTS, who was chairing the event, invited questions from the audience. The chancellor obviously saw my raised hand, a clear indication to him that I had no intention of disrupting the proceedings. However, he refused to acknowledge me. He knew I disagreed with the mayor and, therefore, my views could not be tolerated. For good measure, the next day New York Newsday quoted him as labeling me "the Jewish Al Sharpton."2

1 - Avraham Weiss, Principles of Spiritual Activism (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 2002), 54.
2 - Rabbi Avraham Weiss, Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008), 148.

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