9 minutes that triggered the Crown Heights riots 30 years ago

CROWN HEIGHTS, Brooklyn — The Crown Heights riots that pitted Black residents against Orthodox Jewish residents thirty years ago this week may seem like a distant memory, but there’s still one reminder of the death and ugliness outside 1681 President Street.

A concrete boulder sits on the ground, three decades later, that used to be affixed to the front stoop.  

This is where a 7-year-old boy, Gavin Cato – who was fixing his bicycle chain – was pinned against the building, along with his 7-year-old cousin, Angela.

Little Gavin was killed and Angela was critically injured after the Hasidic driver of a station wagon lost control of his vehicle while trying to keep up with the grand rebbe’s motorcade.

Crown Heights riots archive footage
Scene of a vehicle crash that left 7-year-old Gavin Cato dead and his cousin Angela Cato severely injured on Aug. 19, 1991. The deadly crash sparked the Crown Heights riots. (PIX11 News)

“I don’t like to think about it,” Erica Benjamin, a resident of the adjacent building, said with tears in her eyes. “He was just a baby.”

The initial trigger for the Crown Heights riots was the ambulance response to the accident.

A Hatzolah ambulance had been following the rebbe’s motorcade with basic life support equipment.

Richard Green, the long-time director of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, said there’s a persistent misconception about why Hatzolah took the Hasidic driver, Yosef Lifsh, away before a Kings County Hospital ambulance treated the children.

“The Kings County ambulance was en route,” Green noted

Hatzolah “didn’t have the expertise to handle that kind of trauma,” Green said.

Green said an NYPD supervisor on the scene “made a command decision to take those young men off the street.”

The Kings County ambulance took nine minutes to get to President Street, where Gavin Cato and his cousin were pinned under Lifsh’s station wagon.

Anger was building, with the children’s relatives and neighbors crying that paramedics “left the kids there.”

Although this was long before the days of the Internet, word started spreading by phone and word of mouth.

Gavin Cato, 7, was killed when a station wagon drove onto a Crown Heights sidewalk on Aug. 19, 1991. His death and the medical response sparked the infamous Crown Heights riots. (PIX11 News)

Crowds of people started marching to the 71st Precinct, demanding the driver of the station wagon be arrested.

But things were getting worse on local streets, where mobs of angry people started yelling “Kill the Jews” and one group actually did.

Less than three hours after Gavin Cato was pinned under the vehicle, Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old rabbinical student visiting from Australia, was surrounded by a group of Black men at President Street and Brooklyn Avenue. He was beaten and stabbed multiple times.

Then-Mayor David Dinkins visited Rosenbaum at Kings County Hospital and the visiting student was still conscious. Tragically, emergency room doctors didn’t find one of the stab wounds, and Rosenbaum bled to death.

And the riots in Crown Heights were getting worse.

Police and the media were getting attacked, but Dr. Harvey Lang, a Hasidic resident of Crown Heights driving home from Tannersville, New York, had no idea how bad things were getting.

When he got to Crown Street the next day, not far from the 71st Precinct, “all of a sudden, a mob came. A mob of 50 maybe 100 people,” he said.

“There were rocks, there were bricks,” he recalled, “smashed up my car, my face.”

He told PIX11 his passenger yelled for him to step on the gas.

“He said, ‘Step on it! Do something!'” Lang remembered. “So I did, and the crowd dispersed. I actually drove on the sidewalk to 770 Eastern Parkway.”

“I was totally traumatized for months,” Lang said this week outside his house, “and I was afraid to drive.”

Many in the community blamed activists like Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson for bringing outsiders to Crown Heights to protest, which led to the damage of businesses and nearly 200 residents and police officers hurt.

Green said he believes some activists saw the Crown Heights incident as an “opportunity.”

“There were people there who were angry about the children, of course,” Green said, “but I think most of it…people want to make their point, and here’s a good opportunity for us to ‘ring the bells of change.'”

Green met with Mayor Dinkins at City Hall during the second day of rioting and then the mayor came to Crown Heights. He met Gavin Cato’s father, with residents tossing debris at the police who escorted him on President Street, and then he spoke to residents inside a school.

On day three, August 22, the mayor said, “The police are going to enforce the law, enforce it fairly.”

The Gavin Cato death was ruled an accident, but police soon arrested a young Brooklyn man, Lemrick Nelson, for the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum.

Yet when Nelson’s case first went to trial in state court a year later, he was acquitted

Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman – a lawyer who made more than 250 trips to the United States from Australia, seeking justice for his younger brother – refused to let the case die.

He was enraged after Nelson’s acquittal, screaming outside court, “Jewish blood is not cheap!”

Nelson later moved to Georgia.

But then in 2001, Nelson was sentenced to ten years in federal prison on a conviction for violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights. Charles Price, convicted of instigating the violence, received a longer term.

Norman Rosenbaum died in 2020, so on Wednesday night this week, Rosenbaum’s son, Yoni, said kaddish prayers for his late uncle, Yankel, at the site of the 1991 stabbing at President Street and Brooklyn Avenue.

Gavin Cato’s father had made friends with Norman Rosenbaum over the shared pain of losing someone dear to them. Cato’s father moved from the neighborhood quite some time ago.

And at the intersection of President Street and Utica Avenue, where the accident happened thirty years ago, Orthodox children and adults walk the streets – or scooter – peacefully with their Black neighbors.

One resident said the George Floyd murder last year in Minneapolis made a difference in how people view each other.

“There’s a lot of change right now,” said Veronica Marshall. “Everybody’s loving, everybody’s helpful. It feels good to have a community like that, looking out for one another.”

PIX11’s Mary Murphy will have more on this story on the PIX11 News tonight.

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