Sunday, August 28, 2011

Thinking About Riots in a Hurricane

(Franklin Avenue Shuttle flooding: photo by Kirsten Luce via NYTimes)

Like many of our fellow Brooklynites, the lady and I loaded up on booze and weathered the hurricane in relative tranquility - the sometimes-leaky roof held up, the power stayed on, and being up on a hill (it's Crown "Heights" for a reason), we were spared most of the flooding, though the morning commute is going to be a disaster. With the forced relaxation of the MTA shutdown upon us, I took the time to do a little thinking about the twenty-year anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots, which passed with some fanfare last week. Though this is a Crown Heights blog, I'd been silent so far because a) I was out of town, b) as a recent arrival, I wasn't around for the riots and can't contribute much in the way of a personal reflection, and c) on account of the first two circumstances, I wanted to digest the coverage before throwing my own two cents into the mix.

For those who missed it, a few pieces that made waves: Al Sharpton and Norman Rosenbaum (the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum, who was murdered by a mob during the riots) traded remembrances in the Daily News (Sharpton's is here, Rosenbaum's here), and Sharpton stepped down from a panel discussion in the Hamptons about the legacy of the riots after Rosenbaum protested his involvement. Former New York Times reporter Ari L. Goldman criticized his former employer for their coverage of the riots in a much-blogged article in The Jewish Week. The Jewish Daily Forward produced a video essay about the neighborhood, which suggested that while tensions have cooled and organizations now work to bridge gaps between Lubavitchers and Afro-Caribbean/African-American residents, the two communities remain largely separate (below).

Living Apart in Crown Heights from Jewish Forward on Vimeo.

Thinking critically about rioting is a challenge, as the recent disturbances in London made clear (a few of us had a chat about the comparison between CH and London on this thread, which I won't go into here). There are those who want simply to dismiss riots as the work of criminals or hatemongers, and who take any attempt to analyze underlying social conditions as "justification" for violence, death, and the destruction of property (this was the official Tory line throughout the week of rioting in London). It seems more likely, however, that criminals and hatemongers, of the sort who gleefully looted local London shops or shouted neo-Nazi slogans in Crown Heights 20 years ago, are not facilitators of unrest but opportunists who take advantage of anger, violence, and mob dynamics (riot opportunism has a "respectable" face as well - one of the most lasting citywide legacy of the riots is the way in which politicians across the political spectrum, from Anthony Weiner to Rudy Giuliani and most recently, Mayor Bloomberg, have deployed the spectre of rioting to win elections). Unless you can truly convince yourself that everyone who rioted in London was a born criminal, or everyone who rioted in Crown Heights was already an active anti-Semite, understanding a riot requires more investigation.

Commentators of all stripes offer explanations: inequality, lack of economic opportunity or political voice, family breakdown (the Daniel Patrick Moynihan answer), the "urban crisis," the end of the welfare state, the welfare state itself, and so on and so forth. What all of these answer have in common is the idea of a stake in, access to, or membership in society. Such a stake can come from many places - from a tightly-knit family or community, access to quality education, health care, or other social services, from "civil society" (clubs, unions, businesses), from religious institutions, from a sense of political empowerment or economic opportunity. It's when all of these structures fail (and they are not independent - the failure of one affects another) that the sense of being "left out," and the anger, resentment, and hopelessness that come with it, arises. This isn't to say that such a feeling "causes" or explains rioting (or justifies violence or hate) - the individual dynamics of any such event are far more complex - but that the lack of a stake seems to be a frequent and significant pre-condition.

Last Saturday, August 20th, when many of the commemorations took place (speaking of which, nice write-up of Crown Heights Gold in the NYTimes), I was in Chicago for the 50th Anniversary of the Rainbow Beach Wade-Ins, a nonviolent direct-action protest that integrated Chicago's beaches during the summers of 1960 and 1961 (there are two great historical pieces on the wade-ins here and here). At the event itself, Velma Murphy Hill, the organizer of the first wade-in and a lifelong civil rights leader, rose to recount the events of fifty years past, and then took a moment to address the present and future. Murphy Hill offered three prescriptions for meeting the challenges that face communities like Chicago's South Side and Crown Heights today. First, she said, "learn the issues." Noting that issues of economic opportunity are "more complicated" than segregation, Murphy Hill put education and information, both for leaders and those they hope to serve, at the top of her list. Second was "building coalitions," reaching out to diverse groups to achieve goals (the wade-in commemoration itself evidenced this - several major unions, religious groups, civil rights organizations, and local politicians came together to make the event happen). Finally, said Murphy Hill, citing the lessons of her mentor A. Philip Randolph, action must be direct, and it must be non-violent.

Velma Murphy Hill wasn't speaking of Crown Heights, but she very well could have been. She was calling for a renewed effort by people from all walks of life to build coalitions and movements for justice and opportunity, movements that themselves provide a sense of a stake in society and access to levers of power. On August 20th, recalling a civil rights struggle and a riot, it struck me that if we hope to avoid the latter, we need more of the former. Educate, unite, and act directly but peacefully for justice; may we, and our leaders, heed Murphy Hill's advice.


  1. very thoughtful!

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  3. now with fewer typos :)

    Despite dressing in a similar manner, the Lubavitch are far too large of a community to be united on much.

    For example, there are regular debates on:

    - how separate they should be from the rest of Crown Heights.

    - whether Sharpton should be forgiven or blamed.

    - how to respond to crime

    - whether Eli (in the film) has the power to speak on behalf of the whole community.


    But, yes, from folks I have spoke with, the mood is perceived as being much different from what it was 20 years ago. If there is a mantra, it seems to be "coexist, but don't assimilate".

    I perceive NYC as having communities which are far more tense:

    Webster and Washington Avenues in the S. Bronx

    Swaths of Brook and St. Ann's Ave in the S. Bronx

    Several areas of Far Rockaway, Queens

    Mother Gaston Blvd, Brooklyn

    Blake and Sutter Avenues, Brooklyn

    ....ah, the crazy combinations one must achieve in order to get a riot...

    real/perceived mistreatment by the police, poverty, little education, addiction, unemployment, lousing housing and health care, racism, despair, defeatism, labor disputes, revenge, intoxication, hot summer nights, religion, black outs, bored male youth, and a sense of no consequence.

    We might have to eliminate all of these before we eliminate the possibility of riots. In other words, riots are episodic events that are part of living in a modern city.

  4. hurricanes are a menace but we just have to live with it because its all part of nature.

  5. Obviously the video reporter of Jewish Forward has not caught up with the Crown Heights of today. Have you been over to Franklin Ave recently ?

    Also the Hasidim dont only keep to themselves in the context of African Americans. They do not mingle with anyone - including non Hasidim Jews.

    So this video on ethnic/racial polarization etc rings a little old/outdated and false in today's Crown Heights. Thanks for the posting though !