Letter From Crown Heights
Lemrick Nelson's is not a name most people across the country could quickly identify. But in my neighborhood, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, mere mention of the name draws strong reactions. Here, "Lemrick Nelson" is synonymous with the tempestuous co-mingling of race, urban life and the American justice system; here, his name belongs alongside those of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson.
Would Lemrick Nelson's release snap Crown Heights' already strained ethnic relations? I took a walk through the neighborhood to find out. On June 2, Lemrick Nelson stepped from a federal corrections vehicle into a halfway house in New Jersey, where he is to serve nine months of a three-year probation period. Residents of Crown Heights watched the release warily, wondering what it could possibly mean for neighborhood race relations.
Back in the summer of 1991, tensions had been simmering for a long time in Crown Heights between blacks and Orthodox Jews, the neighborhood's two most populous groups. On August 19, a Jewish driver in the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneeman, the spiritual leader of Crown Heights' Hasidic Lubavitcher community, lost control of his vehicle and struck and killed Gavin Cato, a black child. The neighborhood erupted in violence. Bands of young people of African descent, fueled by a notion that the Hasidic community usurped power and influence over real estate and public works in the neighborhood, took to the streets, vandalizing property and menacing Jewish residents. Nelson, then 16, was in a group that ambushed Yankel Rosenbaum, a visitor from Australia. Nelson stabbed Rosenbaum, and Rosenbaum later died in hospital.
Nelson underwent three trials in 12 years. In 1992, he was acquitted of state murder charges. After outraged, mostly Jewish, protesters flooded the streets of Crown Heights, federal prosecutors announced an investigation into the case. Nelson was sentenced to 19 and a half years in prison, not for killing Yankel Rosenbaum, but for violating Rosenbaum's civil rights. That ruling ended up being thrown out by a court of appeals, which took issue with the racial composition of the jury: three African Americans, two Jews, three non-Jewish whites and four Latinos. Then, just last year, a subsequent trial reinstated the guilty verdict. The jury in this case comprised eight African Americans, two whites and two jurors of Guyanese descent -- the nationality of Gavin Cato, the child whose death touched off the riots.
Since the summer of 1991, over a decade of community organizing, civic programs and other formal and informal negotiations have gone into bridging the gap between Crown Heights' two defining communities.
In steadily increasing numbers, Crown Heights has also become home to people like me, young middle-class New Yorkers, some with ethnic ties to one of the "founding" groups. All of us washed into Crown Heights on a tide of gentrification. Our presence is a yet another tension.
Would Lemrick Nelson's release snap Crown Heights' already strained ethnic relations? I took a walk through the neighborhood to find out.
The question of who lives in Crown Heights is not nearly as interesting as why we live here.
I began my walk through the neighborhood at its western limit on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway Boulevard. The boulevard is one of the main arteries in this part of Brooklyn. It has beautiful, tree-lined walkways on either side, to which many residents make use in their leisure time. There's something rather tropical about the Parkway, I have always noted. It is vaguely reminiscent of the leafy boulevards I've seen in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, the country from which my parents, and Gavin Cato, originated.
I've heard that Scottish settlers in New Zealand by-passed the sunny, temperate North island in favor of the damp, hilly South island because it reminded them of home. Sometimes, when I watch older Caribbean men and women enjoying the late-afternoon calm seated on a bench on the Parkway, or I pass a black couple laughing heartily over some joke one has just told, I imagine that Eastern Parkway operates the same way in the memory of these immigrants.
Also walking along the Parkway are the Lubavitcher Hasidim. Young women in pairs power-walk for exercise, or push toddlers in strollers. Men walk together, debating with each other as their young sons run ahead playing games. Their dress identifies them. They are bearded and wear black suits over white shirts and black fedora-style hats. Often, hanging from the waists of their trousers are white tassels called tzizit, a feature of religious observance that is a commandment from the Torah.
It was through another religious commandment that the Lubavitchers received their interpretation of Crown Heights as home.
In the late 1960s, when most other white groups were leaving the area, the Lubavitchers were instructed by their religious leader Schneerson to stay put. According to Anthony Weiss in the article "Commanded to Stay: Why the Lubavitcher Jews Still Live in Crown Heights," Schneerson interpreted the Torah to say: "The very act of selling and moving houses and neighborhoods from Jews to idolators [i.e. non-Jews] weakens (God save us) the strength of Israel [i.e. the Jewish people] and adds strength to the Haters of Israel, whose intention in buying houses in Jewish neighborhoods is to expel (God forbid) Israel from is inheritance."
The Lubavitchers pledged never to be displaced from Crown Heights.
In hopes that neutrality would be my starting point, I approached a young white man, casually dressed in t-shirt and jeans, whom I took to be neither black nor Lubavitcher, but one of the newcomers. I asked him about Lemrick Nelson, but he said he didn't have time to talk. As I turned away from him, I saw two young black men, talking as they walked towards the subway entrance. When I stated my intention, one immediately agreed to comment.
Q: How long have you lived in Crown Heights? A: Twenty-five years.
Q: Lemrick Nelson was recently released from prison. What kind of effect do you think this will have on neighborhood relations between blacks and Jews? A: It won't have much of an impact because everyone has their opinions. Black people think that he didn't do it -- which he didn't -- and the Jewish population thinks he did and they're going to be angry about it. It's just black and white, no shades of gray.
Q: More than ten years have passed. Do you think people have forgotten about it? A: No. People are not going to be vocal about it. Crown Heights is a seriously polarized neighborhood and people are not vocal about it because people don't want to address these issues.
Q: Do you think that because the issues are not being addressed that, inevitably, there will be another flare-up -- a riot or confrontation? A: I don't think so, because the area is being gentrified and most black people are being outpriced from this neighborhood anyway. For instance, on the block that I grew up on, it costs $1800 to rent a floor-through [apartment] and most people can't afford that. I can't even afford to live on my own block. It's ridiculous. People are angry about it but I don't think there'll be any action. I think everyone just expects a flare-up, but the police presence is amazing here. The police are not aggressive and abusive, but there is a strong presence. For Instance, on Nostrand Avenue where you never saw Jews five years ago, they will walk en masse, with a police escort. The Jews purposely present themselves in areas where they weren't originally, like how they do on the West Bank. It's sort of a very passive-aggressive invasion.
Q: There's a large population of Caribbean-Americans here. Do you think they feel differently than African-Americans about the tension around race? A: No, black people only hate black people when we're alone. Black Americans and West Indians solidify when [a threat is posed from] someone else.
* * * * *
Further up the street, I found Lindel Brown sitting in front of his apartment building.
Q: How long have you lived in Crown Heights? A: I first moved here in 1978. I moved away for about 10 years and then moved back four years ago.
Q: What kind of reaction do you think there will be in the neighborhood to the release of Lemrick Nelson? A: Nothing at all, because one of the problems with the black people in this neighborhood is that they're not pro-active. They never do anything. They riot, as you could say, because things came to a head. But there's a lot of unemployment here. There's no money in the neighborhood, except for the Jews, and money runs everything, you can't do anything in America without money. Black people are really under the gun in this neighborhood.
Q: Do you think the neighborhood is heading towards another confrontation between the groups? A: Yes. This whole area used to be black; you only saw black faces. The Jewish section was a couple blocks down and over. What they did was try to pressure black people to sell... this building was black-owned. It was owned by a West Indian-American. He died and they put it on the market and within a couple of days, it was bought by Jews. I live in the building and it's pretty obvious what they're trying to do. They're trying to get us to move out. They're trying to extend their area.
* * * * *
A black couple unpacking their car and minivan looked puzzled at me when I asked them about Nelson. "Was that the boy with the Jewish story?" the woman said in a Jamaican accent, using "story" in the Caribbean sense, to mean controversy.
"What, what?" her husband interrupted, but his wife ignored him.
I launched into my spiel: "He's been released from prison, and..."
The wife lifted a box from the trunk of her car and held it with both arms. She was pretty and smiling and looked like life was good. "They" -- meaning the Jews -- "will never let up with that thing, eh?" she said.
* * * * *
A couple of blocks down, several yellow school buses were parked in front of Oholei Torah Rabbinical Yeshiva. Students from the adjacent elementary school and their mother-chaperones were heading off on an outing. Six young women stood surrounded by a batch of effervescent preschoolers. None of the women wished to comment, except for one, who said, "I think it's the most horrifying thing on earth."
I headed up the sidewalk towards a small huddle of men. Before I could reach them, a younger fellow emerged from the building and I quickly intercepted him. His name was Yosef Kramer. He was a student at the yeshiva. He energetically took control of my search for interviewees. After an aborted attempt to extract more than a terse sentence from the men on the sidewalk, Kramer led me inside the yeshiva.
"Some of these guys will talk to you," he assured me.
As we walked up the school's stairwell, Kramer told me that there was visible evidence in the neighborhood of younger blacks and Jews coming together.
"You sometimes see kids playing basketball together," he said. Indeed, interethnic basketball games were one of the initiatives of a community group called Crown Heights Youth Collective. The activity drew both praise and criticism in the neighborhood as to its effectiveness.
We reached a small room on the second floor where 18-year-old Berel Lerman was completing his morning prayers. "He's a very good speaker," Kramer informed me. "Can you wait ten minutes to talk to him?"
Lerman looked calmly over at me. His shoulders were draped in a tallit -- a four-cornered prayer shawl -- and his head was bound in tefillin, a small leather case containing scrolls from the Torah which the Orthodox strap to their heads and arms during prayer.
By this time, several students had assembled around us, curious to know who I was and what I was doing there. Their questions came at me one after another: Where was this going to be published? Would Lerman's words be edited? And over and over, what was my personal opinion of the release of Lemrick Nelson?
I felt gravity mounting in the air. Lerman completed his prayers, but before he could speak, he was shuttled into a little area away from the journalist to be prepped for the interview. I peeked around the corner to see Lerman in a tight circle of advisors, nodding pensively as they whispered advice to him.
The group soon emerged, this time with a camera of their own. As I took Lerman's photograph, another student took mine.
"Okay," Lerman said. "I'm ready."
Q: How long have you lived in Crown Heights? A: I've lived here all my life -- approximately 20 years.
Q: Do you remember the riots in '91?
A: I do remember the riots in '91? It was a horrendous experience, looking back. People were scared to walk the streets. It's unfortunate that all that had to happen. Of course, as Jews and as a Jewish community, people do not hold any grudge, any ill feelings against other humanity, so the question is, why so much animosity towards the Jews?
Q: How will the release of Lemrick Nelson affect relations? A: There's definitely a very bad feeling, resentment even, regarding his release. The person that has committed an evil act must be treated as an evil person and receive his punishment. We're putting a lot of effort here and abroad to implement peace and tranquility and to pursue terrorism. In a case where you have in your own community such a mishandlement of judgment, that of course can create bad relationships with the neighbors and with the people that are behind this outcome.
Q: Do you think attitudes have changed? Do you think the younger generation feels differently? A: Things have definitely changed. You can attribute this to many different causes. Number one, security, as far as the police force, has gotten a lot better. And that automatically teaches people a lesson that one cannot commit evil and go against the law. So when people realize that if they do something wrong they'll be punished, automatically they will refrain from doing evil acts. Then, people learn to get along with each other. But first you have to have that security force backing the righteous.
* * * * *
Out on the street, the noonday sun was heating up. I headed to Kingston Avenue, a stretch of which runs through the heart of the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights.
On the corner of Kingston and Eastern Parkway, I approached 43-year-old Yossi Tseredryanski.
Q: How long have you lived in Crown Heights? A: About 4 years.
Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I'm from Australia. And I play cricket.
Q: What does the release of Lemrick Nelson mean to you? A: For everyone, it shows that we have a really corrupt justice system. As far as the relationship between blacks and whites in the community: I get on with a lot of blacks, I talk with a lot of black friends and it's not relevant. We're very friendly with each other and it's not going to affect anything between the people here.
Q: Do you think anything has changed since '91 when there was all that violence? A: Personally, I had good relationships with [black] people before and after, and it wasn't [caused by] people in the community, it was people from out of the community that came and did things. What I see is that it actually brought the community, blacks and whites, closer together. The people here are good people, generally, black and white. Like anywhere, there's always a few that create a problem and our system seems to be good for the corrupt ones and hurts the people that want to live quietly.
Q: What would you like to continue in terms of improving relations between the two groups whether that has to do with community meetings, or anything at the political level? A: I'd love to see a lot more interaction, but I think there are issues that people have, whether political or religious, agendas and ways of life that keep separation. While there is a positive aspect to it, there's the other side. I can't speak for the community because communities always have their issues of separation, but from my own perspective, I don't feel a separation.
Tseredryanski walked up Kingston past an elderly Hassidic woman seated on a wooden crate in the shade of a tree. He flicked a coin into the cup she was holding and exchanged greetings in Yiddish, the language spoken by many in the community.
* * * * *
Kingston Avenue is what in pre-War Eastern Europe might have been called a schtetl, a Jewish enclave, or less charitably, a ghetto. Except unlike the schtetls of that time and place, this area contains residents who are not Hasidic Jews, who are for the most part black. And significantly, whereas the old Jewish quarters in Europe were the creation of anti-Semitic segregation, Kingston Avenue and its environs constitute a chosen community. The schtetls of Europe were constantly under attack from hostile non-Jews carried out in murderous raids called pogroms. Escape from the pogroms was what initiated much of the Hasidic immigration to the United States, Australia, and elsewhere during the early part of the last century. Yet, a feeling of vulnerability to attack naturally lingers in the psyche of older generations and traces of it surfaced in a conversation I had with Isaac, an elder in the community whose store on Kingston Avenue Yosef Kramer had directed me to.
"It was like something you think could never have happened in the 20th century," Isaac told me. "It was a war zone. It's a time that should never happen again." Isaac said he was "disillusioned" that the "riots were allowed to happen," blaming the mayor at the time, David Dinkins, for poor leadership.
And what about the passage of time? What about the idea that Lemrick Nelson has paid for his actions and is being rehabilitated?
"Did he change his mind? Did he improve?" Isaac said. "I don't know. All I know is that somebody is dead."
I noticed that Isaac strictly avoided the language of black and white to express his opinions. Instead, he talked about "the community" and "the outsiders."
"Agitation came from outside people who don't live here and didn't give a damn," Isaac said. "The racial issue is not a problem here." With this, he led me out of his store onto the street. "Go to every block here, talk to any kind of people who live here," he said confidently. "There is no antagonism. Why do we live here? We like it. Otherwise we would run away. Do you think we would live together?"
* * * * *
After Isaac and I parted, I approached a young Hasidic woman who was busy attaching a bag of groceries to the handle of her baby's stroller.
"This is a neighborhood rife with issues," she said. "You've got that and you've also got the fact that in our culture, women do not talk to men they don't know. It's cultural."
"I was a journalist before I became religious," she said. "And I'll be honest with you. A strange black man in this neighborhood coming up to you saying 'Can I ask you a few questions?', you're guaranteed to be ignored or get strange looks or be talked to even more harshly."
But contrary to what this woman told me, I did find a Hasidic woman, Abigayil Raskin, willing to talk.
Q: How long have you lived in Crown Heights? A: Three years.
Q: How do you think the community will respond to Nelson's release? A: I don't think there will be any tactical response, like anything physical, because, first, it's not worth it, like, what would be the point? Secondly, it's been carried on for so long already that you're not going to get anything really new out of it, you're not going to learn anything or be able to gain anything from it, so it's kind of more of the fear that someone can get away with something -- or what we see to be someone getting away with something -- so easily and the fear that it will happen again.
Q: Will this set back efforts that have been made on both sides towards living and working peacefully? A: On a general basis, no. On an individual basis maybe, but not on an overall scale, I don't think.
Q: Younger people have a different take obviously than people who are even ten years older... A: Right. I think that if you lived through it, you had [the tension] built into you much more. You're a lot more aggressive towards it and much more wanting for it to continue. But if you see how there's no purpose in it and how life can be better if you let the tension go... I think that's why younger people are more willing -- not that it makes it any easier or that it hurts any less. Personally, I think that he should have been sentenced harder and I think he was let off very easily, but the treatment of one person doesn't necessarily show how the justice system works.