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Two years after the riots in Crown Heights, blacks and Hasidic Jews are still demanding justice and nurturing peace. : Rage and Atonement


CROWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. — Never again.

As he stands by his young son's grave on a sweltering afternoon, Carmel Cato rises above private grief to issue a public warning. A message to the Hasidic Jews whose motorcade accidentally killed his boy, Gavin, two years ago, triggering New York's worst race riots in two decades.

"Nobody ever paid the price for this, nobody went to jail," says Cato, a soft-spoken black man with tears in his eyes. "And it's because some lives are considered more important than others in Crown Heights. This must never happen again."

At almost the same moment 10,000 miles away, Norman Rosenbaum leaves his home in Australia and boards a plane for New York to resume his bitter quest for justice. Three hours after Gavin Cato died, an angry mob of blacks surrounded Rosenbaum's 29-year-old brother, Yankel, an Orthodox Jewish student, and stabbed him to death in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. "Kill the Jew," they shouted as he fell.

"The fury over my brother's death continues because a jury acquitted the only man who was charged with the crime," says Rosenbaum. "His killers still walk the streets, free to do as they like, while the city does nothing. And so we Jews say it once more: Never again."

In Crown Heights, justice is a bad joke and wounds have yet to heal. The deaths of Cato and Rosenbaum sparked three days of rioting in August, 1991, filling the front pages and shocking millions of New Yorkers. Now, two years after the storm broke over the neighborhood on a hot summer night, the personal, political and moral fallout continues.

At first glance, the community of brownstone apartments and brick homes less than 15 minutes from Wall Street seems calm. Caribbean blacks go about their daily business with Hasidic Jews, a reclusive, Messianic group whose men wear black hats, long black coats and beards. But underneath that lid of civility is a caldron of animosity.

Last month, a two-volume state report blasted New York City Mayor David Dinkins for failing to halt the violence as soon as it broke out. The key finding, which the city's first black mayor does not dispute, was that he waited three days to snuff out a riot that resulted in 190 injuries, mostly to police, and 124 arrests.

Dinkins explained that he and top aides didn't realize the riot was out of control until the third night, despite widespread television coverage of the carnage. The report was a devastating indictment, a portrait of passivity under fire that could become a key issue in the city's Nov. 2 mayoral election.

As might be expected, attorneys for both the Cato and Rosenbaum families charged that their clients' rights had been violated. Last week, lawyers representing Rosenbaum deposed Dinkins in a vitriolic public session, arguing that he deliberately left Jews unprotected. Meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Reno is deciding whether to re-try the Rosenbaum case on federal civil-rights grounds.

The greatest pain, however, has been felt by blacks and Jews. Like the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Crown Heights raised troubling questions about race relations. But the Brooklyn clash marked an unprecedented attack by blacks on Jews, adding a disturbing new chapter to an already tense relationship. And that, in turn, has spawned soul-searching in the Jewish community. Many non-Orthodox Jews have long felt uneasy about the Hasidim, spurning their religious fundamentalism and extreme political views. During the riots, some national Jewish organizations remained silent about the violence against their brethren, causing the rift to grow.

The Crown Heights controversy shows no signs of fading away--not for Jews, blacks or anyone else--and has cast a pall over New York City.

"There's a sense of heaviness and pain in our community that all New Yorkers still feel," Gov. Mario M. Cuomo said earlier this month at a ceremony commemorating the two-year anniversary of the riots. "We can't forget what happened. Yet we have to move on."

For some, that's the only choice. Amid the gloom, there are a few signs of genuine progress in Crown Heights. A handful of activists has worked to bring Jews and blacks together, trying everything from face-to-face meetings and basketball games to multiracial rap concerts. They're hopeful, telling anyone who will listen that grass-roots communication can make a huge difference, especially among the neighborhood's youth. But they're also realistic.

"We're nowhere near where we want to be," says Richard Green, a black community organizer who runs the Crown Heights Youth Collective. "There's still a lot of negative stuff that's playing out here. People hear all the bad news these days and tune out the rest."

Like so many other neighborhood problems, it began with a misunderstanding.

On the night of Aug. 19, 1991, a police car was guiding two other vehicles through Crown Heights. The caravan included Menachem Schneerson, the Grand Rebbe and spiritual leader of the Lubavitchers--the formal name for the branch of Hasidic Jews who live there.

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