‘Tribal’ tension in Crown Heights keeps neighborhood from moving beyond hate

23 04 2008

Nearly 17 years after riots tore Crown Heights apart, the recent beating of a black college student by Jewish assailants has exposed rising tensions between blacks and Jews in my neighborhood.

Cops and city officials have quietly gone on high alert, worried that another riot could be in the works.

The troubles began on April 14, when Andrew Charles, a 20-year-old sophomore at Kingsborough Community College, says he and a friend encountered a pair of young Jewish men while walking down Albany Ave. about 6 p.m.

“One was on bike, one was on foot. They were staring at us, staring us down,” Charles told me. “We stared back. They approached us and asked if we had a problem.”

The man on the bike sprayed Charles with tear gas, and a few minutes later a contingent of Jewish men arrived by car and in scooters and began chasing them.

One man beat Charles on the back and arm with a nightstick, inflicting injuries that sent him to the hospital. The group fled, but not before a witness on the street got the license plate number.

In any other neighborhood, a staredown between young men, even one that turns into a beatdown, would barely count as major news.

But this is Crown Heights, where a smoldering pile of intergroup grievances and injustices – some real, many imaginary – set the stage for the shocking outburst of mob violence in August 1991.

According to a memo circulated by Mayor Bloomberg’s Community Assistance Unit, city officials immediately descended on Crown Heights last week to establish “contact with the [Charles] family before outside agitators could jump in and reach out to the family to create community turmoil.”

I don’t know which “outside agitators” the mayor’s people were afraid of, but community activist Taharka Robinson, founder of the Central Brooklyn Anti-Violence Coalition, is acting as Charles’ adviser. The family also has retained Paul Wooten, a well-known Brooklyn lawyer recently nominated for a Supreme Court judgeship.

Robinson and Wooten are reliable, levelheaded men. They will have their work cut out for them.

At the urging of city officials, a group of leaders from both communities will meet tomorrow – “before the Sean Bell verdict,” the Community Assistance Unit memo cautions – to figure out a way to dial down the tension.

In the neighborhood’s calculus of tribal resentments, the attack on Charles was the mirror image of a January incident in which a teenage yeshiva student named Samuel Balkany said five black kids jumped and beat him, shouting “little Jew boy, you think you own this neighborhood,” and such.

Despite a call from authorities for help in solving the case, nobody was arrested for the Balkany beating. Let enough of these tribal skirmishes accumulate, and you end up with a neighborhood ready to explode.

Last week, much to their credit, cops from the 71st Precinct and Patrol Borough Brooklyn South quickly began a full-court press to solve the latest beating, with an extra incentive supplied by the fact that Charles’ father, Moses Charles , is a cop in Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct.

The NYPD swiftly found the attackers’ car in East New York , stripped of plates but still traceable. At the car owner’s home, according to the Community Assistance Unit memo, cops arrested a man – believed to be the brother of the car’s owner – for interfering with government administration, and later released him.

All along the way, local politicians and community leaders – both black and Jewish – have been talking.

It’s a rotten shame that people in my neighborhood haven’t figured out how to live side by side, and an embarrassment that we have to rely on cops and nervous bureaucrats to keep the peace.

Nowhere in the city will you find more devout religious people than in Crown Heights, yet it has come to this – shortly after Easter and the Pope’s visit, and in the middle of the Jewish High Holy Days.

Can’t we all just get along? DailyNews




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