The Skylight Gallery at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation Center for Arts & Culture is running an exhibition commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights Riot. If the three days of rioting that started on August 19, 1991 is not on your radar, I can’t fault you. Perhaps your attention was elsewhere; for example the Persian Gulf War was in full swing at that time and the USSR was dissolving into 15 independent republics. There were plenty of distractions that year but, for New Yorkers in general and for Brooklynites in particular, for a time those three days in August took center stage.
It’s a big complex story, but I’ll try to summarize what occurred. On the afternoon of August 19, 1991 a little black boy, Gavin Cato, was hit by a car that jumped the curb on a street corner of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. The driver was a Hasidic Jew and a member of a motorcade; escorting the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Witnesses became angry when it appeared that first responders on the scene, a private Jewish ambulance service, was helping the driver rather than the victim. The anger initially directed towards the driver escalated and morphed into an anti-Semitic rage.
Gavin Cato died from his injuries. This news further inflamed a few black teenagers and a mob formed. Later that evening, a mob attacked an inocent young Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum. Yankel Rosenbaum was brutally beaten and was stabbed. He died from his injuries. Another life was lost. The mob grew bigger and lashed out in all directions; hurting more people and causing extensive property damage. It was three days before the police officers gained control and restored order to that area.
Now its 20 years later and an art exhibit, Crown Heights Gold: Examining Race Relations and Healing in Crown Heights, is taking a look at the community; then and now. The exhibit gathers a diverse group of artists working in different mediums to shed light on the issues at that time; reveal the reconciliation process over the years and to act as a thermometer of the post-riot climate of the community. I went to the exhibit with my personal knowledge of the neighborhood and my own opinions about the incident.
When I visited the gallery there wasn’t a catalogue available with information about the artists and their work. I think a catalogue would have been a big help because I didn’t understand some of the pieces on display. I think it would be even more challenging for a visitor without knowledge of the events to formulate the meaning of the pieces.
There were more than 25 objects on view. I felt many of the pieces expressed the race and anti-Semitic aspects of the riot, but failed to address some of the other contributing factors to the blow up. Certainly, anti-Semitism factored into the riot but, I’ve always felt that a good deal of what was being played out on the streets went beyond that. I saw the riot as a turf war.
Real estate rules; whoever owns the land gains the political advantage. Having that advantage means resources and services will be directed to meet your needs and concerns. There was a “land grab” going on at that time (and it continues today). Both groups were rushing to buy up the property in that small area and for whatever reason the blacks were losing ground. When a group starts feeling squeezed out, marginalized and frustrated, they may lash out. It happens everywhere but, what I think exacerbated the situation, was that there were no points for engagement between these two groups. They lived next door to each other, but you couldn’t call them neighbors. They were alien to each other and when you see a person as “the other”, you’ve got a big problem.
You can’t go to an exhibit like this looking for the “pretty picture”. What you hope, is that the art will lead you to another level of understanding; or prompt more inquiry; or make you feel something (what that something is, is often quite personal). There were a few pieces that did that for me. I saw a pair of photographs portraying an alternate reality; for example. In the altered reality both Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum are alive and well in 2011. Each is pictured surrounded by a thriving family. Those images made me ache for what was lost with the deaths of those two human beings; the squandered potential.
Also, affecting was a large, oil on canvas, painting of the torso of a police officer. The officer is standing with his arms crossed in front of him. There’s no head or face; so there’s no facial cues to help me discern if this is a friend or foe. Is it a defensive or passive attitude? Is this officer helplessly watching, actively protecting or aggressively threatening? The ambiguity was a little unsettling.
Crown Heights Gold:Examining Race Relations and Healing in Crown Heights will be on view through October 31, 2011. During the run there will be an artist talk and other programs to explore the themes of the exhibit. If you can’t visit the exhibit I suggest watching Anna Deavere Smiths’ Fires in the Mirror. Her one person play uses the words from actual interviews with the residents of Crown Heights to tell the story of the riot. The entire performance is available on YouTube and below is a snippet featuring the words of Richard E. Green, Chief Executive of the Crown Heights Youth Collective. His portrait is included in the exhibit. He was on the front lines working to extinguish the fires of hate in 1991 and he is still fighting the good fight.
- Community Coming Together On 20th Anniversary Of Crown Heights Riots (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- 20th anniversary of Crown Heights riots marked (seattletimes.nwsource.com)