In an astonishing piece today in the Jewish Week, Ari L. Goldman recounts his experiences as a reporter for the New York Times during the riots that broke out in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991 after a Lubavitch driver in a motorcade tragically hit and killed a black child with his station wagon. Goldman—telling his story for the first time on the 20th anniversary of the riots—reveals the absurd lengths to which the paper for which he worked attempted to make it seem as though the culpability for the riots rested equally between those attacking Hasidim and the Hasidim who were defending themselves against attack. All this happened while the New York Police Department stood by and deliberately failed to intervene, in one of the stunning moments of the mayoralty of David Dinkins that led to his defeat two years later at the hands of Rudy Giuliani and the complete overhaul of city policing strategy that led to the vertiginous crime drop, which proved to the be the salvation of New York City:
My job was to file memos to the main “rewrite” reporters back in the Times office in Manhattan about what I saw and heard. We had no laptops or cellphones in those days so the other reporters and I went to payphones and dictated our memos to a waiting band of stenographers in the home office…Yet, when I picked up the paper, the article I read was not the story I had reported. I saw headlines that described the riots in terms solely of race. “Two Deaths Ignite Racial Clash in Tense Brooklyn Neighborhood,” the Times headline said. And, worse, I read an opening paragraph, what journalists call a “lead,” that was simply untrue:
“Hasidim and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn through the day and into the night yesterday.” In all my reporting during the riots I never saw — or heard of — any violence by Jews against blacks. But the Times was dedicated to this version of events: blacks and Jews clashing amid racial tensions. To show Jewish culpability in the riots, the paper even ran a picture — laughable even at the time — of a chasidic man brandishing an open umbrella before a police officer in riot gear. The caption read: “A police officer scuffling with a Hasidic man yesterday on President Street.”
I was outraged but I held my tongue. I was a loyal Times employee and deferred to my editors….But then I reached my breaking point. On Aug. 21, as I stood in a group of chasidic men in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a group of demonstrators were coming down Eastern Parkway. “Heil Hitler,” they chanted. “Death to the Jews.” Police in riot gear stood nearby but did nothing.
Suddenly rocks and bottles started to fly toward us and a chasidic man just a few feet away from me was hit in the throat and fell to the ground….I ran for a payphone and, my hands shaking with rage, dialed my editor. I spoke in a way that I never had before or since when talking to a boss.
“You don’t know what’s happening here!” I yelled. “I am on the streets getting attacked. Someone next to me just got hit. I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? ‘Hasidim and blacks clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.”
I didn’t blame the “rewrite” reporter. I blamed the editors. It was clear that they had settled on a “frame” for the story. The way they saw it, there were two narratives here: the white narrative and the black narrative. And both had equal weight.
You must read the whole thing. The piece is obviously timely because of the riots that have broken out in England, though anti-Semitism is clearly not an issue in that case. But what is and will be relevant is the development of elite opinion in Britain in relation to the riots. The British public is enraged, and that David Cameron and others are responding to that outrage, but that won’t stop elite opinion from deciding that the rioters were and are in some way justified in their conduct and need to be mollified and supported. Should that happen, as did happen in New York, the same kind of bewilderment that greeted Rudy’s rise and the strength he took not only from failing to mind elite opinion in New York but consciously to work against it to do what was necessary for the city’s safety and its future will greet the populist political movement that may arise from the sense in England that their society has derailed.