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Another Face of the Crown Heights Riots: Richard Green

Richard Green, the Founder of The Crown Heights Youth Collective, reflects on the incident as the 20th anniversary approaches.

Twenty years ago today, a tragic series of events sent Crown Heights spiralling out of control, and sparked what became known as the Crown Heights Riots.

Early in the evening of August 19, 1991, a car in a motorcade from the Lubavitch Hasidic community jumped a curb and struck and killed seven-year-old Gavin Cato and severely injured his cousin Angela Cato, both black.

The driver, a 22-year-old Hasidic man, was pulled from his car and beaten. Members of the black community recalled that a Hasidic ambulance arrived and took the driver away while leaving little Cato pinned against a fence by the car.

However city officials object to that account. As conflicting viewpoints of the accident spread through the media, chaos ensued and the violence escalated from there.

The three days that followed were marked by unprecedented race riots between the black and Jewish communities of Crown Heights, in which a 29-year-old student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed to death.

History has gilded the Crown Heights riots as one of the most violent chapters in Brooklyn's racial history-- one that tore apart a neighborhood and raised questions about the future of African-American and Jewish relations in New York City.

Although outside the media's radar, there are hundreds of men and women behind the scenes who work daily to make sure the community is a peaceful and safe place for all.

One such person is Richard Green, the Founder of The Crown Heights Youth Collective.

He remembers it all. He said that his extensive experience in mediation was what caused then Mayor David Dinkins to reach out to him, in the hopes that he could help.

"He was basically asking me to go to precinct and find out what was happening, because City Hall couldn't get ahold of anyone. Once I got there, the police asked me to go out to the street, because they realized that if they came out more, it would have been chaos. They wanted to get community involved and get both community's youths talking."

Green said that his first goal when talking to the youth who were rioting in the streets was to quell the rumors that had fueled their rage. He explained that giving them correct information was vital to calming them down, but added that Mayor Dinkins' presence was just as important.

"Those young people had a lot of questions on their minds," explained Green. "They didn't have jobs and just had a lot of concerns, and Dinkins came down and met with them for two hours. He heard from them what they weer experiencing. That was very important, because it got Hasidic and blacks voicing their concerns."

He explained that another message he tried to get across to the youth was that everything they were destroying was only hurting themselves. Another tactic was conveying the history between the black and Hasidic community. "We had to get young people to tune into the idea that blacks and Jews had a working relationship prior to 1991," explained Green.

As the riots ended, Green set forth mending the broken lines of communication between the two communities through various events, such as painting a mural and harvesting a mutual garden. The Crown Heights Youth Collective even sponsored two black teenagers for a trip to Israel.

Though there was much darkness on August 19, 1991, and the two days after, Green finds nothing but light has come from it.

He explained that the streets of Crown Heights are better because of the riots so long ago. "We have greater dialogue now than we ever had before," states Green. "We don't always agree, but at least we can do so without incident. We weren't doing that in 1991."

*Also read: Another Face of the Crown Heights Riots: Michael Behrman

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