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Crown Heights, 30 Years Later: Looking Back On The Riot That Tore The City Apart

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - Thursday marks 30 years since a riot in Crown Heights tore the city apart.

A cauldron of simmering racial tensions and polarizing politics grabbed the national spotlight and ripped the bandage off wounds that continue to fester.

CBS2's political reporter Marcia Kramer takes a look back at how what then-Mayor David Dinkins called the city's "gorgeous mosaic" came apart.

Crown Heights was on fire. The looting, rioting and violence that started on the night of Aug. 19, 1991 would go on four long days, injuring more than 150 cops and 38 civilians, and creating two martyrs - one Black, the other Jewish: 7-year-old Gavin Cato, and 29-year-old rabbinical student Yankel Rosenbaum.

"They were people struggling to live side by side," said Norman Steisel.

"All the things that had been happening in that community exploded that night," said Hazel Dukes, president of NAACP New York State Conference. "Burning the buildings, turning over cars, beating just anybody they could get in the hand reach/"

"Today marks the 30th anniversary of Yankel's death," said Yoni Rosenbaum, Yankel's nephew. "The terrible circumstances of his death to this day remain impossible to comprehend."

Steisel, first deputy mayor under then-Mayor David Dinkins, Dukes, a then-Dinkins commissioner dispatched to the community, and Rosenbaum, mourning the loss of his uncle. They're three people among many who still find the riots and what happened over the course of those four days hard to understand.

"There is so much misinformation that was going on that night that you really couldn't get a sense of reason," Dukes said.

It started as an accident. A car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher grand rebbe ran a red light, and crashed into a building at the corner of Utica Avenue and President Street, hitting Gavin Cato and his cousin, Angela.

"They didn't take care of the children. They leave the children on the ground and take care of the driver and passenger from the car," said Gavin's father Carmelo Cato.

Carmelo Cato is talking about the spark - the misinformation, the rumor - that touched off the violence.

"Rumors spread very, very quickly that the Haztoloh people made a conscious decision to deal with their own," Steisel said.

It wasn't true.

Community peacemaker Richard Green, who was also on the scene, said a high-tech EMS ambulance was needed because the Hatzoloh ambulance wasn't equipped to deal with the injuries sustained by the Cato kids.

"The trauma and injuries to Gavin and Angela was such that they couldn't handle it," Green said.

Dukes say that, in their anger, fueled by feeling that the two Cato kids were not treated fairly, the rioters set upon Yankel Rosenbaum.

"[Rosenbaum] was not involved in the car, was not part of the accident that happened, but unfortunately, he was caught in the crossfire," Dukes said.

That left Mayor Dinkins to deal with simmering racial tensions in two communities, a police response that was, at first, inadequate, and charges that since he went to Gavin Cato's and not Yankel Rosenbaum's - he visited Rosenbaum in the hospital before he died - that he was biased.

Dinkins was furious.

"I held his hand. He held mine. He looked up in my eyes. I looked at him. We talked to one another," Dinkins said. "Compassion and concern was demonstrated and the fact that I was not there at eight o'clock this morning does not diminish the concern that I have."

When Kramer covered the riots 30 years ago, she said Dinkins' political future would be determined by how he handled things. It was. He lost reelection for a second term. His fate seemed to be sealed by a devastating report on the riots by then-Governor Mario Cuomo.

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