Civil rights convictions in the Crown Heights killing echo racial divide on Rodney King and O.J. dec

NEW YORK — One day after two black men were convicted for Yankel Rosenbaum's murder, a tall flag waves under the weak winter sun at the spot where it all began.

On its stripes, someone has written in large block letters: "We demand equal justice under law," and signed it the "Conquering Lion of Judah, Rastafari Silassi the almighty G-d."

According to Donna Marshall, the flag of the nationalist-religious Rastafarian group has been flying since Aug. 19, 1991, here at the spot where a Lubavitch-driven car went out of control and hit 7-year-old Gavin Cato, killing him instantly.

Marshall, 31, who has tucked her dreadlocks under a large knit hat, lives in the building next door to the large apartment house on the corner of Utica Avenue and President Street where Cato was playing with his bike.

That accident sparked three days and nights of mostly black-against-Jewish violence in August 1991, a time that many Jewish residents of the neighborhood refer to as "the pogrom."

Three hours later, as black teens and adults rampaged in the streets, throwing rocks, screaming anti-Semitic and anti-white epithets, a group of 10 to 15 people surrounded Rosenbaum several blocks down President Street, and at least one stabbed him.

Rosenbaum was visiting from Australia, spending time researching and visiting in the Lubavitch community. He later died of the wounds.

Many others in the neighborhood were hit by flying rocks and debris, and some had their windows shattered. Cars were overturned and some were set aflame.

For the first night and day of riots, Crown Heights' Jewish residents felt deserted by the police and other emergency services, who failed to respond to calls for help.

An official New York state investigation into the incident, issued in July 1993, criticized police for their "uncoordinated and ineffective" response. It also said that then-Mayor David Dinkins and his aides failed to respond appropriately.

The conviction this week of Lemrick Nelson, 21, for the stabbing and Charles Price, 43, for inciting the riots, brought comparisons from some black residents of the neighborhood to the O.J. Simpson case.

Simpson, like Nelson, was acquitted in a state criminal trial, and later, in a second trial, was found responsible for the murder. However, in the Simpson case, the second trial was a private civil lawsuit in which the plaintiffs sued for damages.

In the Crown Heights trial, federal prosecutors brought the charges, after pressure from politicians and Jews persuaded the Justice Department to pursue the case.

Many were outraged after Nelson was acquitted in 1992 by a mostly black jury. After the acquittal, he and jurors who cleared him celebrated together at a restaurant.

Some Jewish residents compared his retrial, on federal charges of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights because the attack was based on the Jewish man's religion and ethnicity, to another Los Angeles case, the one involving Rodney King.

White police officers were at first acquitted of beating King, and then in a second federal trial, they were found guilty of violating his civil rights.

A panoply of New York politicians and Jewish groups, from the Anti-Defamation League to the Jewish Defense Group of Forest Hills, N.Y., welcomed Monday's verdict.

Norman Rosenbaum, who has made more than 50 trips here from his home in Melbourne, Australia, in pursuit of justice in his brother's name, said Tuesday: "My family and I are very grateful."

"My parents said, `Thank God' when I told them, but the reality is that it doesn't bring my brother back."

In addition, said Rosenbaum, "we'll be working toward more prosecutions," trying to bring other members of the gang involved in his brother's murder to trial.

Though U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter reportedly said the investigation has now exhausted its leads, Rosenbaum said that "leads have been cold before.

"I was told over and over again that we wouldn't get one prosecution and look, we got two convictions."

Several Jews interviewed in Crown Heights this week said they hope that the convictions will bring closure for the neighborhood.

"Maybe now the neighborhood can get out of the news for all the wrong reasons," said Fagy Rubenfeld, a longtime resident and member of the Lubavitch community.

"The people are really not fighting all the time. We do live harmoniously," she said, adding that she and other Jews are working together with black neighbors to pave the alley behind their houses.

Many local black residents joined their Jewish neighbors in welcoming the verdict.

One middle-aged woman, who declined to give her name, said, "If you do wrong, you've got to pay the price."

Felix Frederick, whose voice lilts with the legacy of his upbringing in Grenada, said that on his block of Eastern Parkway, "everyone lives in peace and works together, cleaning the snow off the sidewalk, things like that. We watch out for each other."

At the same time Neville Barker, a medical technician originally from Barbados, who lives a block away from the site of the original accident, said he does not understand why Nelson was tried twice.

"It doesn't seem right," he said. "It doesn't seem fair."

Residents both black and Jewish said they are much more concerned about crime than about any issues that divide them.

Still, for some, the convictions add to the black community's feeling that they have been treated unjustly, Marshall said.

"They were drunk," she said of the Lubavitch drivers who hit Cato on that fateful summer day. "You just had to smell their breath."

Marshall said the reason the "real murderers" were cleared by a grand jury of any wrongdoing is that "black people have no power and Jew people do."

At the end of the day, the two communities go about their business, the overwhelming majority of people just interested in getting to and from work and buying the day's groceries.

At Raskin's Fruit & Vegetable Market, men with brown skin unload pallets of fresh produce while Chassidic women and black women both consider the same pile of red and yellow bell peppers.

The two communities have other things in common as well, including a belief in a Messiah's imminent return.

On the block where Cato was killed, a beaten-up station wagon sports a bumper sticker with the Hebrew words for "Welcome King Messiah" surrounding a picture of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson.

Across the street a red car bears another bumper sticker, urging: "Don't Worry, Be Happy, Jesus is Coming Soon."

At the same time, there is no real engagement between the communities. Their children do not go to the same schools or play together and the adults do not mix socially.

For the past two years, the local police precinct and community board have run a picnic in a neighborhood park. Last June, a thousand kids, both blacks and Jews, came, downing thousands of kosher hot dogs, said Jacob Goldstein, chairman of Community Board 9, a local governing structure.

They tried to keep the girls and boys separated, as ultrareligious tradition requires, and everyone had a good time, he said.

But a picnic is easy, he added. "We're not going to socials and dances and all that stuff that the melting pot theory" seems to require.

"I don't need anyone to kiss me, shake my hand or anything else," Goldstein said. "I just ask that they respect what I do and believe in, and I'll do the same for them. And then we'll all go on."