Dinkins reflects on Crown Heights riots, community policing and Rudy Giuliani

Andrew Kist
Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins

Dinkins reflects on Crown Heights riots, community policing and Rudy Giuliani

Dinkins reflects on Crown Heights riots, community policing and Rudy Giuliani
September 1, 2016

Twenty-five years ago, New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ administration was thrown into chaos when 7-year-old Gavin Cato, an African-American from Crown Heights, was hit and killed by a vehicle driven by a member of the neighborhood’s Jewish community. The subsequent killing of Australian divinity student Yankel Rosenbaum by a group of young African-American men plunged the neighborhood into the Crown Heights riots, which exposed the deep divisions between two of New York’s communities, and dogged Dinkins for the rest of his time in office.

On a recent episode of the Slant Podcast, Nick Powell and Gerson Borrero spoke with Dinkins at his office at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs about the legacy of the riots, Rudy Giuliani’s charged remarks in support of Donald Trump and the importance of healing the rift between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Nick Powell: With this being Charlie Rangel’s last year in Congress, the last member of the Gang of Four will soon be out of public office. As you look at the last five-plus decades, what is the defining legacy of the Gang of Four, of you and Charlie Rangel and Percy Sutton and Basil Patterson?

David Dinkins: Well much can be said about each of us, not so much about me, but the other three. Percy Sutton, who was our leader, always had vision. I mean in 1977, when he told me he was going to run for mayor, I said, What? No black man is going to be running for the mayor of the City of New York. But Percy thought he could and it was an interesting year, a whole lot of people ran, there was Mario Cuomo, Percy Sutton, Herman Badillo, Bella Abzug, Ed Koch, there were at least one or two others. And it resulted in a runoff between Koch and Cuomo, and there was always this tension between Manhattan and Harlem and Brooklyn, and so some of the guys in Brooklyn said they were going to support Mario Cuomo and so Sutton said to hell with them, we’ll support Koch. And Koch at the time was seen as a very liberal, progressive politician. He’d fought against the mob in Greenwich Village, he was in the City Council and in the Congress a very liberal, progressive person, so it wasn’t very hard for us to do. So we supported Koch and he won and that was because of Percy Sutton really. As you know things changed later and so much so that in ’89 I ran against (Koch).

Gerson Borrero: You had a very poisonous relationship with Rudy Giuliani – he often attacked you very harshly both on and off the campaign trail. But when you see him today campaigning for Donald Trump, do you think his anger has gotten worse or was he always this bad?

DD: I saw him on television at the Republican Convention this year and he was ranting and raving, and I said, I’ve never seen him quite like that. And since then I’ve seen him on television a few times introducing Trump at various spots and I say to my friends, did you see Rudy on television? And when they say yeah, I say, see, I told you. He’s not a nice guy, let me leave it at that.

NP: And what is your impression of Donald Trump? I’m sure you kind of tangentially dealt with him as mayor?

DD: I did, as mayor and as Manhattan borough president, but I didn’t deal with him personally, my staff largely did. The last time I saw Trump was maybe a year, year and a half ago, and he said let’s get lunch, and I assumed it was a you-call-my-people kind of thing, but we never did. I think some of the things he’s said during this campaign are absolutely outrageous and I think people in other parts of the world are concerned about what is going on in the United States, because not only is the country in trouble if he were to be elected, but the planet is in jeopardy. You could have a nuclear holocaust if he were to do some of the things he’s suggested he might do. I mean, damn, it’s frightening, it really is.

Dinkins speaks with Nick Powell and Gerson Borrero at his Columbia University office on a recent episode of the Slant podcast. (Andrew Kist)

GB: I’ve got to bring to an unpleasant point in our city’s history, the Crown Heights riots, it was 25 years ago this month. I was asked about it recently, and what the lasting effects of it were, and to me I still just see an open wound. But from your perspective, what has changed and did anything purposeful come out of it? What are your personal feelings about it, and would you have handled it differently today?

DD: Let me first point out that the tragedy of Crown Heights is the deaths of Gavin Cato, a young black boy, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a divinity student from Australia who was set upon by a gang of young blacks … Frequently when I read about it, it says that there were several days of rioting, culminating in the death of Yankel Rosenbaum, but that’s not the way it happened, it happened the way I described it. I was accused of holding back the police and permitting blacks to attack Jews – that was not true. It was particularly painful to me because I saw myself as a friend of the Jewish community and Israel, and I point to a few things that happened before. Percy Sutton and I formed a group called BASIC, Black Americans in Support of Israel Committee, when it wasn’t too popular to do. I stood alone at Madison Square Garden and denounced Minister (Louis) Farrakhan because he described the Jewish religion as a gutter religion, or some language like that. I did it by myself, no big press conference, just me. So Farrakhan said that I didn’t deserve to live. Now he didn’t mean that someone should go assassinate me, but some nut in the fourth row might have thought that’s what he meant. So Ed Koch insisted that I take police protection and I did have cops with me for several weeks. And I’ll remind you of something else. You may remember in 1985, Ronald Reagan went to Bitburg to honor the German war dead, he said. But there were SS troops buried there. So a lot of Jewish organizations were outraged and went to Bitburg and picketed against Ronald Reagan, “the Great Communicator.” I went instead with the American Jewish Congress to Munich and there were only three blacks in that group: Dick Gregory, the comedian, Bill Tatum, the publisher of the Amsterdam News, and I. And I spoke at the gravesite of the White Rose. The White Rose were young German students, some of whom were summarily executed simply for handing out leaflets against the Nazis. So our position was that if you were going to honor some German war dead, these are the ones you ought to honor ... So I’m the same guy now and here’s Crown Heights, and you accuse me of holding back the cops and letting blacks attack the Jews? There’s nothing worse than feeling that you’re being falsely accused. So that was painful, it was really painful, because that’s not what happened. But today things are much better in Crown Heights because of a few people ... like Ritchie Greene, who’s a marine I might add, who has formed a group called the Crown Heights Youth Collective. In fact they just had some sort of commemoration, some folks thought they shouldn’t, they said you shouldn’t celebrate this, others had a different attitude – but the point is that blacks and Jews are sitting down together. Because there was a lot of strife in those days before the incident that we’ve been talking about, because the city permitted a police vehicle to sit in front of the Hasidic headquarters on Eastern Parkway and blacks didn’t have anything like that. Today they tell me that there’s a car that sits in front of a black church not doing a damn thing, but just to demonstrate balance. So you know The New York Times does running obituaries on public figures … On me there’s one and I maintain the first sentence will read, “David Dinkins, first black mayor of the City of New York.” And the next graph will be Crown Heights.

NP: As I’m sure you’re aware Bill de Blasio has had his difficulties negotiating with Gov. Andrew Cuomo on a number of important issues. That dynamic between mayor and governor in New York’s history has always been contentious, but there’s also been plenty of times where they’ve been able to work together. How did you navigate that relationship with Mario Cuomo?

DD: Well your observation is accurate that there’s always been tension between the mayor of New York and the governor of New York, that was true with Lindsay and Rockefeller. I use to call Mario Cuomo and he would have one of his people call Norman Steisel, my first deputy, and find out what I wanted before we would communicate. But we did get some things done, there was the New York-New York plan to help the homeless, we did a lot of things. And I might add, that had it not been for the Legislature, it was a battle I admit, but had it not been for the Legislature and the governor, we would not have gotten the right to put a surcharge on personal income tax which was how we funded the Safe Streets, Safe City program and produced thousands of cops and lots of other good stuff. So the governor was helpful most of the time, but as you point out there is always this tension, I don’t know why, because the City of New York is the hen that lays the golden egg and so the rest of the state should make sure we’re taken care of.

GB: So today you have a governor from Queens, born, raised and educated here, and now he’s in Albany and he’s acting like he wants to take down a mayor who may not be born here but who is trying to do a fair job. If you had these two in a room and you don’t have to worry about running for election ever again, what would you tell Andrew Cuomo and what would you tell Bill de Blasio?

DD: Well, I would tell them that they really need to find a way to bridge whatever differences they have because it’s important to the people of our city, and obviously the people of our city are also the people of the state, so the governor should care about that as well. As you doubtlessly know, Bill de Blasio worked in our administration, he was a good right hand to Bill Lynch, who I owe much credit for the things we got done. Bill Lynch died too young at 72 but he was amazing. So I think that it should be understood by the governor and the mayor that they really are on the same side. I don’t know that there are any particular political ambitions that either has and I don’t know the answer to that, whether they want to run for the same office, I don’t know that to be the case, but I would think that it would be in the interest of each to see to it that the city does well. That doesn’t mean they have to always agree, of course not. Who’s to say that de Blasio’s always right and the governor’s always wrong? I don’t say that. But they ought to find a way to bridge the differences they have because of our people, because of the youngsters we have. I mean we’ve got tons of little kids, and we owe them the right to achieve their potential, and it starts at the top with the governor and the mayor.

NP: I was reading an interview with your former Police Commissioner Lee Brown, and he was talking about community policing and how you started to introduce that idea under your administration and now it’s started to be reintroduced under Bill de Blasio and Bill Bratton, who is departing. I’m just curious to get your sense of that model, and do you think it’s something that needs continuous investment?

DD: I do, I think it is vital. You see, the police need the community, and the community needs the police. The community needs the police for obvious reasons, protection and what not. But the police also need the community because a lot of crimes get solved because of input by the community. Lee Brown’s thought was that cops ought to get out of the car and walk the beat and get to know the community. I point to this a few years ago – the senior minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church, which is a famous church at 138th Street, where Adam Clayton Powell Sr. spoke and began his run for public office, Rev. Calvin Butts was on 138th Street and he was broached by two officers who stopped and asked him for his ID. The point is that they should have known him, how could you not know? That’s maybe an extreme example, but that’s the kind of thing (community policing solves). It ought to be that the kids should say hi to the police officer. When I was a little boy we were told if we get lost or have some difficulty we should go ask the police officers, and it’s sad we don’t have that now, because it’s a tough, difficult and dangerous job.

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