Rage and fear in Crown Heights

Sydney Schanberg

August 26, 1991|By Sydney Schanberg

NEW YORK — I WAS COMING back from a week off in the sun and a bad feeling started coming over me. I had stepped away from the world to ride horses on the beach and look at exotic fish on coral reefs, and I should have been, in the language of young people now, mellow -- but I was tense instead.

I had seen news clips on television on the tourist island showing the riotous scenes in Crown Heights, and it brought back old, frightening images from the dark side of the '60s. But the footage was brief next to the world crisis in Moscow and so I pushed it away with the thought that maybe it was a one-night explosion of emotion and would calm down quickly.

But I was only back in the country a few minutes when a customs officer said welcome home, and did I know what was happening in Crown Heights and, yes, it was still going on -- for the third straight night. Picking up my phone messages at home, I learned that several New York Newsday colleagues had been hurt, one by the club of an out-of-control cop and others by the mobs. And everyone going into the neighborhood was scared. tTC Which is an eminently rational emotion.

We keep building these tinderboxes and splashing them regularly with kerosene and then, when the certain and predictable combustion ignites and there is that whooshing sound of the fire rising and spreading, we express surprise and dismay and anger that this could happen. We teach people that they are different, and we do not teach that being different from each other is neutral and interesting but instead we teach that these differences mean that some are better than others -- and then we look around to find someone else to blame for the conflagration.

We will always have such troubles, to the end of time. The only question is, are we teaching in a way that will make them less or more. I wish I could see more of that "progress" I hear so much about.

In India they call these explosions "communal violence" -- an odd phrase inherited from British colonial rule. What it usually describes is a situation where Hindus and Muslims use acid and torches and sharpened staves and machetes on each other. When it's over, the burials and cremations go on for several days. We, of course, are more civilized.

All these years into that vaunted racial and ethnic "progress" and we still don't have structures built into our system for the coming together of the leaders of different communities to air and thrash out legitimate grievances. What we have is leadership, which means that the people we elect to teach and govern spend most of their time pretending that everything is jake and then, when the explosion comes, adopt a totally reactive posture. As reactors, they go into the battle area under heavy escort and take up bullhorns and urge everybody to forget all the negative things they've been taught and just go home and simmer down and we'll appoint a committee to investigate the cause of the riot. We'll get back to you in about six months to give you the findings. That's the civilized way to do it. Meanwhile, the hospital emergency rooms fill up.

Obviously, this ad hoc system is an insult. One reason it insults us is that while our official leaders are doing nothing, other self-appointed bullies and cowards and destructive types are very busy doing something -- and that something is exploiting people's resentments and frustrations and fears. Right now we have such names as Sharpton and Maddox and Carson who go into the tinderbox in the afternoon and stir up these emotions with the rhetoric of demagogues and then, before sunset, they go home, so they can sit safely and observe on television the fires they have thrown kerosene on.

No matter what generation we were born into, we have learned from experiences which are universal that dark emotions are easy to inflame and very hard to put out. I remember a time in the '60s in Chicago, when Martin Luther King and his aides were leading marches in support of open housing, trying to open up to blacks neighborhoods that wouldn't let them in. He was pelted with stones and clods of earth.

One day, the march began from a schoolyard. King wasn't there, but his aides were in the vanguard. Across the street from the school, a mass of protesters began to chant: Nigger! Nigger! Nigger! Just that one word over and over -- meanly, viciously, hypnotically.

The march started and the hundreds of walkers moved quietly out of the schoolyard and down the street, double-file. Most of the protesters followed the marchers to hurl taunts and other things. But a few seemed embedded where they stood, facing the schoolyard. Their voices were fixed, too, zombielike as they continued the chant: Nigger! Nigger! Nigger! Finally, I and my notebook were the only things left in the schoolyard. There was no one else there to hate. And they just kept chanting nigger at me even as I walked off to catch up with the marchers.

That's the kind of visceral, all-consuming fever that is raging now on both sides in Crown Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. Right and wrong are no longer operative. Reason is not present.

Ad hoc governance isn't good enough. It's shabby. It's an insult.

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