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Crown Heights riots of 1991: A look back at Gavin Cato's death and the racial unrest that followed

Riots between Crown Heights' Jewish and black communities erupted on Aug. 19, 1991 after two black children were hit by a station wagon that was part of a motorcade for a Jewish rabbi. Gavin Cato, 7, died instantly, and his 7-year-old cousin, Angela Cato, was severely injured. The driver was not indicted for Cato's death.

The riots were described in 1993 as "the most extensive racial unrest in New York City in over 20 years" in a report commissioned by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Here's a look back at the tragic accident and the events that followed.

According to reports at the time, driver Yosef
Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

According to reports at the time, driver Yosef Lifsh swerved to avoid another car in the intersection of President Street and Utica Avenue, hopped the curb and hit the children. Following the accident, over 250 residents, primarily in the black community, began shouting and yelling at the police, the New York Times reported on Aug. 20, 1991. There were more than 100 police officers at the scene, the report said.

Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

"Some youths threw bottles and set a Yeshiva van on fire, the police said," the New York Times reported. "A 17-year-old fired a gun at a police officer, without hitting him, and another youth drove his car at a group of officers but did not injure them, the police said."

Reports say the black community accused medical responders
Photo Credit: Newsday / Jim Cummins

Reports say the black community accused medical responders of helping the driver and two passengers in the vehicle before attending to the children who were hit. The Emergency Medical Service refuted the claim at the time, saying the first child was in an ambulance within minutes of emergency personnel arriving. Also, there were reports that the driver was being attacked when emergency personnel arrived.

Riots continued for three days after the accident.
Photo Credit: Newsday / Mitsu Yasukawa

Riots continued for three days after the accident. A New York Daily News article, published on Aug. 21, 1991, describes a scene of hundreds of people in the streets. "There was what Police Commissioner Lee Brown described as a standoff between 200 Hasidim and 200 blacks at the scene of the accident," the article reported. "Between 200 and 225 cops kept the groups apart."

According to a state report about the riots,
Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

According to a state report about the riots, released in 1993, more than 150 police officers and 38 residents were injured as a result. A number of vehicles and storefronts were also destroyed. In the photo above, a demonstrator with a rock in his hand crouches during the riots on Aug. 21, 1991.

During the riots on Aug. 20, 1991, a
Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

During the riots on Aug. 20, 1991, a group of black teens attacked Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, stabbing him. Rosenbaum identified Lemrick Nelson (pictured above) as one of his assailants before he died of his injuries at Kings County Hospital. Police arrested Nelson, who was 16 at the time. Nelson was acquitted of the murder in 1992, but in 2003 was found guilty of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The accident sparked reactions from community activists, including
Photo Credit: Newsday / Ozier Muhammad

The accident sparked reactions from community activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson. The photo above shows Carson shouting to the crowd to not forget the circumstances of Gavin Cato's death at his funeral at St. Anthony's Baptist Church in Brooklyn on Aug. 26, 1991.

Following the initial accident, Mayor David Dinkins said,
Photo Credit: Newsday / Ozier Muhammad

Following the initial accident, Mayor David Dinkins said, "We've had a tragedy. There are at least two deaths, and it's painful. We ought not to have further injury." The mayor was later criticized for not addressing the riots quickly enough, and the state report on the riots in 1993 is believed to have negatively impacted his chances for re-election. In the photo above, Dinkins, right, attends the funeral for Gavin Cato at St. Anthony's Baptist Church on Aug. 26, 1991.

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