Crown Heights: Looking Back and Looking Ahead 25 Years After the "Riot"

Photo by Anuli Akanegbu 

Photo by Anuli Akanegbu 

At 8:21pm on Monday, August 19, 1991 a tragic car accident resulting in the death of a young boy set off a series of unfortunate events that led up to what has since become widely referred to as the "Crown Heights Riot."

The use of the word "riot" to describe what happened in the Brooklyn neighborhood twenty-five years ago, from the nineteenth through the twenty-first of August, is still hotly debated. Yes, it was a destructive act that tore the community apart, but the use of the word "riot" presents negative racial connotations just as the word has in cities like Baltimore (1968 & 2015) and most recently, Milwaukee. Why? Because the word "riot" diminishes the structural problems of racial injustice that catalyze the widespread physical release of pent-up anger and frustration among members of a community.  

Last week, the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) in partnership with Weeksville Heritage Center and Brooklyn Movement Center gathered for an evening to reflect on the history and future of Crown Heights. 

I attended the evening to learn more about the community in which I currently live. Below are some of my key takeaways in audio-form featuring commentary from the evening's panelists.

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?...It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
— Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "The Other America" (1968)

Some things never change, but I remain hopeful that one day they will. I just want to be alive to see it.