I was teaching high school in Crown Heights back in the early 90s. My second year as a teacher began in the shadow of the Crown Heights Riots of 1991. The riots were touched off when one of the cars in a motorcade that included Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson hit and killed a young boy named Gavin Cato.
No one then (and maybe not even now) could agree on the details of the act itself and the ensuing sparks that set off a 3 day riot that consumed New York. But many people could agree (albeit for very different reasons) that then NY Mayor David Dinkins did a horrible job stemming the violence.
The perception of Dinkins’ handling of Crown Heights riots had a significant impact on an election in which Dinkins was defeated by a law and order candidate named Rudy Giuliani. Rudy won the election by 44,000 votes.
The soft mayor was replaced by the tough mayor. It certainly didn’t matter that during the Dinkins era (during which Clinton provided funds for several extra thousand cops on the city’s streets), one could already see the beginnings of a downward trend in crime statistics. The nation was also experiencing demographic and other shifts that would dramatically reduce crime across the board. A recent article in NY Magazine (an interesting piece on how Rudy now runs against New York) points out some interesting numbers:
The murder rate [in New York City] dropped 74 percent. But murders also dropped 73 percent in San Diego; killings were down 70 percent in Austin, 59 percent in Honolulu, and 56 percent in Boston. None of those miracles, however, was accompanied by a cult of personality forming around the relevant mayor.
And it probably doesn’t matter much that stats such as the murder rate in NYC are much lower under the more low key and managerial Mike Bloomberg than they ever were under Rudy.
The perceptions surfaced during and after the Crown Heights riots, along with the hiring of some key law enforcement thinkers such as Ben Bratton (The top cop and the driving force behind NYC’s changes in the way they dealt with high crime areas – later canned because he was getting too much of the credit), and a demographic and national shift towards a reduction of violent crime created a perfect storm and the former mob-busting prosecutor was the ideal person at the ideal moment to ride that storm to national prominence.
Of course, his impressive performance post 9/11 provided Rudy with his presidential campaign’s launching pad. But a car accident in Brooklyn provided the trigger for the development of the record and the messaging on which that campaign has been built.