At approximately 8:20 p.m. on August 19, 1991, Yosef Lifsh, 22, was driving a station wagon with three passengers west on President Street, part of the three-car motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, then-leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect. The procession was led by an unmarked police car with two officers, with its rooftop light flashing Lifsh's vehicle fell behind. He continued through the intersection at President Street and Utica Avenue in an attempt to rejoin the group. Witnesses could not agree upon Lifsh’s speed and could not agree whether the light that Lifsh went through was yellow or red. Lifsh’s vehicle struck a car being driven on Utica Avenue, veered onto the sidewalk, knocked a 600-pound stone building pillar down, hit a wall, and killed seven-year old Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants. Angela Cato, his seven year old cousin, survived but was badly injured.
Lifsh believed he had the right of way to proceed through the intersection because of the police escort. Lifsh said he deliberately steered his car away from adults on the sidewalk, toward the wall, a distance of about 25 yards (22.9 m), in order to stop the car. Lifsh later commented that the car did not come to a full stop upon impact with the building, but rather slid to the left along the wall until it reached the children.
Accounts differ as to the next sequence of events. After the collision, Lifsh said that the first thing he did was to try to lift the car in order to free the two children beneath it. The EMS unit that arrived on the scene about three minutes after the accident said that Lifsh was being beaten and pulled out of the station wagon by three or four black men. All accounts agree that Lifsh was beaten before ambulances and police arrived.
A volunteer ambulance from the Hatzolah ambulance corps arrived on the scene at about 8:23 pm followed shortly by police and a City ambulance which took Gavin Cato to Kings County Hospital, arriving at 8:32 p.m. Cato was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. Volunteers from a second Hatzolah ambulance helped Angela Cato, until a second City ambulance arrived and took her to the same hospital.
Two attending police officers, as well as a technician from the City ambulance, directed the Hatzolah driver to remove Lifsh from the scene for his safety, while Gavin Cato was being removed from beneath the station wagon. According to the New York Times, more than 250 neighborhood residents, mostly black teenagers, many of whom were shouting "Jews! Jews! Jews!", jeered the driver of the car and then turned their anger on the police. Some members of the community were outraged because Lifsh was taken from the scene by a private ambulance service while city emergency workers were still trying to free the children who were pinned under the car. Some believed that Gavin Cato died because the Hatzolah ambulance crew was unwilling to help non-Jews. Their anger was compounded due to a rumor at the time that Lifsh was intoxicated. A breath alcohol test administered within 70 minutes of the accident indicated that this was not the case. Other false rumors that circulated shortly after the accident included: Lifsh was on a cell phone, Lifsh did not have a valid driver's license, and that police prevented people, including Gavin Cato's father, from assisting in the rescue.
Later on that evening, as the crowd and rumors grew, people threw bottles and rocks to protest the treatment of the children. At about 11:00 p.m., someone shouted, “Let's go to Kingston Avenue and get a Jew!" A number of black youths then set off toward Kingston, a street of predominantly Jewish residents several blocks away, vandalizing cars and heaving rocks and bottles as they went.
After the death of Gavin Cato, members of the black community believed that the decision to remove Lifsh from the scene first was racially motivated. They also maintained that this was one example of a perceived system of preferential treatment afforded to Jews in Crown Heights. The preferential treatment was reported to include biased actions by law enforcement and allocations of government resources amongst others. Furthermore, many members of the black community were concerned about the expansion of Jews moving into the neighborhood, believing the latter were buying all of the property.
Members of the Jewish community did not share this view. Many believed that allegations of favoritism made by blacks were not supported by facts; a number of studies disproved the allegations, including one study conducted specifically in response to this allegation. It was widely believed in the Jewish community that these allegations were an attempt to mask blatant anti-Semitism committed against Jews during the riot. As examples, they point to anti-Semitic statements made by protesters throughout the rioting, and comments made at Gavin Cato’s funeral. In his eulogy at the funeral, the Rev. Al Sharpton made comments about "diamond dealers" and commented "it's an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights." In addition, a banner displayed at the funeral read "Hitler did not do the job".
About three hours after the riots began, a group of approximately 20 young black men surrounded Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old University of Melbourne student in the United States conducting research for his doctorate. They stabbed him several times in the back and beat him severely, fracturing his skull. Before being taken to the hospital, Rosenbaum was able to identify 16-year-old Lemrick Nelson, Jr. as his assailant in a line-up shown to him by the police. Rosenbaum died later that night. Nelson was charged with murder and acquitted, but later convicted of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights; he eventually admitted that he had indeed stabbed Rosenbaum.
Duration and impact
For three days following the accident, numerous African Americans and Caribbean Americans of the neighborhood, joined by growing numbers of non-residents, rioted in Crown Heights. In the rioting of the ensuing three days, many of the rioters "did not even live in Crown Heights."
During the riots, Jews were injured, stores were looted, and cars and homes were damaged. The rioters identified Jewish homes by the mezuzot affixed to the front doors. Rioters marched through Crown Heights carrying anti-Semitic signs and an Israeli flag was burned. Rioters threw bricks and bottles at police; shots were fired at police and police cars were pelted and overturned, including the Police Commissioner’s car.
An additional 350 police officers were added to the regular duty roster on August 20 and were assigned to Crown Heights in an attempt to quell the rioting. After episodes of rock- and bottle-throwing involving hundreds of blacks and Jews, and after groups of blacks marched through Crown Heights chanting "No Justice, No Peace!", "Death to the Jews!", and "Whose streets? Our streets!", an additional 1,200 police officers were sent to confront rioters in Crown Heights. Riots escalated to the extent that a detachment of 200 police officers was overwhelmed and had to retreat for their safety. On August 22, over 1,800 police officers, including mounted and motorcycle units, had been dispatched to stop the attacks on people and property.
By the time the three days of rioting ended, 152 police officers and 38 civilians were injured, 27 vehicles were destroyed, seven stores were looted or burned, and 225 cases of robbery and burglary were committed. At least 129 arrests were made during the riots, including 122 blacks and seven whites. Property damage was estimated at one million dollars.