Laurie Cumbo, New York City Council member-elect, representing the 35th District which covers Crown Heights, wrote the following statement Tuesday:
“The recent epidemic of the “Knock Out Game” in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and throughout the Nation has forced me to make some early decisions as to what type of elected official I want to be as I prepare to take office in January. It is a most challenging time to assume office, as the elderly and our children have become targets of violence, undermining the very foundation of community. I was very pleased on November 19th, 2013 that Rabbi Chanina Sperlin organized a community forum of religious leaders, school principals, elected officials, community leaders, and law enforcement to address this issue in order to prevent it from spiraling out of control both in our neighborhood and beyond.
“Many thoughts emerged from that meeting, including a recognition that the African American/Caribbean/Jewish community had come a long way since the Crown Heights Riots over twenty years ago. Others expressed sentiments that while there has been much progress, it was unfortunate that it took a tragedy in the community to bring the leadership together once again. Some demanded justice and swift legal action, while others stressed the importance of educational programs that would teach our youth about one another’s cultures. Today, most young people are not even aware that the Crown Heights Riots even happened.
“At the forum, there was a great deal of confusion about why this epidemic had begun in the first place, and whether or not it should be viewed as a series of hate crimes. My comments regarding my thoughts on the origin of the “Knock Out Game” came from a place of wanting to get to the heart of the matter, as uncomfortable as that might be for many. As I campaigned throughout the primary season, I knocked on the doors of thousands of Jewish and African American/Caribbean residents in Crown Heights. Through those interactions, it was brought to my attention by many of the African American/Caribbean residents that perhaps the relationship between the two communities is not as great as it is currently perceived to be by the leadership. At the meeting, I shared that many African American/Caribbean residents expressed a genuine concern that as the Jewish community continues to grow, they would be pushed out by their Jewish landlords or by Jewish families looking to purchase homes. I relayed these sentiments at the forum not as an insult to the Jewish community, but rather to offer possible insight as to how young African American/Caribbean teens could conceivably commit a “hate crime” against a community that they know very little about.
“I admire the Jewish community immensely. I am particularly inspired by the fact that the Jewish community has not assimilated to the dominant American culture, and has preserved their religious and cultural values while remaining true to themselves. I respect and appreciate the Jewish community’s family values and unity that has led to strong political, economic and cultural gains. While I personally regard this level of tenacity, I also recognize that for others, the accomplishments of the Jewish community triggers feelings of resentment, and a sense that Jewish success is not also their success.
“I believe that it is critical for our communities, and especially for our young people, to gain a greater understanding of one another so that we can learn more about each other’s challenges and triumphs despite religious and cultural differences. I believe it is possible for us to create real friendships across cultural boundaries that transcend mere tolerance, but rather strive for mutual respect and admiration. I know that there is so very much that can be gained by learning from one another. When I assume office in January, I will be working with local leaders to plan a series of events that will bring our young people together. It is crucial that we do the hard work to truly create one community, and I am looking for your full support and participation.
“I fully recognize the severity of these recent crimes and I, along with City, State and Federal elected officials are calling for a detailed investigation, which I am confident will lead to arrests and legal action. It is imperative that we send a zero-tolerance message to the individuals who are responsible for these attacks. Let me make it abundantly clear, notwithstanding my eagerness to build bridges between diverse peoples and communities, any crime committed by one individual against another is a crime and must be viewed and treated as such. If one person attacks another, regardless of the motivation, there is no justification for such an action. We should never blame a victim, or try to explain away any wrongdoing. The issue of race or religion is but a red-herring one when it comes to crime. As a civilized people we must hold every felon accountable for his or her felony. Yet, since the issue of race has been unfortunately been introduced into the conversation about the current epidemic, I pray that I can assist in bringing my Jewish and African-American/Caribbean constituents to a far better relationship and understanding than the ones that exists today.
“As an African American woman, this is challenging, because I recognize that it is Black children and not Jewish children that are playing the “Knock Out Game.” Why is this? In many ways governmental neglect, outside uncontrolled influences and failed leadership have led to the breakdown that so many young people of color are currently facing. I feel torn because I feel apart of the very system that has caused the destructive path that so many young people have decided to take while I am simultaneously demanding that they be arrested by that same system.
“I am concerned that the media attention around the “Knock Out Game” is divisive and will erode the real progress that has been made over decades. The recent November 26th article published in The Jewish Week, paints African American teens in a dangerous light, and could cause the vast majority of innocent young people of color to be seen as criminals in the Crown Heights community as a result of the actions of a dangerous small minority. At the same time, there are some people in the African-American/Caribbean community who foster stereotypical views of Jewish people, which is why it is important that we create a more open dialogue.
In response to Councilmember-elect Laurie Cumbo’s statement, Yaacov Behrman, Executive Director of Jewish Future Alliance, wrote the following to Matzav.com:
“Crown Heights is facing an affordable housing crisis. Rent for apartments are skyrocketing and there simply aren’t enough apartments to fit the community’s growing need. Furthermore, some landlords seem to feel they can mistreat tenants due the fact that there are waiting lists for apartments. This affects members of the Jewish, African American, and Yuppie communities equally. We disagree with the view that one group of people are being treated better than another group of people.
“We applaud Councilmember-elect Laurie Cumbo for being candid and bringing these perceptions to the attention of community leaders. We also applaud her suggestion that more should be done to bring the youth of Crown Heights together. But the housing crisis and the idea of transcending cultural boundaries among community youth has no place in a discussion of the Knock Out Game. To address this subjects in a discussion of the current violence our community is not only inappropriate, it also can be misunderstood as excusing the violence.”