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Creating 'Love Thy Neighbor' with Collier Meyerson: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with the Collier Meyerson, creator, writer and narrator of 'Love Thy Neighbor,' about exploring her Black and Jewish identities in her podcast about the Crown Heights Riot.

The Crown Heights Riot took place thirty years ago following a car accident that killed a Black child in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Over the course of four days, rioters, whose slogan was “no justice, no peace,” pointed to rumors of discrimination by a Jewish ambulance service and the escape of the driver responsible for the child’s death. Subsequently, one Orthodox Jew was killed and dozens of others were beat. The unrest is told in a new podcast aptly titled “Love Thy Neighbor: Four Days in Crown Heights That Changed New York.” The episodes tell the story of immigration, New York City’s first Black mayor, the rise of Rudy Giuliani and the Lubavitch Jews and Caribbean-Americans at the center of it all. Creator, writer and narrator Collier Meyerson joins to discuss exploring her own Black and Jewish identities, how the stories told in her podcast can help us understand modern dilemmas and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Collier Meyerson: I thought that it was worth it to look into this moment, to kind of undo the reductive tale that had been sort of put forth, which was like, this is the fight between blacks and Jews, between blacks and whites, and kind of unfurl that a little bit.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me your host, Chris Hayes.

After all of the discourse in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd about the sort of racial reckoning and all of the sort of language you've heard about like these conversations about American race and racial equity and white supremacy, and reforming or abolishing even in some corners, policing, and empirical terms like as far as we can tell, unprecedented level of street protests that we've never seen in American history.

When you take stock two years later, that felt like kind of a high watermark moment of, sort of possibility for progressive change. That felt true through different parts in the Trump years, 2017. And like me, too, particularly felt like a moment of like radical possibility, opening up around gender equity and patriarchy.

And now that I'm 43 and have been covering politics for long enough, I've been around the carousel enough to know that like there are moments that feel full of progressive possibility. And then there are reactionary moments that feel like we're the worst sort of forces, feel more ascendant. And I felt that post 911 in the U.S. is one example, particularly in the run up to the Iraq War. Coming out of Barack Obama's election, which felt like this high watermark and progressive hope, and then like 2010 and the Tea Party and all that stuff, Donald Trump's election.

Right now, it feels like a pretty scarily reactionary moment to me. And you see it on display in a lot of places, particularly on the day that I'm talking to you now, Ketanji Brown Jackson has been nominated to be the first black woman on the Supreme Court is under hearings. And she's been faced with this, just like disgustingly racist questioning that has to do about like, A, distancing herself from the views of other black intellectuals, because she's black. And reaffirming that she doesn't like crime, because she's black.

And you can hear in the subtext questions, and subtext and text, this very ugly, longstanding reactionary linkage of blackness and crime, questions of particularly crime and public order. And when I think about them, I think about the cauldron of intense racial politics, particularly around crime, law and order that I grew up with in New York City, in the 1990s. A lot of it I wrote about in my second book “A Colony in a Nation,” but it's a topic I'm obsessed with because there's so much you can see, even in like liberal New York, in this liberal melting pot city.

All of the forces of American politics around these questions of race, identity, crime, public order, conflict, hierarchy are there. They're present in the battles, sometimes literal like violent battles of late 1980s, 1990s New York, Dinkins and Giuliani New York.

One of the peak moments in that history and formative for me, were what are known as the Crown Heights riots, which were days of unrest in a neighborhood in Brooklyn. That is a really fascinating, distinct neighborhood. And the reason that makes it so distinct is that it has two principal occupants, Caribbean Americans, racially coded in the United States as black, but folks who are generally first generation or immigrants from the Caribbean. And Lubavitch Hasidic Jews, these are folks who are Orthodox, who attend shul on the Sabbath. They keep the Sabbath. They have an incredible latticework of injunctions from the Torah about what they can and cannot do, of extremely close community. They're flourishing.

And these two folks, very different worlds and very different life experiences, living next to each other, side by side, in Crown Heights. That exploded in violence, rage and recrimination over a course of basically a week in 1991. And I have long been obsessed and fascinated with Crown Heights because, again, super formative of my youth. And so I was so stoked beyond measure when I saw that there was a new podcast just focused on the Crown Heights riots.

And the best part was that it was the brainchild and the production of my friend and colleague Collier Meyerson. Collier Meyerson is a New York Magazine contributor. She's a Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center, which is a non-profit journalism organization. And she is the creator, writer and narrator of “Love Thy Neighbor: Four Days in Crown Heights That Changed New York, a five-episode podcast series where she explores her own black and Jewish identities, and also tells the story of the Crown Heights riot.

I should note two more things. She has an Emmy for her work on “All In,” the show that I host on MSNBC, where she was a producer. She's also married to one of my dear good friends who I've known since I was 12, who’s a true mensch. And so, all that aside, biographical stuff aside, the podcast is phenomenal. It's so gripping. The material is amazing. And this is a topic I'm super obsessed with, so it's a great joy to have Collier on the program.

Collier Meyerson: Honestly, Chris, I think you're the mensch because you introduced us at your book party.

Chris Hayes: At the book party for “A Colony in a Nation,” actually, is how you guys met.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: It’s a great joy and pride of my life to this day now. It's so …

Collier Meyerson: A mitzvah.

Chris Hayes: It is a mitzvah. And it's so funny, too, because I'm just working now on my third book and I said to Katie the other day, I was like, “Wow, in the last book, Collier and Evan met at our party. Now, they have two kids.” Like, it's amazing.

So all right, the podcast is fantastic. This is like nothing could be more directed to like my interest in like this podcast on the Crown Heights riots. Maybe let's start with just your experience of like where you're coming from into this story, why you were attracted to it.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah. I mean, there's so much there, right? Like, I set out to make a series that, in nature, was incredibly existential, right? Like, I wanted to know really what it means to be a good neighbor. And another producer on our show, Jess Jupiter, wanted to dissect what she calls, I love this phrase, “the anatomy of a riot.” And my co-writer, Noah Remnick, was really interested in the political impact of those four days.

So every producer had their own interest. But I think much to the chagrin of everyone, I tend to really like rely on the brains of others to process and work through why stories matter, and kind of like make something together. I'm like a proud dilettante or something, which, ironically, I think comes in handy when you're reporting.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: I know just enough about something to get my foot in the door. And then I like really rely on other people that I'm reporting on, to tell me where the story goes next. But initially, I think that my interest came from two places.

The first is like you, I'm a native New Yorker. And my father is this like epic Jewish civil rights attorney, and my mother is a black woman from Philadelphia. The Crown Heights Riot had been held up as sort of representative of the breakdown of the Black-Jewish Alliance in a lot of ways. Like, there is a storied alliance between blacks and Jews, and this was one of the sort of like epic breakdowns of that alliance.

And here, I had this black mom and Jewish civil rights lawyer dad, who is very much a part of that Black-Jewish Alliance, actually, quite earnestly, I will say. But there were things about the two communities that actually seemed like so different from how I grew up. First of all, the Lubavitch or Hasidic, they have a very particular, as you were saying, way of life. And they're not the Jews that I was used to growing up, who I grew up amongst. The Jews that I grew up with, had a particular interest in civil rights and black liberation.

And that goes the same for the Caribbean American community, too. They were not like the black people I grew up with. I say in the podcast, like, I grew up on collard greens, and macaroni and cheese, and they grew up on macaroni pie. And that's just like sort of a surface level difference, but they came from other countries, majority black countries. Their cultures, foods and perspectives were totally different than that of my own black family.

So I thought that it was worth it to look into this moment, to kind of undo the reductive tale that had been sort of put forth, which was like, this is the fight between blacks and Jews, between blacks and whites, and kind of unfurl that a little bit.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And I think one of the things I really love about the podcast, both the topic and the way you treat it, is that, like, we're also in this moment where like these questions of identity are ubiquitous, and particularly, the slipperiness of all these categories.

Just the fact they're socially constructed, the fact that they're refracted through all sorts of different prisms, that they're embedded within each other. So, like, you're Jamaican, which is different than Trinidadian. But then you're also coded as both just black and America. But of course, like you’re Caribbean or you're Jewish. And like, Jewish can mean secular Jew on the Upper West Side, who goes to high holy days, and that's about it. Or a secular Jew can mean like you don't touch like light panels or the oven for 24 hours, and you live your life under like an incredibly sophisticated set of biblical injunctions. And those are both Jews, right, like in a broad sense.

But also, like, what do we really mean when we talk about these categories? And in some ways, the show is a real exploration of that, because these identities ended up being kind of at this friction point.

So let's talk about the neighborhood. Let's sort of set the scene of this neighborhood because I have to say it is a remarkable place. It's a place I've always loved in New York. It's a beautiful place. Like physically, it's very beautiful. It really feels not like anywhere else precisely because of both the physical nature of it and the makeup of who's in that neighborhood. Like, you feel, you're like, “Oh, this is a distinct place.” So talk a little bit about where Crown Heights is and what it is.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah. Crown Heights is located in central Brooklyn. It is, as we've spoken about, black community, mostly Caribbean and Lubavitch Hasidic, which settled in the neighborhood mostly in the 1940s and ‘50s, and stayed after white flown in the 60s.

This neighborhood used to consist of secular Jews as well. And there's actually this little kind of like interesting tidbit I heard from a Hasidic Jew who told me, “Oh, we were born nervous about the secular Jews having an impact on the Hasidim than we were about the black folks having impact, to sort of secularize our community and have that bad influence.”

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: But, yeah, so the ethnic whites kind of cleared out, except for this one community, and then more and more black folks started to move in. It was seen, for its beauty, as the sort of like second to Harlem. Harlem had become too expensive Jews, Black Americans, Caribbean Americans, mostly were being priced out of Harlem. So they moved to this beautiful neighborhood, with a giant European Boulevard that bifurcates the neighborhood.

And so one group, the Caribbean Americans tend to make their lives on the south side of this community, and the Hasidic Jews tend to make their lives on the north side. But there are more black folks than Jews. So on the north side, there are blacks where it's very, very, very, very mixed.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: And you'll hear like Jewish music blaring from a kosher bakery, and you'll also see tons of people eating rosti or just picking up provisions, ground provisions. It's just a very lively immigrant neighborhood still to this day, and you rarely find that in Brooklyn still, but obviously, gentrification does play a part.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, it's very time warping in some ways, and partly because I think of the rootedness of those two communities. Even as gentrification has seeped in, that there's just like really active bustling street life, where there are people out doing stuff, selling stuff, buying stuff, going to school, going to temple, playing music. Like, it has incredible vibrant life.

And you say in the show one point like it is this kind of like brochure multicultural Brooklyn at its finest, right? Like, people living cheek by jowl, very dense neighborhood, old stately architecture. You can get Caribbean food. You can get like Jewish traditional, sort of Eastern European Jewish provisions. And everyone is mixing with each other at a sort of surface level.

Collier Meyerson: Yes, for sure.

Chris Hayes: And so let's talk a little bit about these two communities. And let's talk a little bit the Caribbean American community, which I learned a lot about from this podcast, honestly. These were folks, you say, who sort of came seeking homeownership as a big thing. And also self-conception was different than being Black Americans, even if that doesn't really survive contact with American racism after enough time.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah. So Caribbean Americans, much like any other immigrant group to the United States, much like Jews, for example, were coming here seeking a better life, which is sort of hard to imagine a black group of people coming to United States, seeking a better life or uplift, economic uplift.

And then once they arrived, I spoke to one family who I'm very endeared to, whose great grandfather came on a boat, a banana boat, as often folks did, and came and set up a life here. And really what they were seeking was home ownership, which was also a huge deal in their center countries, the countries from which they came. Having a piece of land meant everything to them, much like it does to Black Americans. But I think the promise of America was very different than it was for the descendants of enslaved people in the United States.

Chris Hayes: You also make this point and you have people make the point in it, which is an obvious one, but I think still struck me as like when you're coming from Jamaica, like, obviously, Jamaica is the product of a racist colonization and enslavement. But it, as a society, is a black society in which there's not like, “Oh, the housekeepers are black, but like the people that own are white, and the CEOs are white.” But everyone is black. So there's sort of like color line cast.

And I remember this line, there's a great part of the autobiography of Malcolm X, where he talks about going to Africa, where he has this feeling of like, “Oh, wait, the pilots are black. The pilots of the plane are black.” Like, a world is possible in which like all rungs of society are black. They're coming in the reverse direction from that to like the insane racial caste system of America.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah. And obviously, they are former colonies, so there are white folks abound still, maybe not as many, obviously not as many as there were. They’re majority black countries.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: And colorism does obviously exist to all of this. They have their own caste systems. But by and large, they are coming from places where seeing black people in positions of power was not a weird thing. And then you come to the United States, and obviously, everything becomes a black-white binary and they find themselves on the wrong side of that binary, of course.

Chris Hayes: And also in this situation, which is, again, a sort of classic immigrant tale of like, “I was an engineer in Egypt and I'm an Uber driver in New York,” or “I had this level of educational social capital. And now, I'm much lower on the rung of status here in this new country I've come. But I'm making this sacrifice for my kids.” So you've got this sort of fascinating mix of like the immigrant driver, this obsession of homeownership, but then the American racial caste system in which they are to the police, to like white folks in Brooklyn, they are black. There's not much more complicated than that.

Collier Meyerson: For sure. And also, I spoke with Chris Griffith, who is the brother of Michael Griffith, who was killed famously in the Howard Beach incident, for this podcast, because he was a photojournalist who was attacked by the police while he was shooting the riot. And I remember he told me that, and I had this understanding from when I lived in Crown Heights, but he really sort of made it explicit, which was like, “Oh, we're not necessarily politically aligned with Black Americans, in the same way that you might imagine we would be because we look the same.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: And that was like a real aha moment for me. Like, it's a totally different schema, like, politically. So yeah, that was another thing I kept in mind while doing the podcast.

Chris Hayes: And then there's the Lubavitch who I have to say, like just going into this sort of a table setting, I mean, if you live in New York, you encounter different Hasidic communities in different parts of the city. There's a lot of like bigotry against them, like just a lot. Like, there's just a lot of bigotry, a lot of anti-Semitism towards them. Sometimes you hear from like secular Jews who like to say like --

Collier Meyerson: Oh, yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- really gnarly stuff. Like, I guess what I'm trying to say is people will say stuff about like Hasidic folks that like it sort of blows your hair back and you wouldn't like be said about other communities, honestly. Like, there's this kind of, not to justify it, like what I want to say is like there is a palpable capital difference to these communities, which is just like, they just look and dress and are living in the world in a very distinct way, that is like extremely perceptually salient, right, to all of their neighbors immediately.

It's like if you see Hare Krishna at the airport, right, it's like those folks are doing their own thing. And you're going to notice that, then that noticing can very quickly become like really, really gross bigotry and stereotyping. But talk a little bit about this community.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah. So I thought a lot of the people in the Hasidic community would be apprehensive about talking to me, and it's true that some were. But on a whole, people were like much more open to speaking to me --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: -- than I ever would have expected. And I think that we can credit that to two things. The first is that this community is known, and I think unfairly so, like you're saying, for being isolationist. It's actually quite the contrary. There's this episode of “Sex in the City” where Charlotte, who is sort of very absurdly, stereotypically, Girish character, like she wears pearls and probably went to Miss Porter’s and like doesn't talk about her stomach problems the way I do.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: Falls in love with this nebbish Jewish guy, and is trying to convert for him. This is the whole episode.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: She's trying to convert for this guy, because he loves her and she loves him, but he can't marry a non-Jew. So she goes and she talks to a rabbi and says like, “I'd like to talk to you about joining the Jewish faith.” And he says, “We're not interested,” and he closes the door in her face. And then it happened like two or three more times. I, like, actually just recently watched the clip and I was dying. And so that's kind of the reputation that Jews in general have, like, “We're not interested in literally anybody joining our faith.”

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: But that's what's so incredible about Chabad, which is it's like our continuity is Chabad and Lubavitch interchangeably while we talk, is that they do proselytize. They proselytize to other Jews. And so, it's this very different approach, where like in my reporting, I came across a guy whose dad was like a jazz musician, and then like, basically found Hashem.

And then I talked to another guy who is like a super famous rock star in Morocco and was like traveling through the United States, and like, maybe he was stoned and saw in Texas, I'll never forget the story, he like saw some like Jesus sign, and he was like, “That's a sign for me.” And then he goes and becomes, it's called baal teshuva, like he becomes religious.

So this community, you're meeting people from, like, all different walks of life. Like, literally, it's like so fascinating, like from rock stars to like jazz musicians, like anybody goes, and they want everyone. So it's not Charlotte from “Sex in the City.” It's like the opposite.

Chris Hayes: Right. But the stereotype is literally the opposite, right?

Collier Meyerson: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: It's like they're completely closed off.

Collier Meyerson: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: They're completely like have nothing to do with the outside world. They're impenetrable. Like, that's the way I think a lot of people in New York think about them.

Collier Meyerson: Exactly. And so it was actually so much easier than I had anticipated, especially in a pandemic, to access this community. Like, there were so many channels and people who are open to talking to me and they're like very technologically savvy. It's like you sort of think like, “Oh, they must be from the Stone Age.” Like, we have so many --

Chris Hayes: Right. Or they're like Amish, right?

Collier Meyerson: Yeah, exactly. Like, we have so many pre-conceived notions about this community that I think are extremely unfair, and do result in so much anti-Semitism, when all you have to do is really talk to them and they're actually quite open.

Chris Hayes: And they have a rabbi who is their sort of like spiritual leader. They come over here. The original ones are from Belarus, but they're with the Pale of Settlement, the part of Eastern Europe in which there had been sort of recruited Jews from Western Europe in the Middle Ages, late Middle Ages, and then had kind of turned the screws on them and sort of contain them there under the Russian empire, who had lived through all of the stuff of the Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, both integrated into life there and outside of it at the same time, pogroms, and then of course, the Shoah, the Holocaust.

And it's in the wake of the Holocaust that this community comes, in the aftermath of the murder of millions and millions of Jews, to make a new home in this neighborhood, that at that time, is a kind of Jewish and white ethnic Brooklyn neighborhood. But through white flight, becomes a Black Caribbean neighborhood, but they stay. And not only stay, they like proliferate, right? Like, I mean, it's like they're buying property. There’re institutions and schools, and temples, and stores. And there's a whole ecosystem and life world that grows up in this neighborhood.

Collier Meyerson: A 100%. Yes. And yes, they largely came after the Shoah, but they did exist there before in much smaller numbers. And yes, like, you’re right, that's exactly what happened. They just proliferate. And like this is another thing about religious Jews, in general, is that they tend to make their lives in places like urban spaces because it's much easier, basically, to like walk from your house to shul on the Sabbath when you're not allowed to use transportation, or to walk from your house to the grocery store, things like this.

Life needs to be in a dense place. And so that's really a large part of why I think they stayed in Crown Heights when people fled. But also, it was because Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who is thought of as kind of a Messiah to a lot of folks in the community, also said like, “No, man, we're not going to leave because people are scared of black people. Like, that's not our vibe. Like, we are mandated to stay here and live like cheek by jowl.”

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: “Like, live among these people and make our lives here with them.” And that's a really sort of powerful move for that moment, when so many people who are perceived as white are fleeing cities.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And you make the point that the white flight that's happening, them staying is not inertia. It's an informed, proactive choice made by the rabbi, and communicated as essentially a spiritual mandate, I mean, that this is what we're doing. It's not like, “Well, it's a pain and who can find housing on Long Island?”

Collier Meyerson: Right.

Chris Hayes: It's like, “No, we're actually doing this and we're staying.” I love your point about the walkability is so important and key. And if you are ever in New York and you're in this neighborhood, and you go to Eastern Parkway on a Saturday, that's like incredible thing of just everyone walking up and down --

Collier Meyerson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- European Boulevard. And they're walking and there's a lot of babies, right?

Collier Meyerson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: There's the big family, so it's strollers. And it's just a very cool, it's a very beautiful thing to me, as someone who's an urban New Yorker walker by upbringing.

So the 1960s and ‘70s, we see what happens in Brooklyn and in many urban communities, right? Disinvestment, the sort of post-civil rights kind of retrenchment backlash, or rise in levels of index crimes and interpersonal violence, that really goes off particularly in the U.S. in 1980s. And then towards the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, you've got the homicides going from 300 a year to 2,300 a year at the peak.

Crown Heights goes through all this, but with the difference of other neighborhoods, and that they have this community of Jews that have not white-flight their way out. And they come up with different kinds of mechanisms to deal with the deterioration of public safety, I mean, really is like a real thing. Like, it just gets more dangerous. Talk a little bit about that because that will segue us into the precipitating incident in 1991.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah. I mean, I think it's fair to kind of like back up a little bit and talk about. Of course, there's this whole concept of law and order that has its roots in slavery. But some say that this modern rhetoric around law and order actually stems from the black riots of the ‘60s, which you just sort of referred to.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: So, like, lots of historians are crediting the modern carceral state and police crackdowns, not to like a rise in crime, but to like these black rebellions and challenges to social and racial order, so like Watts in 1965, or Detroit in 1967. And so all of that is happening across the country.

And then there are also these dramas playing out in their own municipalities and in their own unique ways. So in New York, there are like so many different versions of this playing out across the years, as you're saying. But because of how dense New York City is, and how many micro neighborhoods there are, they're like playing out in very different ways.

Chris Hayes: Correct.

Collier Meyerson: And so in Crown Heights, I think crime rates which are like obviously socially constructed and contested territory for many different reasons --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: -- like you can manipulate a crime stat to mean whatever you really want it to mean. But I think that what’s happening in Crown Heights did have a lot to do with people's sense of safety and that is so important, right? Like, they were feeling, for two decades preceding the riot, like unsafe and this is across the community. This is black and Jewish, white Jews. These are not wealthy people in Crown Heights.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: Like, these are people responding to day-to-day fears in their neighborhood. And we didn't want to shy away from that in the podcast, but we thought it was really important to acknowledge and examine how those fears of crime, which were both real and constructed, led to some pretty interesting and sort of disturbing policing.

So there's the Shomrim, which it means guarding in Hebrew. And they are what the Hasidim would call a community patrol, or a safety patrol. And I think a lot of the black folks in the community would call them a vigilante group or sort of an extra, yeah, vigilante.

Chris Hayes: Extrajudicial force?

Collier Meyerson: Yes, exactly. And that only served to escalate tensions. I mean, there were reports of black people being stopped to show ID. And there's sort of a famous case of a guy named Victor Rhodes, who was beaten to a pulp by a group of Hasidim. They denied that it was the Shomrim. And this happened in 1978.

So the Hasidic community naturally came up with their own way to keep themselves safe, and I don't chide them for that at all. But I think it came at the expense of their neighbors who they saw as --

Chris Hayes: The threat.

Collier Meyerson: -- the threat.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, they're source of a threat.

Collier Meyerson: And that is very complicated, right?

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Right.

Collier Meyerson: Because like I want to make clear that because of the history of this particular community who comes, as you say, from the Pale of Settlement, where they experienced pogroms not from black people, where they're just like straight up, I don't know, Paul Robeson was over there.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: But besides that, there's like not a lot of black people over Russia, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: So it's like they're experiencing the state sanctioned violence, that's what a pogrom is, from other white people, right? Like --

Chris Hayes: And often from neighbors, right?

Collier Meyerson: Yes, exactly.

Chris Hayes: The people that you live side by side from one day to the next suddenly are like the ones knocking at the door to rouse you out of your house.

Collier Meyerson: Exactly. And the key word in there is state sanctioned, right? Like, the government did not care, did not do anything --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: -- and said it was okay.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: And so there is this really interesting piece of this that took me a very long time to like fully digest and like actually come around to, which is that the Hasidic community does not necessarily see their black neighbors as black first. They see them as goyim. They see them as non-Jews.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: And so there's this really interesting thing where we, as outsiders to this community, want to push upon this community, the black-white binary, “Oh, they are having this tension because one is black and one is white.” And yes, that definitely factors into it.

But first and foremost, the fear that this community has, is of people who are not Jewish. Because historically, people who are not Jewish have like pillaged, raped, murdered --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: -- and like, expelled --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: -- them from their land, right? And so that, I think, is a very important part of why they feel like they need a safety patrol, aka vigilante group.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: So I just want to be sort of like clear about where that comes from.

Chris Hayes: Well, I mean, the reason this is also fraught territory and the reason that’s such a great podcast and fascinating topic is like everything is sort of more complicated than it looks, right? At first scan, it's like, okay, well, the white folks in the neighborhood band together to like have white people patrols to protect them from the black folks. It's like I kind of know how that goes, and like, it's like a pretty both an old American story and a really bad one.

But then it's like, no, the people who fled like hundreds of years of prosecution and like literal Holocaust to make their life in a new home, and literally have stories of like persecution passed down through the millennia bond together, to make sure that their people are protected against the possible threats that come from outside the community.

Like, that's a totally different story and a totally much more justifiable one. And also doesn't squarely fit into black and white racial hierarchy, but has to do with a whole other set of hierarchies and questions of who's the insider, who's the outsider, who's the other, who's the not, who's the person on top of the hierarchy and who's the person on the bottom of the hierarchy. And you've got a world in which everyone in this story has a real legitimate historical claim, right, to kind of being the oppressed or the underdog, or the one who's like not the one wielding power.

Collier Meyerson: Right.

Chris Hayes: And yet, there's a lot of mutual suspicion.

Collier Meyerson: Exactly. And rightly so because, of course, there is the Shomrim. Like, someone pointed out to me, a Hasidic friend of mine said, like, “We are very good community organizers.”

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: “Like, no one calls us community organizers, but that we are very good with that.”

Chris Hayes: Yeah, of course. Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: And so I think that there was also a very good relationship between the Shomrim, the Maccabees, and the NYPD, right?

Chris Hayes: And the cops, yeah.

Chris Hayes: And I think that that is obviously to the detriment of their black neighbors, and race certainly factors in there.

Chris Hayes: Correct. And I was just going to say that's where it like toggles back around, right? Because it's like, okay, that's their understanding of this. And then in their history, like, totally defensible and understandable.

In the context of America and New York City in the 1990s, the cops are like, “Oh, those are the white people.”

Collier Meyerson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: “Like, those are the people that we're going to like partner with, to like make the neighborhood safe. And like, all of the racial baggage that comes with that is present in that. And just to say one more thing to set up 1991, like, again, I know it's a hard thing because, like, yes, I agree crime is a category, socially constructed, and statistics can say a lot of things.

Like, to go back to what you said, like everyone in the neighborhood is feeling the deterioration of public safety. Like, people are more scared for their persons than they had been and are not irrationally so. Like, there are more incidents.

Collier Meyerson: Right, which we can trace back to, like, the economy of 1978.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: And like, people fighting over barely their resources.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: And so it's not just like city crime increases.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: There are like real historical reasons for why that happens. Yeah.

Chris Hayes: But my point, I guess, is that when you look at the history of this neighborhood, and like why this happens when it does, I do think that like the level of fear and sort of like just white knuckling, the people are doing, is at a really high level.

Collier Meyerson: 100%.

Chris Hayes: There just is a lot more and that is getting everyone in their fight or flight mode. It's getting everyone in their like adrenalized space a lot. Because then what happens is like all of this kind of comes out in this sort of rush. So I want to take a quick break and then let's talk about what happened in 1991.


Chris Hayes: So in 1991, basically, a car accident is the immediately precipitating event here. Talk me through it.

Collier Meyerson: A young boy named Gavin Cato was playing on the corner of President Street and Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, which is in the neighborhood. It is part of the neighborhood that is very mixed, very Hasidic, very black. And they're playing on the corner, fiddling with a bicycle, and a three-car motorcade passes through the intersection right there. And one of the cars is carrying the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who is the spiritual leader of this community. So he gets a motorcade. One of them has NYPD officers and the other has his sort of, I don't know, guys who were protecting him.

Chris Hayes: Entourage.

Collier Meyerson: Entourage. And one of the cars veers out of control and hits the young guy, and these immigrants, Gavin and Angela Cato. And Gavin succumbs to his wounds shortly thereafter. But what happened, if you sort of slow down this accident, every single part of this community's tension comes to bear, right?

So the kids get hit. And right on the scene comes Hatzalah, which is an ambulance that serves primarily, I would say pretty much only the Hasidic community. And there's this moment where everyone is saying, “Well, the kid should go into the Hatzalah van.” But instead, the Rebbe is taken away and so is his entourage. And an EMS truck comes like right away after that. It's like a two-minute disparity or something like that.

So it's not a very long time. But when you slow this down, it seems like a very long time. So this is the moment where the straw breaks the camel's back, so to speak. Like, all of this tension is now being funneled through the fact that this ambulance didn't take this kid who was dying to a hospital right away, and people just lost it. They lost it.

Chris Hayes: Just to put more on that, I mean, in the whole history you've gone, right, so like you've got this group that stays on this white flight. But who's also has this history of this kind of like community self-reliance that builds a bunch of parallel institutions to the state, to like facilitate life in a city that is being disinvested, right? That is the cause of the white flight.

So it's like, right, 911 doesn't answer the phone call because the city services suck, because the city goes through like an austerity crisis. So like what's the response? Well, we have a parallel ambulance system. Like, they've created these parallel institutions. So now, in this moment, right, when like the disinvestment is produced, the kind of world that you're in, and the feeling of precariousness and public safety. Like, here's this institution that's sort of private and parallel that is there and sort of “serves their own,” again from the perspective of black folks, I think, in the neighborhood watching this.

Collier Meyerson: Right. And also, it's important to remember too, to put into context, there were a number of high-profile killings of black men at that time.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: There was Michael Stewart, who was a famous graffiti artist, who was killed by police in 1983. My father had actually gone to represent his family in a civil suit. And then in 1986, there was Michael Griffith who was killed by a white mob in Howard Beach.

Chris Hayes: And just to be clear for folks that don't know that story, that was just like a straight-up lynching that happened in New York while I was a kid.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Just like a white mob was like, “You get out of our neighborhood. We're going to beat you to death,” like just fully straight-up lynching.

Collier Meyerson: And then he ended up getting hit by a car. And my father also represented his family. And then three years later was Yusuf Hawkins who was killed by a mob of three white kids. So there's like Spike Lee's famous movie --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: -- “Do the Right Thing” that was based on the murder of Michael Griffith. And that almost felt like prescient to the Crown Heights riot, which would happen 30 years later. So there is both internal tension to Crown Heights, but external tension all over Brooklyn, all of these incidents, I think with the exception of Michael Stewart took place in Brooklyn, or in Queens nearby.

Chris Hayes: When you say people lost it, like what happens subsequently?

Collier Meyerson: Well, we have to remember there are no cell phones.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: There is no footage. So it's all word of mouth. And word of mouth spreads like wildfire in the community, and more and more black people begin to gather in the neighborhood, hearing like, “They left one of ours to die,” which of course, understandably, is enraging --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: -- even though it's not the full picture, right?

Chris Hayes: Quite, yeah.

Collier Meyerson: But again, like perceptions of what's going on. And a riot breaks out over the next three days and there's looting. There is, that night, the first night, a young Yeshiva student named Yankel Rosenbaum is killed. He's stabbed to death. And that was obviously the nadir. I mean, it became the face of the Crown Heights riot, his killing.

And then it went on and there were perceptions among the Hasidic community that the mayor, the first black mayor, David Dinkins, was not doing anything. He was “letting them vent.” That is, if you walk around Crown Heights today and you talk to, I would say, the majority of the Hasidic people I spoke to said something like, “And then Dinkins let them vent.” This was like something that they say he said. He never said that. But it's commonly understood that this was a pogrom, right? So --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: -- coming back to that, that black people were allowed to run “wild in the streets” and kill Jews, try to kill Jews, that there was no state to protect them, which of course, isn't true, but I understand that fear. So it was a really, really tensed three days.

And then at the end of it, of course, Al Sharpton comes in and becomes part of the mix, and fears are stoked around his presence because they think, “Oh, he's bringing in outside agitators,” which is a common trope of people who are writing, of black people who are writing that like black people can't have rage, that it has to be people who are coming from outside of this community --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: -- to bring the rage in. And after three days, the NYPD ramps up its force and basically calls the riot. It started on a Monday. By Friday, everything is pretty much back to normal.

Chris Hayes: What is the aftermath of it? I mean, Dinkins, I remember, it was headline news. Here, I remember watching the news cover. I mean, there was overturned cop cars, like the one that's in the image of the podcast, and polluting, and the Yankel Rosenbaum murder. And it was just everywhere, and it was national coverage too. The eyes of the world were on this at some level.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah. I mean, Dinkins is like a super fascinating whole part of this, right? So the politics of race and violence, and policing and rioting, in many ways, defined by the rise of David Dinkins, who is, of course, the city's first black mayor.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: And he came in on the promise that he would offer a sense of racial healing, that his most famous soundbite is that New York was this gorgeous mosaic of different races and religions, and we need to respect one another. He was very mild-mannered. He spoke the King's English, as one interviewee said. All of this to say he was a very palatable black man to leave the city. He was “respectable.”

Chris Hayes: Very kind of aristocratic bearing.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: He was like sort of product of the establishment machine, like just a very kind of like regal figure in just the way that he conducts himself, the sort of physical bearing, the way he talked, like almost like a character out of a play or something in the court kind of figure.

Collier Meyerson: 100%. And something I didn't know before I started this is that he was also an ardent Zionist, and like a champion of Israel and like causes around Israel. He even started like a group for blacks supporting Israel. Like, this guy, he believed in like the possibility of a Black-Jewish Alliance in that very sort of like reductive way.

And so that's kind of the sad irony of what happened to him, which is that like almost immediately after the Crown Heights riot, his detractors, and he had already been portrayed as soft on crime and even though he actually brought crime down during his tenure, and the media just went with it. I mean, all of these things were playing into his fall. And many, many, many see the Crown Heights riot as the nail in the coffin for Dinkins. Like, for the first two days, the Jewish community felt completely abandoned by him and so much so that they again viewed this as a pogrom.

And so, afterwards, it was just a ripe time for Rudolph Giuliani to sweep on in and exploit this episode in Crown Heights. And basically, I talked to this guy, Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College and he said that, like, “He really played on the fears of white ethnics in New York of crime, and law and order, right?”

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: And he mimicked the pogrom language, which of course, means a very different thing coming from an Italian American guy than --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Collier Meyerson: -- the community itself. And he speaks at --

Chris Hayes: But if you're in the community, you like to hear --

Collier Meyerson: Oh, yes.

Chris Hayes: Like, I mean, that's recognition.

Collier Meyerson: 100%. And then he speaks at what became the sort of like infamous City Hall riot in 1992. Famously, he says something like, “The morale of the police is so low and it's so low for one reason only, and that is David Dinkins.” And you have like these riotous cops like freaking out, hearing Rudolph Giuliani say this, holding up signs, racist signs of Dinkins.

And so, like Dinkins was ruined after that. He just became this guy who was like soft on crime, who let black people vent on the streets of Crown Heights. And his political career was essentially over. It was done. And Giuliani was happy to exploit that.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Not only was he’s done, but Giuliani --

Collier Meyerson: Just began. Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- propelled into -- yeah, exactly. We've seen how much great stuff he's gotten done since.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: What's the neighborhood like now? I know you live there. My brother lived there for a while. It's obviously like much Brooklyn, a lot of it is gentrified. A lot of like young folks go to wine bars, which is like very much not the scene looking back. Like, you don't have that population back in 1991. But what is it like now?

Collier Meyerson: So a lot of the black community has been displaced or left. I mean, I think it's the same. There is this mentality among lots of people who come to America, where moving to New Jersey, or moving to Long Island is seen as a step-up from living in Crown Heights.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: Like, we, as New Yorkers through and through, might not understand that. But also, culturally, it's like you've succeeded. So I think it's both that they have been displaced, but also a lot of Caribbean Americans have moved on from Crown Heights voluntarily. So I want to like make pretty clear.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And also, like, I know this is true in Bed-Stuy and lots of places, it's like people bought brownstones in the early 1980s for, whatever, $25,000 and they’re worth $3 million now. You sell them for $3 million, like a lot of people were like, “We can move down North Carolina and we can buy like four houses.”

Collier Meyerson: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: Like, the whole family can split that up, and we can go live in like an acre yard. And a lot of people make that call.

Chris Hayes: Not a lot of rats.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah. So --

Chris Hayes: You are right. Go on.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah. So I think we have to keep in mind that New York is a really transient place, it always has been, and it always will be. The community has been affected by gentrification in innumerable ways. That being said, the Hasidic community has only grown. I mean, I think there are like 20,000 Hasidim who live there now. And so, it's really become this very vibrant, I mean, it is the mecca, so to speak of Chabad, of Lubavitch life.

Chris Hayes: And like it's so funny when you drive down Eastern Parkway, just as like a physical testament to this, like there are so many newly constructed buildings and like big institutional buildings, like schools, and places of worship, and community centers. Like, you see them there. And you can see that these have been built over the last 10 or 20 years. The landscape is very palpably, both vibrant and kind of growing and bustling. And the Habad sort of community, like it feels like a city, like its own city in some ways.

Collier Meyerson: Yeah. In a lot of ways, it is. And the Caribbean American community is still thriving. And yet, though folks have moved on, there are still tons. Nostrand Avenue is where you'll find all of the Caribbean eats that you want from all of the countries. There is still the West Indian Day Parade, famous parade where it happens on Labor Day, and you just go there, watch the parade, watch these amazing dancers in costumes, like drink a lot, stay up all night, come home with powder on your face from the night before.

And it's just still the stronghold, in addition to Flatbush, of Caribbean American life. Still so many Caribbean American immigrants first generation as well as immigrants living in this community. So it's still very much a vibrant Caribbean American community as well.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. It's a really special place. And then I was really grateful. I think you are really in a unique position to tell the story and do a great job of it, and navigate it really well. I mean, I think because of your own personal upbringing and sort of your parents being Jewish and black. But then also Evan, I think we can say like Evan is not Habad, but he's a very religious and observant Jew. And like, these biblical injunctions and his faith mean a lot to him, and are really part of his life and have been for essentially as long as I've known him, I mean, since he was basically a teenager.

Because I think that like it's hard sometimes for people on the outside of that to work their way through it and to see it for what it is, and to really like inhabit it. And I think that that remains the case in a lot of these discussions, we have sort of a crosslines of difference. But you did a really amazing job. So people should definitely check out “Love Thy Neighbor.”

Collier Meyerson: Thank you.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Collier Meyerson, New York Magazine contributor, Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center, which is a non-profit journalism organization. You can listen to the podcast that she's creator, writer and narrator of called “Love Thy Neighbor: Four Days in Crown Heights That Changed New York,” five episodes. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts. Also, Collier Meyerson was a former producer on “All In.” She got an Emmy with us back in the day.

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Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway, Tiffany Champion, Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to