Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Lemrick Nelson, who had stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum to death in the Crown Heights Riots of 1991, was finally put on trial. The police and Brooklyn D.A.’s office believed that the conviction of Nelson would be a slam dunk. They had a confession, a positive identification by Rosenbaum, and the murder weapon in the pocket of the accused, along with dollar bills in the same pocket, stained, like the pants, with the blood of the victim. Other than having the attack captured on film, there was nothing missing.

On October 29, 1992, a primarily black jury, after hearing damning testimony from ten police officers and being presented with airtight evidence, acquitted Lemrick Nelson of having murdered Yankel Rosenbaum.

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Lemrick Nelson walked from the courtroom to a press conference where he gloated in his innocence and famously asserted, “It wouldn’t me,” and that he wasn’t even there. (In his subsequent trial he confessed to the knifing, as he had to two detectives before this trial.)

Such a brazen perversion of justice demanded a swift reaction, and Norman and a growing group of 3,000-plus supporters were up to the task. The New York State Supreme Court is located in downtown Brooklyn near the East River, and it was decided that the protestors would close down the Brooklyn Bridge which traverses over the East River between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Closing such a main artery upon which over 120,000 vehicles travel a day was not something the NYPD would be able to ignore.

At the foot of the bridge were six police officers who met the head of the procession. “To the walkway,” an officer pointed. But this wasn’t going to happen. “We’re closing down the bridge,” Norman responded firmly. “You wouldn’t stop Sharpton, and you won’t stop me!”

And with that, Norman and thousands of followers brushed past the police. Truth be told, the officers had little incentive to halt the protest and were sympathetic to the cause. They were among the riots’ victims and had been ordered to be sitting ducks by the mayor and police commissioner for more than three days of unrelenting attacks.

The entrance to City Hall was guarded by three rows of policemen in full riot gear positioned in a chevron, batons clutched at their sides. At the focal point of the line was a captain who stepped forward to read the riot act. “Anyone who tries to break these lines will be arrested,” he warned. “The officers are armed and have been instructed to employ force without hesitation if order is broken. The mayor said that he will meet with a delegation of five. Only.”

Norman responded, “Captain, nobody is going to storm City Hall, but go and tell the mayor that he’s got to come out and see all of us.”

The captain dutifully went into the building to relay the response. He returned with the message that the mayor was upping his offer and would meet with seven. Norman reiterated, “The mayor must come out and meet with all of us!”

The captain went back inside to relay the message and then returned and announced, “The offer remains: Seven or nothing.”

Norman’s counteroffer was delivered via bullhorn directed at the protestors. “The mayor offered to see a delegation of five of us. I say no.”

“No!” echoed the crowd in unison.

“I say,” Norman continued “he’s got to see all of us.”

The crowd responded “Yes!”

“The mayor has now offered to see seven of us.”

“No!” boomed the protestors.

“I say he’s got to see all of us!”

“Yes!”

“The mayor says seven or nothing.”

“No!”

With massive support for the offer’s rejection, Norman bellowed into the bullhorn, “We know where we’re not wanted. We’re going home. The Jewish community of New York is not part of Dinkins’ mosaic.” And with that, the crowd turned back to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Parked horizontally on the bridge’s entrance ramp was a police car blocking access. Flanked by the cruiser was a contingent of officers, and the senior one stepped forward. In his own patois of Coppese he instructed everyone to head for the walkway, as the bridge may not be closed. But for all of his bravado, this man had more than met his match.

This is what Norman Rosenbaum responded: “Sergeant, get the car out of the way or I’ll be the first one over it. If you arrest me, you will have a riot. Therefore, remove the car or it will be the 39th cruiser lost due to the riots.”

Nobody flinched and nobody blinked, and the car remained where it was. Norman was the first one over the car, followed by well over 3,000 others.

Dinkins, who was at a total loss as to what to do, released a statement, “All have to respect the decision of the jury in the acquittal.” Words from the very same man who solemnly intoned, “We can’t allow this injustice,” referring to the jury’s acquittal of four white cops in the Rodney King beating.

Norman Rosenbaum wasn’t about to allow this blatant double standard to go unchallenged. He convened a press conference at Eastern Parkway where the crowd had swelled to 20,000 and blocked the thoroughfare. “There is one set of rules for Rodney King and white cops,” Norman declared to the media, “and another set of rules when the victim is an Orthodox Jew. This double standard comes from the top, from the mayor of New York City!”

In the aftermath of the verdict every television and radio station in the United States carried Norman Rosenbaum’s pronouncement of the mayor’s hypocrisy. It would have been convenient for City Hall had the crowd of Jews surrounding Norman turned violent and been subject to mass arrests, but this did not happen.

Norman’s connection between the Rodney King trial and his brother’s case was further corroborated by the respective jurors’ explanation for their acquittal. The sense on the street in the Rosenbaum case was that the primarily black jury had engaged in “jury nullification.” Notwithstanding overwhelming and compelling evidence and testimony, the sentiment among the jurors was that they were not going to convict a brother.

The jurors in Simi Valley had justified their acquittal of the four police officers accused of beating King by arguing that the prosecution’s case wasn’t sufficiently compelling. Those jurors faced more than just skepticism. They were derided for their decision, which was never rationally debated because within hours of the verdict, riots broke out. Sixty-three deaths, thousands of injuries, 7,000 fires, countless lootings, and a billion dollars’ worth of damage immediately overwhelmed the facts clarified at the trial.

Following the Nelson acquittal, the Jewish reaction was a peaceful march, sans arson, looting, or destructive vandalism.

 

Lemrick Nelson the murderer, was free to walk. A double standard had been set for the minorities of America and the Jews. In our concluding column, P”G, we shall learn how Norman Rosenbaum would not allow this to occur, and why we are forever in his debt.

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Rabbi Hanoch Teller is the award-winning producer of three films, a popular teacher in Jerusalem yeshivos and seminaries, and the author of 28 books, the latest entitled Heroic Children, chronicling the lives of nine child survivors of the Holocaust. Rabbi Teller is also a senior docent in Yad Vashem and is frequently invited to lecture to different communities throughout the world.