2006-04-14 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach


As "riots" go in New York City, it wasn't much of a riot.

Nobody was killed, nobody was even hurt. No property was destroyed. No cars were overturned and set on fire. Only a handful of people were arrested..

In fact, the whole sordid event should be classified as an "incident," something worthy of a few lines inside the daily newspapers and then relegated to the bird cage with all the other old news.

This is New York City, however, where every story involving an ethnic or racial group becomes a powerhouse front-page blockbuster.

In fact, a Daily News editorial termed it a "molehills to mountains phenomenon."

Consider the facts.

Arthur Schick, 75, an Orthodox Jew (I wouldn't have to mention this if he were any other religion in any other neighborhood), sits stopped in his car, talking on his cell phone. NYPD Sergeant Angelo Russo, responding to a report of an assault at that location, hits the RMP's siren and bubblegum machine to move Schick away.

He gets no response. Friends of Schick say that he is deaf in one ear and that may even be true, but I have to wonder what he was doing, sitting in traffic with one bad ear and the other engaged in a cell phone conversation. Pretty dangerous stuff on the streets of New York.

In any case, Russo writes Schick a ticket and the elderly man reportedly exhorts a largely-Hassidic crowd that is standing and watching the show (as it often is in this city).

One of the men in the crowd jumps on Russo's back, yelling that the cop is beating the old man.

An unidentified man shown later on Channel 2 news tells the reporter that he had to attack Russo to keep him from beating Schick.

"He was grabbing and beating an old man. What was I to do?" the man asked.

Another man in the crowd bumps Russo in a threatening manner. He arrests all three men.

The riot is on.

Rumors spread in the insular, cult-like community that the cops have beaten an elderly Orthodox man.

All hell breaks loose. Garbage fires are set in the street. Angry groups of bearded, Hassidic men roam the area, looking for cops to harass.

The NYPD breaks out its riot plan. A mobilization is called, bringing hundreds of cops from its task force units, specially trained in riot control (for obvious reasons). Those cops are all equipped with "hats and bats," helmets and what were once called nightsticks, but are now called PR-21's.

The cops begin to utilize their plan. Move the people off the main drags, isolate them in the side streets; break them into smaller, more-manageable groups.

As it always does, the plan works. Those few who won't comply with the police orders to "move on" are arrested.

The "riot" was quickly ended by the swift and reasonable response of the highly trained police to a situation that could have gotten way out of hand.

In most places, that would have been the end of the story.

Not in this city.

The day after the event, Schick told reporters that cops threw him into a van and said to him, "This is the way we treat a nigger."

Russo denies saying anything of the sort. I was not there, and do not know what was said, but I would bet that a sergeant working a precinct such as that one would not have said that to a Jewish man who had just been arrested.

We have long learned in this city that the best way to wiggle out of something you did and you regret is to claim that racism was used against you or against somebody else, to focus all the energy elsewhere and get the yahoos interested in your plight.

Even the two Orthodox politicians, not to be left out of the front page, got involved in the story, which had turned from a minor altercation into a full-blown racial incident.

Councilman Simca Felder says that he was outside the 66 Precinct with a large crowd of Hassidic protestors when the NYPD's Chief of the Department Joe Esposito came on the scene.

Felder says that Esposito yelled to his troops, "Get these fucking Jews off the street."

Esposito, with a burst of candor usually unknown to city workers, says that he yelled, "Get these fucking people off the street."

What, you don't like the second highest ranking uniformed police official in New York City cursing in public, no matter who he is cursing at?

If you don't think that police, from the lowliest patrol cop to the police commissioner curse at times, you live in the wrong place. Move immediately to Iowa. I doubt that public officials in Iowa curse at all, let alone curse in public.

Esposito apologized to Felder, saying that the cursing was a "ploy" that he used often when dealing with rowdy crowds. It seems that the no-nonsense approach works best and you can bet that Esposito and his troops learned that the hard way.

Colin Powell said it best. "Sometimes," he said, "to do the right thing, you have to piss somebody off." That has become my mantra, a good one for a newspaper editor.

Felder and other Jewish officials accepted the apology and are willing to move on.

NYPD Lieutenant Jason Margolis is the president of the Shomrim Society, the fraternal organization that represents Jewish members of the NYPD.

In an Op-ed piece in the New York Post over the weekend, Margolis knocked the rioters and said that he feels "absolute disgust" over the event.

He also praised Esposito as a "friend of the Jewish police officers."

"Anyone who has worked with the chief will tell you he is one of the best cops ever to put on a uniform," he said. "To even imply that Joe Esposito is an anti-Semite is simply character assassination. The chief has been nothing short of the best friend the Jewish community and Jewish cops have ever had in the NYPD."

Did the story end with Esposito's apology? Of course not.

A number of people in the minority community have complained that the Jewish community gets treated differently than they do and if they had "rioted" like the Jews did, there would have been massive arrests and a much stronger police response.

And, while Jews complain that the precinct commander has targeted their communtiy for a ticket blitz, the minority community complains that Jewish motorists never get tickets while they do.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg says that all the communities in New York City are treated the same. I have to believe that, in terms of ticketing motorists at least, the mayor is right. There is a ticket blitz against all New York City motorists, whatever their race, religion or color simply because the mayor loves the revenue that those tickets produce.

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