Violence in New York seems to have escalated to a new dimension. It used to be that ethnic violence would erupt in the hot summers, to subside in the winters when those folks who live their lives in the street withdraw indoors for R & R. Now, however, at this writing in midwinter, violence has taken hold in the winter as well.

The first thing that a non-New Yorker must understand about street violence is that, at least in those dreary “outer boroughs” outside of Manhattan where no one ever visits (except to drive to and from the airports), New York is a patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods. Each neighborhood, sometimes only a few blocks in area, has its own character and fights fiercely for its own integrity—which generally means bitter “turf wars” against interlopers hanging around, and a fortiori committing crimes, on some other group’s cherished turf. While in the vision of many conservatives, the result should be reasonably happy harmony, in New York it has not of course worked out that way. Instead, there is fierce hatred among many of the groups, and particularly against those groups whose turf happens to abut one’s own. And it should come as no surprise that in the middle of virtually every one of these fights looms the black underclass. This fact was something that everyone has known for a long time but considered a sin to mention, but the wraps have been off in New York for quite a while. New Yorkers, too, are tired of lengthy sociological arguments on the alleged deep structural causes of this condition; they are increasingly eager to do something about the supposed “symptoms,” and fast.

While violence was only simmering during most of last summer, it suddenly peaked in August with the now famous Crown Heights race riot. Crown Heights is a neighborhood in Brooklyn in transition; and neighborhoods in transition are the most explosive, for that is where turf wars tend to flare up. Crown Heights used to be Jewish, and, in recent years, has become black. Most New Yorkers consider this process to be an “invasion,” and refer to the Jews as having been “driven out.” But one group of Jews stood their ground in Crown Heights: the Lubavitcher wing of ultra-Orthodox Hasidism. The Hasidim are mystical, ecstatic groups that began in various small towns of Eastern Europe in the 18th century, devoted to a Grand Rabbi, or “Rebbe,” hailing originally from that town. The followers invest him with special mystical, or even divine, powers. Thus, different neighborhoods of Brooklyn are occupied by different Hasidic sects, the Lubavitchers (originally from Lubavitch) in Crown Heights, the Satmars in Williamsburg, the Bolzors in another nearby area, and so on. The men of each of the sects all wear their sect’s variations of the common Hasidic uniform: black, broadbrimmed hat, black clothes, long side cuds, white on white shirts buttoned to the neck without ties. Although the Satmars are almost as numerous as the Lubavitchers, they are relatively unknown to the readers of the New York Times. There are basically two reasons for the better press devoted to the Lubavitchers: (a) alone among the Hasids, the Lubavitchers are eager to convert other Jews to their movement; and (b) while all the other Hasidic groups are fiercely anti-Zionist, Rebbe Menachem Schneerson and his Lubavitchers became relatively pro-Zionist, to the extent of being able to command several swing votes in the closely fought Israeli parliament, or Knesset.

The reason for anti-Zionism among Orthodox Jews is simple: the Jewish state in Palestine is only supposed to be established by the Messiah; any state not established by the Messiah is an impious secular state that either should be ignored or, in the case of the Jerusalem sect, Neturei Karta, disobeyed openly. The “regular” (as opposed to the “ultra”) Orthodox Jews, who are pro-Zionist, get around the Messianic injunction by saying that there is no need for a personal Messiah, because we are living in a “Messianic age,” which is enough to establish the legitimacy of the state. Rabbi Schneerson is somewhere in the middle: even though in a sense pro-Zionist, he refuses to set foot in the state of Israel until such time as the Messiah arrives, and legitimizes the state. The Lubavitchers in Israel, in the meanwhile, are expending a great deal of resources building an exact replica, in the Negev desert, down to the most detailed furnishings, of the Rebbe’s beloved palatial home in Brooklyn, which also serves as the world headquarters of the Lubavitcher movement. These preparations gave rise to a common suspicion that the Lubavitchers, including the Rebbe, consider the Rebbe himself to be the Messiah, and that he will travel to his replica home in Israel after he reveals that fact to the world. Cagily, the Lubavitchers, as well as the Rebbe, will neither confirm nor deny that they think of him as the Messiah.

One thing that has enabled the Hasids to stand their ground and even expand their turf in Brooklyn in the face of expansion by blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, is that they take very seriously the prohibition on birth control, and so they obey the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. In addition, the Hasids have long had hefty political clout in Brooklyn, largely because they are politically savvy, vote in large numbers, are very well organized, and act as one under the orders of their Rebbe. For years, the Lubavitchers, for example, enjoyed around-the-clock police protection for their world headquarters. When asked why they should receive such special privilege when Cardinal O’Connor of the New York Catholic Archdiocese receives no such protection, the Lubavitchers replied that this is their world headquarters, whereas the cardinal was only the local bishop of his particular worldwide church. In Williamsburg, the Satmars conduct a neighborhood citizens patrol that does an effective job in keeping down street crime, a job appreciated and implicitly sanctioned by the police. Blacks complain that blacks found in Satmar areas at night are not treated with exemplary courtesy by the Satmar patrols.

Interracial tension exploded in Brooklyn last August when the Rebbe was returning from his weekly visit to his wife’s grave, a visit that enjoys a regular police escort. One young Hasid driver in the Rebbe’s entourage fell behind the rest of the escort, and went through a red light to catch up—not an uncommon practice in New York streets. Unfortunately, he hit another car, bounced off that car, and hit and killed a young black lad. The black masses on the streets erupted in fury, dragging the injured Hasid driver from his car and beating him in an act of revenge, first showing that they had their priorities straight by lifting his wallet. The driver’s life was saved by a black passerby who rescued him from the mob. A private ambulance called by the Hasids was then used only to take the driver to the hospital, the reasoning being that a police ambulance would take away the body of the black boy so as not to incite the mob further against the Hasids.

The result was several days of continuing black rioting, looting, and mugging in Crown Heights, including blacks who came in from other neighborhoods to participate in the action. The Lubavitchers came out in force, taking care to throw a protective cordon around the Rebbe and his world headquarters. Apologists for the rioters of course claimed they were expressing, once again, their rage for the legacy of slavery. For once, it was easy for the rioters to find “a Jew,” since the Hasids could be spotted by their distinctive uniform. Finally, after days of rioting, in which the police, too, expressed their rage by clubbing newsmen and photographers, the black rioters exacted blood vengeance by exultantly stabbing to death a visiting Australian Hasid, trapped in the crossfire of a world he could not be expected to understand.

For many New Yorkers, comic relief during the race riots was provided by the mugging of loudmouthed, leftwing populist, pro-black, Irish-American journalist Jimmy Breslin, who prides himself on hanging around in bars and having “street smarts,” one of a New Yorker’s proudest accomplishments. Well, Jimmy clearly has spent too much time lately hanging around with the elite, because he made his first big mistake by taking a cab to the race riot. Sort of like Marie Antoinette taking a cab to revisit the sans-culottes. When Jimmy arrives at the scene the young lads of the “black community” immediately yank him out of the cab, strip him naked, grab his wallet, and beat him. Meanwhile, Jimmy is yelling, “But I’m not Jewish!” and showing the young lads his press pass! Presumably by this time, his assailants had become equal opportunity muggers. Jimmy had surely lost it, expecting that the public school system had actually enabled the young muggers to read his pass; undoubtedly they thought Jimmy was a narc, and redoubled their mugging. After being rescued, Jimmy delivered himself of some choice epithets about the muggers specifically and about the Negro people in general, but the next day, safe in his Manhattan office, he reverted to his usual politically correct stance.

An uneasy calm returned to the city after that, but months later, this time during Christmas week, black violence struck again, this time in a bizarre but unfortunately not rare incident involving music, athletics, and what is laughingly called “higher education.” The most popular form of “music” among urban black youth for the last several years has been “rap,” in which the performers seem to be only one or two years older than their devoted admirers. (As someone who firmly believes that all popular music since Benny Goodman has emanated from various circles of hell, I will not try to elucidate the niceties of rap, or its possible differences from “hip-hop.”) Rap concerts have often been an occasion for violence among the excited youth. Indeed, in November, a rap concert in Washington almost led to violence when an excited throng, trying to get in, broke down the glass doors of the entrance hall.

During Christmas week, the once-distinguished City College of New York (CCNY) located in Harlem, whose graduates at one time earned more Ph.D.’s than those of any other college, decided to put on, in its gymnasium, not a rap concert, but a celebrity basketball game between two sets of rap stars. Even granting that rap is “music,” why anyone should want to see their favorite musicians play basketball passeth understanding. On the evening of the game, however, the pressure of the black lads and lasses to get into the arena became a stampede against the glass doors, in which nine people were trampled to death and dozens injured. Stampeding people to death trying to get out of a building (e.g., one that is burning) is fairly common; but trampling people to death to get in a building?

When the deaths began, the promoters called off the basketball game. This action enraged the youth in the seats, some of whom jumped from the bleachers trampling still more people below, while others, amidst the carnage, were, in true New York fashion, demanding their money back. Still others laughingly took the opportunity to demand autographs from their rap favorites. When emergency medics finally arrived at the scene, they were pummeled, beaten, had their hair pulled out, and were choked by the mob, either in an attempt to get them to tend to their particular friends or just on general principles.

In the days since this inimitable piece of New Yorkana, every layer of bureaucracy, every person and institution involved, has spent their time denying any responsibility or pointing the finger somewhere else. The police denied being late for the fray, and claimed that the college was responsible for security. The college blamed the police, while the nearby firemen said they should have been called. The college said that the rap promoter, a youth named Puff Daddy, was supposed to provide security; for a while, it was claimed that the House of Islam was hired by Puff Daddy to provide security, but that four-fifths of them walked off the job before the game because of a salary dispute. But the House of Islam claimed they knew nothing, and that the guards belonged to a renegade black Muslim outfit called Group-X.

It took a long time, in fact, to-find out that Puff Daddy had been the promoter. At first, it was believed that the rap radio station KISS, which had boosted the game heavily and used its logo on the advertising, was a co-promoter, but KISS claimed it knew nothing. Another puzzle: who signed the contract for the college? The head of the student center, a Haitian immigrant named Jean Charles, said that, even though he is a lawyer, he really knew nothing, didn’t know that a rap group was involved, and declared that the contract had been signed by a woman representing the Evening Student Government. This lady, Cassaundra Kirnon, is a 40-year-old “student” who, as a secretary for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, was voted in as head of the student government by 53 out of 7,000 evening students, and heads a clique of five students in charge of a hefty $46,000 annual budget. Miss Kirnon apparently believes that CCNY president Bernard Harleston, who is also black, is an Uncle Tom type not sufficiently militant on behalf of black interests. Miss Kirnon, among all the principals, shut herself off totally from the press, although she is said to have “cooperated” with the authorities. Harieston got into deep trouble last spring during the City University student sit-in strike by being the only college head who failed to call in the police to root out the strikers. Now he cut a singularly unimpressive figure on television, as he “accepted responsibility” for the episode. Less than manfully, he stumbled: “Well, uh, I guess that as president I’m sort of responsible, but I knew nothing about it.”

As an extra lagniappe to the proceedings, the question soon loomed: who exactly is to pay whom after many loving years of litigation expected to ensue from this tragedy? When the famed burly figure of leftist lawyer William M. Kunstler appeared on the tube (one of the few whites except for police spokesmen), the knowledgeable viewer realized that there were high stakes involved. It turns out that Kunstler is the attorney for Heavy D, co-promoter of the ballgame. Kuntsler also spoke up for Puff Daddy, who badly needs an attorney, since he was supposed, according to his contract, to take out insurance for the game and somehow neglected to do so. Kunstler tried to pin the blame on the college authorities, who should have supervised young Puff Daddy and made sure that insurance had been secured. Moreover, finances played other important roles in the proceedings. The promoter and/or student government was accused of overselling tickets, thereby helping cause the stampede. Also, the rap basketball game had been billed as an AIDS charity; but, in the event, no one could find the named charity, which was apparently unknown to the “AIDS community.”

All in all, just another day in the Big Apple.

Finally, in early January, turf wars popped up again, this time in the Albanian part of the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx. Four members of an Albanian-American youth group called the Albanian Bad Boys caught two black youths, a boy and a girl, on their turf, and spray-painted them with white shoe coloring, shouting, “You black [censored] are going to turn white today by the Albanian Bad Boys.” In the course of events this crime does not appear very serious, but of course the press started howling about “race hatred and brutality.” A massive police search is now on for the Albanian lads, and there are dark hints that all this is connected to a dread Albanian wing of the Mafia.

To the average New Yorker, however, the word “Mafia” does not really inspire the proper terror. It is well known, for example, that the only really safe streets in New York are those Italian neighborhoods where alleged’ Mafia capos and their families live. No muggings take place on those streets, no rapes, no hassles. A legendary incident occurred a few years ago when muggers invaded a convent in the Italian section of East Harlem and raped and murdered several nuns. The Mafia sent the word out on the street: “The killers are dead in twenty-four hours.” The murderers, one of whom had fled to Chicago, voluntarily turned themselves in the next day. Clearly, they would rather embrace the criminal justice system than brave the wrath of the Mafia. It is intriguing that the villains realized that the Mafia knew who they were, without benefit of meticulous detective work. And New Yorkers should blanch when the Mafia is mentioned?

All New York looks forward to July, when the Democratic presidential convention comes to town. The last time the Democrats arrived, the city authorities cleaned the streets, the clerks were actually polite, and even the muggers were sternly ordered by the authorities to cease and desist for that week, or else. But that was years ago, and these days the bums and muggers are a lot feistier, and far less under control. Cynics speculate that the real reason Mario Cuomo bowed out is that, after the Democratic delegates encounter The Community on the streets of Manhattan, Mario would be lucky if he left the convention hall alive, much less as prospective President of the United States.