A couple of girls in school uniforms approached the bus and stopped, their hands over their mouths. Another man knelt in front of the bus and peered into the fire. He reached a hand to the windows, as if checking whether anyone was inside.
Soon enough, no one was on the street. The bus was barely visible behind the thick, swirling smoke.
An 11-year-old boy has already been arrested charged with arson and criminal mischief as a juvenile. The fire is also being investigated as a hate crime.
“It was purposefully done with prior planning,” NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce told the AP. “Clearly this was a religious school bus. Anyone in the community knows that.”
The fire came within a week of two other alleged attacks on members of Crown Heights’s Jewish community. A Jewish man wearing religious garb was hit with rubber bands and subsequently punched by a 13-year-old African American last Thursday, authorities told the AP.
The day before, the bus driver of another Jewish school in neighborhood said someone had pelted his side mirror with a brick, shattering it.
These incidents are “troubling,” Boyce told the AP. What he left unsaid was that they hearkened back to a decades-old history of racial strife between the area’s blacks and Jews.
Often, these tensions have erupted in fire.
On a February night in 1987, the roles were reversed. The New York Times reported that someone ignited a cardboard orange-juice box and can of petroleum in the basement of a black woman’s house. The woman and her family fled as she heard an ominous chant: “Burn, burn, burn.”
A witness told the Times that they had seen two men, including one in a long black coat and fedora, run from behind the woman’s house to a dormitory for Hasidic Jews. An administrator for the yeshiva to which the dorm belonged said the allegations were “based on untrue facts.”
The Times put the next line thusly: “Mr. Kazen, expressing a view that was not widely shared, said racial tension did not exist in Crown Heights.”
African Americans and Hasidic Jews in the neighborhood competed for housing, control of community organizations and access to community funds. There had been violence between the groups in the 70s, and tensions continued to fester, coming to a head in 1991, after the motorcade of a Jewish leader unintentionally struck two Guyanese immigrant children, killing one and severely injuring the other.
Three days of riots followed the incident. Hundreds of blacks and Jews threw rocks and bottles at one another; stores were looted and set on fire; Rev. Al Sharpton led a march and an Israeli flag was burned.
Shortly after the riots began, an Australian Jew was fatally stabbed.
Today, Crown Heights has changed with the rest of the city, expanding to include — in the words of one New York Daily News retrospective — “hipsters, Latinos and Asians.”
“In the years that have passed [since the riots], the central Brooklyn neighborhood has settled into an uneasy peace,” wrote the Daily News’s Simone Weichselbaum and Katie Nelson in 2011. Yet a black woman and a Jewish woman interviewed both said the two groups seldom mingled, still wary of one another decades later.
As the NYPD searches for the five alleged school bus arsonists, that history rears its head again amid a cloud of smoke.
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